MAY 10, 2021
“Ask Ellie” is LARB’s new advice column, drawing wisdom from the great myths and stories to navigate the terrible, glorious weirdness and difficulty of modern life. Please submit your dilemmas, midnight anxieties, fear, loathing, and confusion to email@example.com.
I am afflicted by acedia, not its slothfulness but its apathy.
My hope in humanity has been failing, probably thanks to the whiggish culture of eternal improvement that I grew up in, but I told myself that I should live as if there were hope. For one thing, by so living I might generate the actions in others that would lead to a more hopeful world; for another, by so living I might generate hope within myself.
But I find that I am unaccountably lonely. I have three wonderful children living nearby whom I often see. I care for a delightful grandson once a week. I have a thoughtful, imaginative, and entertaining hiking companion, a perceptive therapist, and a very good karate teacher, and I’m busy trying to straighten out the dysfunctional board of directors of my homeowners association. Most days I devote several hours to painting and I continue to improve and make more interesting pictures; and I have until recently been politically active and have met several committed, caring, and creative people. But something is missing.
But something has always been missing. I begin to think that something will always be missing. If nothing were missing, life would be complete, and life is never complete — only death is complete — so this is probably a characteristic of existence. But if it is, I would still like to ameliorate it, this sense of lack.
What concerns me more than anything, I think, is losing vigor. I am 70 years old and wonder if I am finally declining. If so I am not going very gently; I am fearful, not of death, but of losing my capacities. Of becoming acediac, in other words. Of feeling that everything I do is pointless.
I suppose my basic question is: what is to be done about apathy?
Very truly yours,
Acedia. Apathy. Languishing. It seems near everyone is struggling with some form of existential torpor, these days. You probably read Adam Grant’s New York Times piece on languishing, which struck a chord with much of the nation.
So, yes: what the fuck is to be done about apathy, exactly? The Times didn’t offer much help. Grant’s main antidote to languishing is to create periods of “flow” — that state of being so absorbed in a task that the outside world fades away. Well, in your case, several hours of painting every day plus a karate practice and regular hikes ought to get you into flow, and apparently none of that has helped much. So I think we’re going to need a bigger boat.
There are a couple of sneaky sentences towards the end of the piece: “Languishing is not merely in our heads — it’s in our circumstances. You can’t heal a sick culture with personal bandages.” Yes! I thought. Say more about that! But that’s it, that’s all you get about our sick culture. As far as solutions go, the piece stops at recommending online word games and … Netflix?
Maybe that’s to be expected. It might be too much to hope that the newspaper of record set about uprooting the very foundations of our society. But me with my little column over here? I’ve got no qualms about doing that.
So: I would like to talk about decline and death. I would like to talk, in fact, about your decline and death. Please forgive me; I know this is very rude. I know I’m supposed to respond to your fears about losing vigor by reassuring you that no no, that’s not you, you don’t need to think about that, in fact you will never die, and by the way, next time you find yourself staring into the abyss of your own mortality, have you considered playing a word game or watching Netflix?
Fuck that; let’s be honest: you’re going to die. And before that happens, you’re probably going to face some period of altered capacity. I’m not saying this is already happening, or that it’s going to happen tomorrow. Seventy is young! Hell, you could spend another eight years painting then embark on a term as president, by the current standard. But somewhere in the future, there it is: the day you will start to forget things, or need help around the house, or find your karate or hiking limited. And later, farther off, who knows when: the day they lower you into the ground.
Please know that I am sweating as I write this. Holy shit, it is uncomfortable to tell someone they’re going to die. I’m not trying to single you out: I’m going to die too! And so are my friends and my family and everyone I love.
I’m sweating because this knowledge can’t sit in a society like ours, obsessed as it is with individual acquisition and progress. I like your phrase “the whiggish culture of eternal improvement”; in this society, everything we do must propel us towards a destination, most often a self-serving one. We still live in the long shadow of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which tells us that life tends toward the ultimate goal of individual self-actualization.
And then what? What happens when we find ourselves sitting atop that pyramid? The linear, individualistic conception of time and of life, the culture of eternal improvement — it all positively requires us to ignore the fact that the only possible destination is death. And so some of us, maybe most of us, end up like Philip Larkin, working all day, getting half drunk at night, and occasionally waking at four, crushed by the question of how and where and when we shall ourselves die — or lose vigor. Or we find some other distraction: the consumer economy, the Protestant work ethic, the endless struggle for power, prestige, and glory.
And none of it bloody works, does it? There it is, waiting for us in every insomniac witching hour, or at the very least at the end of our lives: the abyss of mortality and the pall of meaninglessness it casts over our pathetic machinations.
