For more than a decade, I worked as a college professor. To the outside observer, I had it made. Not only did I earn a respectable middle-class salary, but, as other people liked to tell me, I had “summers off.” It’s true that for those three months, not to mention another month in winter, I had no classes to prepare, no papers to grade, no meetings to attend, no electronic forms to fill out for the registrar. I could have – and some of my colleagues did – set up an email autoreply to say I would be out of the office until late August and that the sender might consider trying me then. In short, I had no work obligations to keep me from doing whatever I wanted to do – or nothing at all – for a solid third of the year, even as my paychecks kept coming in.
I hated it. I never took a long vacation to Berlin or Bali. I never wasted a whole week in a hammock. I often didn’t even go outside all day. It’s not as if I was hard at work, either. I did try to work; summer, I told myself, was my best chance to write a paper and thereby contribute to scholarship, something that was near-impossible amid the constant demands of my class schedule. But I’d hit some obstacle in the writing – a loss for the right word, doubts about an argument – and I’d leave my desk. The work itself didn’t leave me, though. I would go sulk on the couch, joylessly playing a game on my phone that I had already beaten the summer before. As I did this day after day, my social life went dormant. Everyone I knew taught at the same college. Without a reason to go to the office, we had no opportunity for a long lunch or after-work happy hour. Worse, many of my friends would go away for weeks at a time, to lead a study-abroad trip to Turkey, to visit family in the Midwest, or to mountain bike in Quebec. Knowing about their movement only made my inertia more intolerable.
Most of these friends have children; my wife and I don’t. And she’s an academic, too, with “summers off.” All of this created the ideal conditions for studying the effects of extended, comfortable, untroubled idleness on the human psyche. The results are not promising. As I lay on the couch, the pressure building in my head from breathing recirculated air all day, I complained that I wasn’t living my life. I envied those who were. Relief only came when the students returned and I had to go back to the immediate, day-to-day stress of teaching.
This unease with free time isn’t peculiar to me. It’s a culture-wide ailment. We live in what the German philosopher Josef Pieper called, in his 1948 book Leisure, the Basis of Culture, “the world of ‘total work.’” (20) Writing in the wreckage of war, in a divided country trying to rebuild itself according to the rival economic systems of capitalism and communism, Pieper lamented that “the world of the ‘worker’ is taking shape with dynamic force – with such a velocity that, rightly or wrongly, one is tempted to speak of demonic force in history” (53). The demon of Total Work convinces us that people, including ourselves, are no more than our job functions. In essence, Total Work gets us to sell our lives short.
This isn’t only a problem for manual and service workers whose bosses view them as replaceable parts. In fact, Pieper thought we could understand Total Work best by examining the notion – in his eyes, an oxymoron – of “intellectual work” (25). “Knowledge workers” are just as susceptible to the reductive power of Total Work, not only because most office work demands far less spontaneous thought than you’d expect, given the educational credentials it requires, but also because it demands constant availability. The two of these factors together lead knowledge workers to identify strongly with their jobs. They’re proud of their credentials or their prestigious employer or their esoteric title. And as a result, they work all the time. When I was a college professor, I was a college professor.
I was killing time, waiting, but for what?
Instead of living my life in those off-work hours, days, and weeks, I was killing time, waiting, but for what? I never knew. I was possessed by an idleness, as Pieper describes, that “so far from being synonymous with leisure, is more nearly the inner prerequisite which renders leisure impossible” (46).
The fourth century Desert Mothers and Fathers – who at first lived as hermits and later formed the earliest Christian monasteries in northern Egypt – had a word for this impulse to devalue the present moment: acedia. They numbered it among the eight “bad thoughts” that threaten monastic life, alongside more familiar demons like anger, lust, and pride. Acedia literally means, in Greek, “without care,” which would seem to link it to a breezy insouciance. But I was without care during the summers I spent cranky on the couch, and it was anything but breezy. I was clearly doing something wrong with my time.
