The prospect of getting back to normal, of being released from the current peculiar restricted condition is suddenly almost as overwhelming as was the initial lockdown. Then, I felt something close to panic: a sense of imminently being trapped, and yet, a year or so on, while I can’t say that I like the situation, an accustomed routine and familiarity has crystallized around me. It is indeed a bubble of me and mine, cocooning us from normal expectations and demands. Once the bunker doors are again thrown open (practically all lockdown restrictions to be lifted in England on Monday, July 19th, and fanfared as “Freedom Day”) this metastable state of limbo will cease to exist, and we will be impelled to move forward into a landscape that has grown all the more uneasy by temporal disconnection and dissociated contemplation of what it might now extend to us.
Imminently, there will be actions to perform, decisions to be made; the suspension of the real and the mundane is over, and normal responsibilities no longer in abeyance. Probably, the best I can say is that I feel as though I have been in a state of “suspended animation”; how otherwise could the past sixteen months have moved four-dimensionally past my three dimensional awareness, with time as an absent component? What we normally call time gives a sense of directedness – without it, all appears in randomness. Thoughts of future, making plans, being fretted by past errors – if they were really that – and other directionalities of the ego, have become isotropic.
The normal signposts spin and average out to zero, as though time were effectively nonexistent or irrelevant. This is probably a defence mechanism: a local anaesthetic that is beginning to wear off, and I oscillate between a detached numbness, and a wish for something more, or just else. I have been trying to find a word for how exactly I do feel, but it is hard to be specific, hence describing the whole condition in terms of suspension. The emotions themselves are not singular – there is no one feeling – more a roiling of alternatively not quite happy, near fretful, and weirdly almost contented contrasts. Then the mood morphs again.
The word ennui gives some sense of definition for this cacophony of mental sensations, but doesn’t entirely fill the void. Perhaps I don’t understand the root of it properly, and there is a mismatch between how I feel viscerally and an analytical urge which is merely cerebral (or disembodied, at least)? Definitely, a kind of incongruity is present somewhere, almost absurdist in its disharmony; that the realm of existence is out of kilter with my perception of reality, or how it ought to be.
If we need entropy as a measure that time does exist and what its direction is, the state of enlarging chaos around the world – both natural and political – suggests impermanency, which is also isotropic in its unfolding drama. Disintegration is all around – the changing climate – which I look out upon as from a storm’s eye: a node of great forces, whose calmness is deceptive indeed. Yet I have the sense that its impetus is shifting my way too, drawing in elements, albeit more slowly, that are all markers of change.[Indeed, such is the scale and exquisite interlocking of our use of energy and resources, to drive a mechanism seemingly hell bent on degrading the biosphere, that I am beginning to wonder if, in some deep psychology, we have already decided that the present vehicle is on an unsustainable journey, and are increasingly loading it for the axle to break, and the wheels to come off.].
The prospect that a more apt word than ennui is acedia, both uplifts me and weights me further down into the depths of definition. Here, the striving is not only for a word per se, but for certainty of the feeling it needs to describe. Thus, it is not the mood that shifts, but the shadowing periodicity of my response to it. Nor is it languor precisely, either, which implies a sense of pleasure, the dreaminess of a balmy afternoon – of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” – a deliberately chosen oasis to rest beside, while well aware of the constancy and normality that exists beyond it and waits for the bubble to burst. Indeed, it is this two way mirror that actually makes the day or the moment what it is: unblemished and ephemeral. However, the current situation is not one of choice, nor does it provide respite; more a restless apathy, and dissatisfaction with an inertial reality. Thus, we see that the word sought must capture the essential duality of opposing forces, whose jarring mismatch drives a sense of great anxiety.
The meaning of acedia itself is open to interpretation, but I am inclined toward the word by Kathleen Norris, who, in her book “Acedia and Me”, posits that terms such as torpor and sloth do not capture its mood; rather, that a state of restlessness, of “not living in the present and seeing the future as overwhelming” expresses it more closely. Thus, the enforced isolation that exists in monasteries (a sort of lockdown from the life that to most of us is normal), may give rise to it. In line with this, Evagrius of Pontius (Evagrius Ponticus) averred that acedia seeds dissatisfaction in the monk for both his cell and existence, hence urging him to take flight; however, by becoming absorbed in prayer and the work of their community, these feelings can be suppressed.
