Monday, April 25, 2011

Kathleen Norris: Naming and fighting off the noonday demons

When Kathleen Norris launched into our phone interview last week as if we were old friends, I really shouldn't have been surprised. As a memoirist, Norris is well practiced at being open, approachable and publicly vulnerable.

But I forced myself to cut through the small talk and awkwardly transition the conversation to the topic of Norris's 2008 book, "Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life." As the first part of the subtitle suggests, "Acadia & Me" is a memoir of Norris's difficult but rewarding 30-year marriage, which ended with her husband's death in 2003. But the book also is Norris attempt to revive the long forgotten, first millennium concept of "acaedia" as a means of diagnosing what ails much of third millennium Western culture.

Because there is no current synonym for the word "acedia" -- which comes from the Latin and Greek for "negligence" -- Norris has been working hard to reintroduce the term. She explains that the early Christian monks included "acedia" among the "eight bad thoughts" -- often listing it along with anger and pride as the thoughts that, if left uncorrected, would most quickly run away with a person. Unfortunately, once the church hierarchy transformed those "eight bad thoughts" into the "seven deadly sins," acedia got swallowed up into the sin of sloth.

"(Describing acedia) as a 'bad thought' was the most useful thing," Norris said. "When you talk about 'sin,' people run for the hills. They think of a mean nun -- or an abusive priest -- and they freak out. ... But a thought is just a thought."

Over the past 14 centuries, some writers -- including Dante and Thomas Aquinas -- have tried to bring acedia back into circulation. But the term generally has been replaced with other words such as torpor, listlessness, ennui, apathy, world weariness, melancholy, despair and, most recently, depression.

Norris finds value in the term because it offers a way to bring a spiritual component back into our growing understanding brain chemistry. In those ancient writings about acedia, Norris finds what she calls an "ur-psychology" that shows how talking therapies were being employed more than a thousand years before Sigmund Freud. She also discovers that acedia describes a widespread cultural condition as much as it describes her own bouts with feeling that nothing is worth caring about.

"It hit me one day when I was at my gym," Norris said. "I was watching CNN and there -- in the exact same lettering, sharing the same screen -- were two headlines, 'Sex offenders surge' and 'Gas prices rise.' That's when I recognized acedia on a culture-wide basis; if you have to care about everything, then you are not going to care about anything."

But Norris goes beyond merely discussing acedia in the abstract. Her ruminations on the cultural history of acedia allows her to open up and discuss her 30-year marriage to David Dwyer -- a fellow poet who suffered nervous breakdowns before his 20th and 40th birthdays, who struggled with depression all of his life and who died of cancer at age 57.

Norris, in fact, presents "Acedia & Me" as dueling case studies of the differences between acedia and depression. By telling her own story, she shows how acedia is part of the human condition -- a bad thought that especially strikes the scholarly and monastically minded. By sharing what her husband experienced, she shows how clinical depression is a very different kind of condition -- one that can benefit from therapy and treatment through psychiatry and prescribed drugs.

There are many overlaps and similarities between the conditions, of course. Norris said that's why she quotes so often and respectfully from Andrew Solomon's 2001 National Book Award-winning "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression." But Norris said she also is interested in making sure that depression doesn't become just a "catch-all phrase."

"People primarily have been grateful to have another word, another frame for looking at and discussing the issue," Norris said of readers' reactions to her descriptions of acedia. "Just naming it does help."

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 and

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