A scholar of the fifth century is probably the last person you'd think to look to for a description of our modern woes in the time of coronavirus. But writing on The Conversation recently, Australian Catholic University's Jonathan Zecher pretty much nails it:
With some communities in rebooted lockdown conditions and movement restricted everywhere else, no one is posting pictures of their sourdough. Zoom cocktail parties have lost their novelty, Netflix can only release so many new series. The news seems worse every day, yet we compulsively scroll through it.
We get distracted by social media, yet have a pile of books unread. We keep meaning to go outside but somehow never find the time. We're bored, listless, afraid and uncertain.
This description, it turns out, isn't spot on just because Zecher is a perceptive observer. It's also incredibly accurate because Zecher has long been familiar with the unpleasant feeling afflicting us now.
Apparently, it's called acedia, it's been recognized for millennia, and learning this word can help you get out of your funk.
Bringing back "acedia"
Acedia might be a new word to us in the 21st century, but it was well known to those living in the Middle Ages. Derived from Greek roots that mean a seizing up or freezing of feelings, the experience was apparently fairly common among Medieval monks shut away in monasteries.
One fifth-century theologian described one who suffers from acedia as "horrified at where he is, disgusted with his room ... It does not allow him to stay still in his cell or to devote any effort to reading." He confronts "bodily listlessness and yawning hunger as though he were worn by a long journey or a prolonged fast ... Next he glances about and sighs that no one is coming to see him. Constantly in and out of his cell, he looks at the sun as if it were too slow in setting."
Sound familiar? Monks and moderns might be stuck at home for very different reasons, but the human response to enforced immobility seems to be constant. For centuries, lockdowns have been making us exhausted and unable to motivate ourselves to do work that's sitting right in front of us.
Why you should care
This might strike you as a piece of interesting but irrelevant trivia. But having precisely the right names for our emotions matters.
One, you're less likely to feel there is something wrong with you if you know humans have been growing listless when confined since before the fall of Rome. But two, modern research shows that accurately naming your feelings helps you deal with them better.
This capacity is called emotional granularity by psychologists, and as Lisa Feldman, author and head of Northwestern University's Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab explains, putting the right word to your feelings "helps your brain figure out when to act ... and what to do ... Your actions are better tailored to the situation you find yourself in."
So next time you're wandering around your house yawning for no apparent reason and struggling to persuade yourself to do one of the many positive things you know you should do, don't call yourself depressed or lazy. Tell yourself you have acedia and that it's 100 percent natural for humans to respond to physical and social isolation this way.
By feeling less defective and less alone, you just might gain an edge in actually beating your malaise.