Widening the circle

[A]s the public sphere becomes increasingly chaotic and threatening, what we think of as freedom consists of retreat and insularity. Acedia & Me p125

I’m interleaving my thinking about Acedia & Me with reading Quiet, by Susan Cain. I just finished Cain’s discussion of how highly-reactive (-sensitive) people are often introverted — to damp down stimulus, it’s thought — and I wondered whether Norris, by all accounts an introverted person, was wincing over something less troubling for others. After all, Acedia & Me came out back in 2008, not after the 2016 electoral cycle.

Then I swung toward another dismissal: aging generations complain about the chaos and threat of younger generations, and they have been doing so in writing since at least the time of the ancient Greeks.

I’ve settled, though, in looking at our time, which also strikes me as chaotic, threatening, full of retreat and insularity, through the filter of acedia. Our public life seems tailor-made to encourage acedia in everyone, all the time. Because

Acedia will always take the path of least resistance and attempt to go around, rather than through, the demands that life makes of us. p150

Isn’t avoidance characteristic of the path of least resistance? Rather than pausing, asking, listening, reflecting, and perhaps changing, let’s yell our position ever-louder, the way we speak to the deaf. Then our mis-alignment is “their” fault, not ours, right?

Personally speaking, I want to watch myself for retreat, for insularity, as additional warning bells that I might be heading down that sterile, meh, path of least resistance. If we are wading through a stream of acedia-encouraging culture, those of us who are already susceptible might need as many warnings as we can get.

For contemporary monks suffering from acedia, the cure is much the same as in the fourth-century desert. …”I recommend physical labor,” one abbot has said, “woodworking, gardening even mopping the halls, anything to get them out of that closed circle of the self.” p145

“Closed circle of the self.” Exactly. This is the ever-present danger that the culture I currently operate within does all it can to enforce. Retreat to the insularity of like-minded folk? Retreat to the insularity of like-minded folk filtered through screens? What about retreat beyond like-minded folk in any form to the insularity of myself alone? I could easily set up each day like that. Besides, aren’t writers supposed to be solitary?

In my first iteration of a writing-primary life, I smashed into the wall of solitary. Even aside from stretches of acedia, as a solitary I saw my thoughts dry up. The more closely bound my days were, the dryer and longer the path between my poems became. Sparks began appearing in my dreams: it was time for iron striking iron*, new thoughts striking other thoughts. To write I have to crack open my circle.

Insularity can come from many directions. Sameness of experience, sameness of company, sameness of environment, sameness of activity. Saturday it took over three hours of garden-labor before my ceaseless thoughts stepped off their trail and across a meadow.

That, for me, is freedom.
*Proverbs 27:17

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