The Bible is full of names, many of them unpronounceable to English tongues, and often skipped over as we read the Bible because of their unfamiliarity and our impatience with lists. They remind us, nonetheless, that giving something or someone a name is a vital process for communication and identification, and these lists also serve the purpose of showing us that each individual matters to God. We are not just numbers or statistics to Him; we are known by name.
In the same way, we attempt to give names to objects and feelings so that we can identify them and know how to treat such things, starting with Adam naming the living creatures in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:18-19). Giving a name to something is incredibly significant, for it helps us to move from vagueness to true understanding and leads us to a deeper appreciation of the individual.
Over time, however, words change their meaning and some get lost altogether, which (to someone like me) is a shame. One such word is acedia or accidie.
This word means spiritual listlessness, often listed in the seven deadly sins as ‘sloth’, but we tend to associate that word simply with laziness these days, and acedia or accidie is not really laziness per se. Etymologically, acedia joins the negative prefix a– to the Greek noun kēdos, which means “care, concern, or grief”. It sounds like apathy, and certainly it is a debilitating emotion, leaving us with things to do but no energy, desire or will to do them. Anyone who has suffered a debilitating illness knows how hard it can be to get ‘back to normal’ afterwards, and acedia is that kind of feeling, but is also linked to a sense of despair, helplessness and hopelessness. When we experience this emotion, we feel paralysed, unable to do anything really, trapped. It’s often known as the ‘noonday devil’, because there are things to do but no desire or energy to do them.
Many people are, I believe, feeling this way at the present time because of the limitations on human contact and activity being imposed on us. The barrage of bad news in the media can seem overwhelming at times, but usually we cope through a combination of work, rest and play (and possibly Mars Bars!) When these are interfered with, particularly our physical contact with friends and family, anxiety rises and this can lead to a sense of listlessness and hopelessness which form acedia. People need people: that is simply the way God has made us, and so to remove this normality from our lives for prolonged periods is very harmful.
Does it matter to have an accurate name for how we feel? I think it does. Jonathan L. Zecher says, ‘When an experience can be named, it can be communicated and even shared.’ I believe it’s important to name things because naming is a form of identification, and once we can identify something, we can do something about it. Instead of being overwhelmed by inertia (I felt during the first lockdown that I was in a state of suspended animation, waiting daily for ‘something’ to happen without ever feeling in control of anything), we can address the issue and recognise that this is an emotion, not our whole identity. Jonathan L. Zecher goes on to say, ‘Naming and expressing experiences allows us to claim some agency in dealing with them.’ As we journey through the next four weeks of lockdown in England, we need to learn to name and express our experiences and understand that we are not alone in how we feel, even if we are physically alone. There is freedom in naming and sharing these things.