The problem wasn’t simple laziness but rather a refusal of some essential fact about my being, some doubt about why I was given time at all. It’s true that in the Middle Ages, acedia became the deadly sin of sloth. But in the fourth century, it was more like restlessness. One of the desert fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, explains:
The demon of acedia, which is also called the noonday demon, is the most burdensome of all the demons. It besets the monk at about the fourth hour of the morning [ten a.m.], encircling his soul until about the eighth hour [two p.m.]. First it makes the sun seem to slow down or stop moving, so that the day appears to be fifty hours long. Then it makes the monk keep looking out of his window and forces him to go bounding out of his cell to examine the sun to see how much longer it is to the ninth hour, and to look round in all directions in case any of the brethren is there. Then it makes him hate the place and his way of life and his manual work. It makes him think that there is no charity left among the brethren; no one is going to come and visit him. … It makes him desire other places where he can easily find all that he needs and practice an easier, more convenient craft.… It joins to this the remembrance of the monk’s family and his previous way of life, and suggests to him that he still has a long time to live. (Praktikos, ch. 12)
The places acedia drove me to – and still does – are mostly online. Facebook and Twitter, of course. I have a browser add-on that limits me to just 20 minutes on them between eight and five (the second and eleventh hour of the monastic day). Unless I cheat, that is, and check them on my phone’s browser. After exhausting social media, I check my email. Has everyone forgotten me? I check the spam folder. How are my bank balances, by the way?
You’re on LinkedIn again. The sun is perfectly still.
Acedia gets you to wish your life away in anticipation of something that will validate your worth as a person. If you feel lonely and anxious in your work now, then maybe you’ll feel better at that meeting tomorrow, or when you get a new project next week, or after you get a new job altogether, “an easier, more convenient craft.” Of course, the deadlines arrive and pass, or you begin the new job and ease into its crevices, and you’re just as anxious and alone. Soon you’re thinking about the next project. You’re on LinkedIn again. The sun is perfectly still.
Capitalism thrives on restless anxiety, which is to say, owners of capital benefit when workers are anxious about their wages, job security, or status. Combined with the American condition of Total Work, capitalism reduces the person’s dignity to his or her employment, then puts that employment perpetually in doubt. Workers’ uncertainty compels them to put in long hours. If they’re working hard, then they must have worth as persons. Of course, nothing can ever give the workers a final assurance that they will keep their job or status. These things aren’t up to them, and in American capitalism there are few guarantees of security or limits on the amount someone can work. As long as your status is in question, you have cause for anxiety and thus the motivation to keep working.
Max Weber identified this psychological mechanism behind capitalism in his 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In his view, Puritans adopted an ethic of diligent “labor in a calling” to convince themselves that God had predestined them – as individuals – for salvation. They believed in election by grace, which means God chooses some to be saved even before the foundation of the world. God’s decision about any individual is unknowable, and God’s mind is unchangeable. But people naturally worry about the status of their souls. And so, convinced that the saints would be visible by the fruits of their labor, anxious Puritans got to work as a means of self-assurance. Even so, they could never rest easy at the end of a long day or an especially good year, confident that they had done enough; that’s exactly what the unregenerate would do. The drive to work, to produce, to make a profit can never stop.
“The Puritans wanted to be men of the calling,” Weber writes. “We, on the other hand, must be” (120). We no longer need the fear of God as motivation to work. We fear society. In the moral system of American capitalism, anxiety is like humidity, suffusing the whole system, to the point that it becomes an invisible prison, what Weber called an “iron cage.” Inside this system, unemployment is disgraceful. It draws contempt, often chiefly from oneself. Even workers with predictable schedules or little to fear from layoffs are caught in the cage.
Unlike many American workers, I had excellent job security, autonomy, and benefits; the anxiety I felt was not over whether work would support me, but the existential value it provided. Teaching offered a constant stream of validation. That’s not to say my students always appreciated my effort to help them learn. But they did rely on me to show up for class, to lecture or lead discussion, and to grade their assignments. And by meeting those obligations, I visibly earned my keep.
To be sure, earning your keep through work seems honest, honorable. Americans see it as the basic responsibility of good citizenship. But under conditions of Total Work, you can never have complete assurance of your worth, so you carry your anxiety even into your off-work hours. If you try to fight the anxiety and acedia with work, you may burn out altogether. I did.
Acedia attaches itself not to what you do but to who you are.
The exhaustion and despair of burnout are job-specific, emerging in the space between your vocation and what you actually do at work. Many escape burnout by quitting their jobs, as I eventually did. You can’t shake acedia that way. Acedia attaches itself not to what you do but to who you are. An acedic monk who followed his restless desire for another place and actually moved would not evade the noonday demon. Acedia stayed with me as my career became less about teaching and more about writing. If anything, it intensified, since now, most of my days are entirely unstructured. I fight the demon with article pitches. If an editor picks one up and gives me an assignment and deadline, I take on stress but I also know someone needs my labor. Someone is counting on me.
