The contrasting emotional states and sensibilities expressed during this time of year are striking. We are acculturated to believe tis the season* of cheer and good will, to be festive, celebratory. Deck the halls and jingle bells. Tis the time for coming together, embracing, and sharing, albeit not so much in 2020. Its spirit is built upon anticipation, offering a prospective respite from one’s toils and troubles.
Paradoxically, the season can be draining if not depressing for those not “feeling it.” Classical stories such as A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life capture those conflicting spirits. Such tales wrap with happy endings, which can cause those not feeling it to feel more unconnected.
A truth holds, though, for all: The season invariably ends, and routines and drudgeries of life begin anew. When the trimmings come down and the tree hauled to the curb, emotional deflation can cause what Peggy Lee asks in “Is That All There Is?” to set in.
We have been enduring a social meltdown since the pandemic began its debilitating and lethal assault. With the plug pulled on socializing, hugging, shaking hands, and high fiving a full-term pregnancy plus ago, anxiety, sometimes coupled with fatalism, have become endemic. Most hold themselves together and troop on. Others crash but not burn. Then there are those who quit.
Data show suicides do not spike during the holiday period; they do, however, afterwards. Psychologists offer reasons that correlate around mental and emotional fatigue or letdown and a disconnect inducing a sense of hopelessness.
The phenomenon is not a by-product of our complex, interwoven, high-stressed society, though it exacerbates the condition. The ancients also felt mental ennui, particularly in spiritual centers of all places.
Jonathan L. Zecher, a researcher at the Australian Catholic University, relates the tale of John Cassian, a fourth-century monk living a cloistered life in the Egyptian desert. Cassian noted that by midday he was depleted. An ascetic in a judging tradition and unaware of Darwin, Freud, and Jung, he concluded his condition was a moral flaw.
John dubbed it the “Noonday Demon” since it was then he felt ennui after tedious hours of prayer and contemplation in a baking-hot environment. He called it acedia. The word is a derivative of the Greek kēdos, meaning “care, concern, or grief,” preceded by a, indicating “lack of.” Since then, acedia has carried a moral overtone. A malaise or indifference towards one’s spiritual practice.
Zecher suggests acedia connotes more than apathy and provides a fitting name for what many are currently feeling. Susan Greene, writing in the Colorado Independent, calls acedia the “pits” one feels in his/her stomach.
Crises can cause polar effects within the human psyche. When in the proverbial fox hole, some immerse themselves deeper into prayer. Some question their faith while others give up and in. Then there are the acedics – coining a word – who meander aimlessly, listless nomads wondering if that is all there is.
The answer lies within us. The human body and brain have not evolved and kept pace with humans’ technological and cultural advances over the past 100,000 years. While society says go, go, go, the body and brain plead for time out.
Both daily and seasonal exhaustion in the temperate zones is natural. The Spanish, who largely lived in a stifling clime like ol’ John, created the siesta to address the daily letdown. Sipping hot chocolate while reading a book snugly by a fire has been a winter salve. But the pandemic and social-political unrest are compounding the seasonal winter weariness.
Humans are not like bears. We cannot or should not hibernate ursine-like. But we can pull back, slow down, decrease our physical exertions, and redirect our minds to more indoor activities.
Though hard to define, one knows acedia when he/she feels it. It ought to be acknowledged since dismissing it can lead to greater complications. You might not be feeling what you are told what and how you should feel. But you are still feeling something.
When the blues grab hold, perhaps treat yourself to a siesta followed by curling up with a good book while sipping hot chocolate. It works wonders for me.
Fun Aside: Click this link to read why we say, “Tis the season.” Tis the season, after all, for a bit of word frolic.