Monday, January 11, 2010

Acedia & me: Kathleen Norris and the Power of Structure and Repetition

I'm reading Kathleen Norris's Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life. It is "a study of acedia, the ancient word for the spiritual side of sloth. She examines the topic in the light of theology, psychology, monastic spirituality and her own experience." I stole that description from her agent's website, because it's a hard book to describe in a few words.

Acedia is a difficult concept to grasp. But I think I struggle with it. In fact, I think we all do. It's about a lot of things: boredom, the inability to care, lack of focus, distraction, depression, lack of motivation, feeling overwhelmed by choices and responsibilities...

And it's funny: As an artist, I often find myself wanting "free time." I think if I just could find a few hours with nothing to do, I could be productive. But in reality, I find that I am most tempted by acedia when I have unstructured time.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in my time as a church planter in Houston last year was that I do not do well with unstructured time. My mind wanders, I waste time, I procrastinate. I cannot summon up much desire to do anything at all. For me, it is only within fairly rigid boundaries that I find myself free to be create. Only when I eliminate choices can I choose to be productive.

I wish this were not so. I wish I loved nothing more than endless afternoons and empty whiteboards, blank paper and a lonely piano. But in reality, they scare me. There's simply too much possibility.

Ryan Adams, an amazingly prolific songwriter, says, “What I do and what all musicians do is easy. All we have to do is sit down for a couple hours a week and write a song or two. That simple task is all the world asks of me, so I do it. The other musicians who don’t are just lazy, because again, we aren’t being asked to tar rooftops or clean out dumpsters. We just have to write a couple songs!

I love his perspective, and it puts me to shame. He's right. When I do take the time to make myself write, I often find that the songs are there. It's just that I rarely make the time to write. Will 2010 be different? (See #7 & #8 here.)

Gary Gaddini used to tell me to plan my day once a day, my week once a week, my month once a month and my year once a year. His is a great example of a structured life that produces great results.

Annie Dillard said, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." Wow.

Structured time is powerful in my life. So is repetition.

I'm only about 2/3 of the way through, but in one of my favorite passages in her book so far, Norris talks about the power of repetition. I'm going to quote at length here because I think it's that good.

Could we regard repetition as a saving grace, one that keeps returning us to essential understandings that we can discover in no other way? The human need for routine is such that even homeless people establish it the best they can, walking the same streets, foraging in the same dumpsters, sleeping in the same spots, in an attempt to maintain basic relationships with people and places. For any of us, affluent or not, it is by means of repeating ordinary rituals and routines that we enhance the relationships that nourish and sustain us. A recent study that monitored the daily habits of couples in order to determine what produced good and stable marriages revealed that only one activity made a consistent difference, and that was the embracing of one's spouse at the beginning and the end of each day. Most surprising to Paul Bosch, who wrote the an article about the study, was that "it didn't seem to matter whether or not in that moment the partners were fully engaged or even sincere! Just a perfunctory peck on the cheek was enough to make a difference in the quality of the relationship." Bosch comments, wisely, that this "should not surprise churchgoers. Whatever you do repeatedly has the power to shape you, has the power to make you over into a different person - even if you're not totally 'engaged' in every minute."

So there. So much for control, or ever consciousness. let's hear it for insincere, hurried kisses, and prayers made with a yawn. I may be dwelling on the fact that my feet hurt, or nursing some petty slight. As for the words that I am dutifully saying - "Love you" or "Dear God" - I might as well be speaking in tongues, and maybe I am. And maybe that does not matter, for it is all working toward the good, despite myself and my most cherished intentions. Every day and every night, whether I "get it" or not, these "meaningless" words and actions signify more than I know. Repetition... helps us to be more honestly and fully human. It knows us better that we know ourselves.

I love that Bosch line - quoted by Norris - "Whatever you do repeatedly has the power to shape you, has the power to make you over into a different person."

Let it be, God... May my structured time and repetitive choices - reading the Word, journaling, prayer, good food choices, time with my wife and kids, ministry/home schedule - help me fight acedia and become the man You created me to be!

If you're interested, here's some more information on Kathleen Norris and her book. Good video interview.


Scott Lyons said...

It's a great book, Matt. Another I've read of hers that I treasure is a little book/lecture titled, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work". It also deals with acedia/accidie in our daily lives.

Matt Nightingale said...

Thanks, Scott... I've ordered it from the library.

Erin K. said...

Wow - this is the second book you've posted about that I immediately knew I should read. (The first was The Principle of the Path.) Both sound like they'd hit the bullseye for where I'm at right now. Thanks for recommending both of them - I can't wait to read them!

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