Acedia is so uncomfortable because it’s an in-between state, like the liminal space of the waiting room, where there is nothing to do but kill time. Acedia’s restless activity mimics the go-getter’s constant motion, yet it produces little, if anything, that has value on the marketplace. It’s a parody of both work and leisure. To beat it, we need to choose a direction and follow it with confidence. Evagrius’s disciple, John Cassian, taught that monks in the grip of the noonday demon need to give more time to their manual labor. He dives deep into Paul’s warning to the Thessalonians, “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you” (2 Thess. 3:7), to convince monks to fight acedia with labor. He even cites the example of a monk, Abbot Paul, who spent his days gathering the leaves of date palms and storing them in his cave. Some accounts claim he spent his days not just gathering, but weaving the leaves into baskets. “And when his cave had been filled with a whole year’s work,” Cassian writes, “each year he would burn with fire that at which he had so diligently laboured: thus proving that without manual labour a monk cannot stop in a place nor rise to the heights of perfection” (Institutes, X:24).
In a pre-capitalist society, it seemed that the best cure for acedia was work. Cassian complains, or perhaps gloats, that there are no monasteries in the Latin-speaking West on account of Westerners’ “love of ease and restlessness of heart” (X:23). Sixteen centuries later, we’ve banished ease and built our whole economy on restlessness. We know we’re supposed to be productive, and we already see labor as the cure for our ills. But in the world of Total Work, labor is also the cause of them.
The enemy is Total Work, and we fight on its terrain.
The problem with acedia isn’t that it’s unproductive. The problem, as Pieper saw it, is restless anxiety over our lives’ worth: the idleness of acedia “means that a man renounces the claim implicit in his human dignity” (43). He continues, “the contrary of acedia is not the spirit of work in the sense of the work of every day, or earning one’s living; it is man’s happy and cheerful affirmation of his own being, his acquiescence in the world and in God” (45).
To realize this affirmation, explains Pieper, we need leisure for reflection – not just the time for it but, more importantly, the “mental and spiritual attitude” to rest in it. “Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality: only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear,” he writes. In silence, “the soul’s power to ‘answer’ to the reality of the world is left undisturbed” (46).
Thus the battle must be fought at two levels: the external conditions that don’t leave room for leisure, and – what for me has proved harder – the inner struggle to hear and acquiesce without slipping back down into anxiety. The enemy is Total Work, and we fight on its terrain, where we must summon the individual strength to go against the grain of every social message.
Pieper doesn’t offer a detailed strategy for winning either of these battles, but he does point the way back to the same problem Weber identified: the inability to accept grace, whether in creation or election. In the world of Total Work, Pieper writes, “man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift” (35-36). There are investments, or loans, things that place an obligation upon the recipient. To get a gift only compounds capitalist anxiety: how can I become worthy of this? How can I pay it back?
Our moral and spiritual task is to accept our being for the gift it is and acknowledge that in others. To see that creation, ourselves included, is good. To recognize that no one’s work determines their worth.
I expect my battle with the noonday demon will be lifelong. This past summer my wife and I took a few days’ vacation to Oregon. I had recently begun a long-term project, and I was anxious about it as I readied for the trip. I vowed not to work, but I did bring along my laptop, both comfort and temptation. It was easy to keep my vow for the first few days of the trip as we visited friends in Portland. Few thoughts of work intruded on a backyard dinner or a whiskey-soaked late-night conversation with them.
Then my wife and I drove out to the Mt. Hood National Forest for two nights. We didn’t exactly rough it. We stayed in a “lodge” room, basically a motel. Still, there was no cellphone signal in the valley. And there wasn’t much to do there beside hike and canoe. We did those things, but they don’t take up a whole day.
The place and the moment and my companion and myself were enough.
The enforced leisure was unnerving at first. We had no agenda, no one else to see, nowhere else to go. We took a copy of the New York Times to occupy ourselves. I read every last article in the Sunday Review opinion section, something I hadn’t done in many years. In the morning we trekked up a mountain. As we neared the top, my phone caught a signal and buzzed with all the messages I had missed while we were in the valley. I couldn’t help responding to a couple of work-related emails – to do so felt like both a familiar reflex and a novelty – before we walked back down.
That evening we sat by the lake and watched clouds migrate low over the pines between us and Mt. Hood. Every now and then, through a break in the clouds, we glimpsed the glacial peak, which gleamed in the sunset. I’m not sure how long we were there. But for that time at least, I accepted that the place and the moment and my companion and myself were enough, were good. I acquiesced.