America is not in the grip of mass hysteria. It’s more like mass acedia.
Americans are jamming the Congressional switchboards with telephone calls, as political and economic chaos draws near, but what’s the message? We have no consensus for constructive action. And surprisingly, we lack even a widely shared impulse to avoid self-destructive behavior. What we see and hear is more like a combination of teen-aged indifference and childish impatience: “Do something. Do Anything. Just stop bothering me.”
Democratic processes are failing, and we have no King Solomon, no leader with the sure wisdom to know the right thing to do in the present circumstance. A few politicians try to be serious and constructive, but they’re surrounded by a pack of dogs intent on tearing them apart.
Kathleen Norris writes:
“I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.”
Acedia. You could look it up in a dictionary, and find “sloth” and “apathy.” Ms. Norris has a more nuanced explanation:
“At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn. That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out,” as in a lament.”
Democracy is a failing proposition when people are incapable of “caring.”
We’ve achieved a society and economy where daily life and survival are so challenging that few people are able to be engaged in democracy. It’s too important and too complicated — to the extent that people are aware, it irritates them. They want it (democracy) to go away and leave them alone.
When good people are disinterested, the door is open to . . . Who? . . . What?
Remember, democracy requires the attention of the masses. Chaos can be instigated by a few, and out of chaos can come despotic rule by a single strongman or a handful of thugs. Remember the Weimar Republic in Germany, or the Fascist period in Italy.
I think we have good reason to be afraid. What do you think?
I need to reread “Acedia & Me,” by Kathleen Norris, this time with an eye on the implications of acedia for survival of a modern society.
— John Hayden