Evagrius’ protégé, John Cassian, took the view that acedia comprised two opposing symptoms – sleep, inactivity, and surrender on the one hand, and instability, fecklessness, and agitated activity for activity’s sake on the other. Cassian believed that the source of the problem was a lack of manual labour, based upon his interpretation of Thessalonians 3:6-15, in which the Apostle Paul castigated those who were beset by acedia, lest they become idle and disruptive busybodies.
Indeed, I have found great diversion and consolation in keeping physically active during this pandemic period: in my case, walking up to about 20 kilometres most days, allowing my senses to become absorbed in communing with Nature, photographing and identifying trees, and feeling something like a higher intelligence at work in the complex, interlaced mechanisms that underpin a woodland ecosystem… especially an ancient one.
The practical dealing with this condition is the proverbial “one day at a time”, and it is not so much coping with an addiction, but avoiding the uncharted. Planning ahead is part of the normal, but not exactly possible against a backdrop of uncertainty. As Winston Churchill observed, “it is a mistake to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.” This was, of course, during World War II, and parallels have been drawn between dealing with that and then, and this and now. [The common features are an enemy (i.e. a military foe or the virus), and not knowing if we will win; the great difference is that we are currently detached by a state of social distancing, rather than the mutual digging for victory and community support that prevailed during the war itself].
It is a lack of purpose, of looking ahead to achieving identified worthwhile goals, a temporal cage in which normal conduits of action-to-outcome are truncated or deactivated. A switching off of normal motivation. But it is not a calm place, rather one of restless agitation; a disconnected rattling around within an imprisoning vessel, outside of which nothing seems important enough to engage with. There is a pervasive sense of, “why bother?” Yet, oddly, in writing this, I feel suddenly better; like I’m beginning to sort my head out. It is disorder, but some visceral set of bones seems to be assembling, not just the wispy outlines of a detached apparition.
I also feel a sense of “what’s the point?”, which is something different from “why bother?” It is a feeling of normal goals being futile that also forms a barrier to action. The latter is driven by a profound fear of the future, and an almost superstitious sense that by not acting, the latter can be held in abeyance, or avoided altogether; almost as though the flow of time itself can be suspended by passivity.
There is also a perception that I really should be “doing something”; that time is running out, but the spur for action is not present, and this emotional dichotomy is overwhelming. Like the proverbial one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake, there is an energy-consuming revving and rattling, but the vehicle does not advance, merely grinds and flexes in its own captive disquietude.
Intolerance is a strong feature of this condition. Thus, I find my reserve capacity is more limited, so that some things I normally would take in my stride, become magnified and I have to regain my sense of perspective. I find that writing lists, as I tend to when I have a lot of different things to do, helps to keep me on track. Better still, is when I have actual deadlines to do things by, and there is a definite set of dates by when particular tasks, and exchanges with my co-workers must be completed.
A strong desire also prevails, to slough off the wearying layers of the “old normal” – emotionally vampiric and unnurturing associations, both with individuals and more amorphous bodies, that drain finite resources of time and emotional strength, while giving nothing worthwhile back. It is a stripping down of mind and spirit – and body too, as I have lost about a stone in weight, mainly through walking miles, finding succour in the natural world – to a basic core that tries to fathom its own substance, and where and with whom that might belong. In an oddly enervated way, I have never yearned more thoroughly for significance and a sense of purpose.
The jab has proved particularly jarring, piercing the bubble of disconnection: immediately, it links us both with the promise of a “back to normal”, and an uncertainty that such a thing will prevail. Before the massive numbers of vaccinations had actually happened – especially in the UK – the actual and real could still be kept at a safe distance. Now that the first jab has been delivered to almost 70% of the UK population (but with a bare half having had the “double jab”), our reconnection to future realities has begun, and we are being swept forward, inescapably, into a new momentum.
Within the change that is all invasive – the disintegration of the familiar, the old; covid, climate change, resource misuse and depletion, elections that show a lack of identity both of the individual nation citizens and their governance, Brexit and the impending break-up of the UK union – we can seek motivation and heart in looking to embrace the new age that is being born while old definitions amorphize.
Perhaps, once we accept our reality, we will know both the way and the word, but for now, I offer gestation to describe this peculiar place and its concomitant discomfort, viewing it as an active process, en route to our re-emergence into a more open space; but one that is somehow both structurally, and functionally a recalibration of the one we left, when we entered that first lockdown.
Teaser photo credit: Acedia, By Pieter Brueghel the Elder – Kupferstich, 22,5 × 29,5 cm, Herausgeber: Hieronymus Cock. Bibliothèque Royale, Cabinet Estampes, Brüssel. Online: zeno.org (Volltextsuche), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9094406