By: Christopher G. Fox, Ph. D.
“Too many of us, too often, fantasize about great deeds, imagining accolades to follow, only to give up when the toil and strain of the actual work presents itself.” ~ R.J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents
“It’s just after 4 PM on Labor Day, and I feel guilty.”
Since starting my day with an excellent procrastinatory (although at the same time, well-needed) cleaning of my office, I’ve put off the start of my day’s writing “for just one more hour” again and again. I managed to do the same all day, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, too. The whole idea of the topic that I had planned to write for Two Drops of Ink has now gone; the sense of urgency and passion has evaporated. I could almost make one more excuse to put it off until tomorrow once again.
But instead, I decided not to let myself down, not to let editors and readers down, not to fall short of my commitment as a writer. I did what any writer needs to do in facing the blank page. I embraced the blank and just started.
The Starting Point
Given how I felt about not writing all weekend, I wrote the simple first line that starts this article. Direct enough, isn’t it?
Just sitting down to write helped unlock a topic both better conceived and more useful to writers who fall into the spiral of not-doing. What I want to talk about is fighting the noonday demon, and share my experience with other writers.
“What an odd phrase…,” you might think. The noonday demon refers to a challenge faced by Christian mystics and ascetics who found themselves wrestling with the impulse to do nothing. It is also called acedia.
In the earliest centuries of Christianity, acedia had a status all of its own among the Deadly Sins, although we now know it as sloth. But it goes beyond mere lazy inactivity. That afternoon nap is often just the simplest manifestation of acedia. Beyond physical lethargy, acedia also refers to emotional and spiritual lethargy. Its etymology, from Greek, means a lack of care. If you want to dig deep into the concept, two of the most thorough writers of the era are Evagrius and John Cassian.
In acedia, you are swallowed up by more than feelings of tiredness (really, go nap — a brief rest in the afternoon can make an enormous difference in your focus and productivity.)
Your inactivity starts to build up into an impenetrable mass of feelings such as “I don’t feel like it,” “why am I doing this?” and “what does it matter?”
It’s all about avoidance, excuse-making, defeatism, and lack of care.
Acedia, for me, is a different type of writer’s block. I think of writer’s block as striving for words and ideas that just won’t come. Acedia is a level deeper when you don’t even care whether you write or not, or don’t think it matters. Acedia is deadly because it can pull you down further and further into boredom, escapism, anomie, and indifference. These, in turn, make you feel a combination of guilt and shame that lead you to keep hiding in distraction.
Put that way; I think any writer will see themselves in the mirror when picturing the concept of acedia. Or rather, know the noonday demon that perches on our shoulders. It doesn’t matter whether you hold to a Christian spiritual tradition, another tradition, or none at all.
Buddhists have a concept of the “five hindrances” that impede progress in meditation and practice, and there, too, sloth and torpor play a significant role in holding people back.
Outside of any religious tradition, of course, there is an entire industry of coaches, experts, and writers who take on the topic of how to cut through the lack of motivation.
What I decided in this go-around with acedia was to abandon my complex and somewhat panic-inducing prior topic. I wanted to share how I fight the noonday demon — first with myself, to remind me of what I know, and second with others, because I know every writer finds themselves in this place sometimes, and similarly, we all have ways we have defeated it. The proof is in the fact that our earlier writing exists.
Slaying the Noonday Demons
Here are three things that have consistently helped me:
1) Remember the physical basics.
You may legitimately lack energy. Drinking water and eating better for a few days can break the cycle of heaviness. Similarly, think about your recent sleep schedule. Have you gotten your usual needed amount of sleep? Has it been good quality sleep, or restless? I also have learned that physical exercise makes a difference. While exercise may seem obvious to some, I went through the first decades of my life more or less ignoring it. Only in recent months have I become someone who exercises regularly. My exercise of choice is kettlebell training and weightlifting.
If I can get 200 pounds off the ground when I started at 40 pounds, I can surely manage to get some ink on a page or some pixels onto a screen. Whatever exercise works for you, it helps cut through the depths of acedia.
2) Just start writing.
As I alluded to above and have mentioned before, just starting to write can shift you from acedia to a state of energized commitment. As writers, we are lovers of words and ideas. That love can get bottled up, misdirected, or can seem to lose its source. The appearance of words on a page helps stimulate and restore that love. When you lack words of your own to start with, you can also read something. I think it works best to read something new rather than an old favorite. I find it most helpful to pick out something I have long been looking forward to reading.
This time, I started reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. First, I have to say I don’t know why I waited to read these truly stellar novels. Second, the experience of reading something outstanding, unexpectedly so, helps reactive your sense of care and gets you back to your own writing.
3) Reactivate your care.
I also handled this most recent battle with the noonday demon using the move that almost always helps me win. If you don’t want to stop caring, stop not caring.
Think through an issue that you genuinely care about; then take active steps to go do something about it or do something for someone else.
All three of these approaches can help you fight and defeat the dreaded demon of acedia. The fact that you dread it at all, as bad as it feels, is still also a glimmer of hope: the voice telling you that you don’t care is lying to you.
Whether you use these three or techniques or your own, know that you have won this fight before and you can win it again.
Yes, you can, because yes, you care.
One Demon Down, Another to Slay?
When I faced the end of the holiday weekend with my original idea still unwritten, my way out of it was first, to name the demon, and second, to stop worrying about helping myself.
As soon as my concern shifted from what I had not done to how I can help other writers see and beat acedia, the words began to flow.
Without even quite noticing how, I was no longer wallowing in unformed ideas and disjointed sentences.
By the way, if you’re curious, what I wanted to write about initially was the idea that the writer’s attitude about any topic must be love. A few glimmers of it do manage to show up in this piece, but I never did quite work out the details, even during days of inaction.
Maybe some other time!
Christopher G. Fox, Ph. D. is a writer and communications strategist living in Los Angeles. He works with executives and subject matter experts to help them build reputations through messages, conversations, stories, and thought leadership.
His website, Syncresis® is a consultancy focused on thought leadership, patient communication, and content strategy. Its unique virtual operating model means that teams are purpose-built to the needs of a specific client and project.
He is also the creator of Kindness Communication®, which promotes the idea that the worlds we move in can be better places if we make kindness the core of how we operate.