The apathy that’s so rife in this moment, as the social gears grind back to action, seems to have a lot to do with cognitive dissonance. We’ve just spent a year staring mortality in the face, and now we’re supposed to pack all that back in its box and learn to care about emails and dinner reservations and the career ladder again. No wonder it all feels pointless.
The good news is that all this is just a story we tell ourselves — the shitty mythos of our broken culture. Did you know that Maslow borrowed his hierarchy of needs from the beliefs of the Blackfeet Nation, and never attributed the idea? (In the spirit of not being Maslow, h/t to Cindy Blackstock, Han Ren, Karen Lincoln Michel, and Aditi Khorana for bringing this to my attention.) In the Blackfeet Nation version, self-actualization isn’t life’s final destination — it’s the start. No, the final destination — the goal of life — is cultural perpetuity: the recognition that each member of the community will die, so success means not individual flourishing, which can only ever be ephemeral, but rather the vitality and preservation of community wisdom and ways through the ages, beyond the lifespan of any individual.
You say that “only death is complete,” but death is only complete when life is conceived as a more or less solo journey. Poor old Larkin felt this more than most, living through the long collapse of faith and tradition. “Death is no different whined at than withstood,” he says, as if they were the only options.
If, on the other hand, you’re cradled in a vital, thriving culture that knows how to receive your hard-earned wisdom, aging and even death (at least rightful death) can be neither whined at nor withstood but rather embraced as a source of meaning.
The problem, of course, is that we in the modern, post-industrial West don’t have that kind of culture — or any culture, really. We have no embodied ancestral wisdom, slowly amassed through ages of relationship with a place. We have no receptacle for our wisdom. We have word games and Netflix and credit-card bills, and then we fucking die.
So how can we go about rebuilding a culture, so that there’s something to perpetuate — so that the trajectory of life feels less abysmally pointless?
In fact, don’t answer that. Not with your head, anyway. It doesn’t know, and it’ll only make a mess of it, like any other head.
My advice to you, and to all of us who are suffering with apathy and acedia and languishing, is to return to the rhythms of this world. We don’t have to be grinding it out all the time, or trying to be sunny. It’s not necessary or healthy. There is a true flow of seasons and cycles that wants to carry us.
The slow emergence from lockdown has coincided with spring, adding to the sense that we should all be busy sowing projects and acting hopeful — but did we really allow ourselves the autumn and winter? Did we sit still enough and quiet enough to catch the insights that can only come in the darkest of seasons?
The living world is trying to teach us every day, every year, that life is not linear but cyclical, and that no death is ever complete. Every autumn, summer’s vigor fades to the long death of winter. Every evening, the day wanes, delivering us to the brief death of night. And then: dawn, spring. The continued unfolding of the community of the living. (And if you’re of a scientific bent, know that physicists agree: time is not linear, and the whole universe might very well be enacting an eternal loop of expansion and contraction, death and rebirth.)
True cultures start with rooting into these rhythms. But in the Western world, we don’t heed these lessons of death and rebirth, because our society wants to live in a perpetual summer noon, forever reaping fruits both literal and metaphorical. This makes the fruits sickly and worthless and turns aging into a terror and an embarrassment, some perverse betrayal rather than the entire natural trajectory of a life.
You fear the loss of your vigor, but I sense that if you can start to live this way — loving the velvety slowness of autumn as well as the vigor of spring; receiving the gifts of insight that can only come in the dead still of night, of winter — the true riches of your life might be yet to come. You’ve lived 70 years, and lived them well, by the sounds of it, investing in family, creativity, learning, community participation. You’re reflective and eloquent, and you care deeply about living meaningfully. I’m not surprised that acting as if there were hope has left you feeling apathetic and anxious about your vigor. Striding forth in blind hope is a young man’s game. You have different treasures to offer: wisdom, experience, truths that can only be spoken from a point of earned ballast. Maybe the only true hope for humanity is in people like you sitting with your hopelessness long enough to see what it wants to teach you. Good God, do we need treasures like those.
From this societal wreckage, there is a rare opportunity to reframe the purpose of life—to begin to revere not riches but wisdom; not the destination but the terrible, magnificent journey; not the individual trajectory but the immortal web that cradles it. There’s a lot of talk these days about rewilding human life, but it doesn’t have to be as daunting as that sounds. Watch the sunset, watch the sunrise. Ride the seasons, fully and receptively. Wait for what’s missing to flourish inside you. It’s there. And it’s the start.
Ellie Robins is a writer and advice columnist. To read more “Ask Ellie,” subscribe at patreon.com/ellierobins.