Kathleen Norris is an award-winning poet, best-selling author, and widely embraced voice of faith, intelligence, and beauty. Her recently released nonfiction book Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life1 is a deeply intimate memoir of loss and an articulate exploration of the ancient “bad thought,” or sin, of acedia. In this interview, Norris helps to further clarify this forgotten word.
Acedia has been described as apathy, ennui, and even depression, but Norris stresses that while there is something of acedia in each of these afflictions, acedia is also somehow beyond such characterizations. She describes it as “an ancient demon in modern dress,” a suffering that profits us not and that can only be burned away through commitment. In both this interview and her book, Norris uses the context of her marriage, her work, and her faith to illuminate this intimate and yet surprisingly common experience of acedia. Read Part I of Norris’s interview with The Other Journal here.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In reading the church fathers that you quoted in Acedia and Me, it seemed that the pursuit for holiness made for a good sense of humor. That’s one thing that is overlooked sometimes, holiness and humor are so intricately linked, like stories of Saint Teresa and her irreverence and joking or even Evagrius’s description of acedia, it has got some tongue-in-cheek funniness about it.
Kathleen Norris (KN): Yes, like where he describes the monk that falls asleep with his book, I think, “Oh, well, I’ve done that!” It’s just that you identify. Humor is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, and of course, people always make the joke, “Well, God really has a sense of humor, look at what he did to me.” I don’t think that’s irreverent at all. I think humor is really linked to grace in that sense that it is part of the grace that God gives us so that we can look at something and not laugh at it but sort of laugh along with the absurdity of it. It connects us with other people. Humor in that sense is a really good thing. I think humor in compassion, too, because this is a shared experience and humor can help you have compassion for other people who are going through the same kinds of experiences.
TOJ: I’ve gone to a lot of stand up comedians, and when they do their job well, they almost do the job of a preacher in the sense of disarming things that keep us separate from each other. Then, with the comedian, we all get united in the relief of being not the only one—
KN: Yeah, they’ll make fun of themselves and say, “Look at this and this—”
But there is a kind of humor that is really quite cruel and makes fun of other people, like in the Borat movie. Sacha Baron Cohen is an expert at that. He knows what makes people laugh, but it’s a very disdainful kind of cruel humor. I laughed too. I saw the movie and laughed at a lot of things. He is certainly making himself look ridiculous, too. He puts himself on the line, but he also is making fun of other people.
And then, that same summer—this is kind of crazy, and I’ll go out on a limb here, but Kevin Smith, the man who made Dogma, he’s a Catholic, and what’s so funny is that I went to see Clerks 2 because I thought Clerks was hilarious. Both of those movies are totally profane, totally obscene—I wouldn’t recommend them to anybody because of that—but the thing that struck me was he also knows what makes you laugh, and you laugh your head off! Unless you are totally offended by the language, in which case you wouldn’t go to a Kevin Smith movie anyway. But the thing was that he makes you feel compassion for these characters even though you think, “God, they’re losers; they’re disgusting; I don’t and wouldn’t ever want to be with these people.” He makes you care about them, and I thought, “That’s humor in a godly sense.” And he really has that gift because he does that in all of his movies: he makes you care about his characters. He cares; he makes you feel for them. It was astonishing. I was taking my sister who doesn’t get out a lot because she lives in a care home. She likes to go to movies, and we happened to see those movies pretty close together, and I thought, “Boy, that’s two kinds of humor right there.” It was really striking to me.
TOJ: The humor that unites or the humor that divides: that’s where it seems like the line is drawn.
KN: Well, humor that’s compassionate, where you are asked to really care about a person that you find disgusting, and you think, “Oh my God, I wouldn’t want to know this person, but my God, I really care about them; I can feel for them.” But with Sacha Baron Cohen you are looking down on them, you are making fun of them along with him, and that’s a whole different kind of humor.
TOJ: I think that would be related to acedia in some sense. I was recently watching political commentators in this election season, and I think that is where the negative type of humor gets used a lot. The humor has an anger to it that’s not based on justice, but on mockery, and I have to wonder if it is a refusal of the people that watch, or the people that hear, to again enter into the mourning of our nation’s story.
KN: Mockery is a good word because acedia really mocks you and all of your aspirations, your sense of vocation, all of that; it says, “Nah, it’s not worth anything” and “You’re just a fraud,” and “All of this—your marriage, your vocation, whatever it is—nah, you were a fool to ever believe in this.” So there is a kind of mockery involved.
I love the monks’ reverse psychology. Basically, when they had a monk that was refusing to leave his cell because he was disdaining other people, they would say, “Oh, you have to get out in the community, humble yourself, do what everybody else is doing, join the community.” However, if they had a monk that was in his cell where he was supposed to be praying and working and all he could do was go out and seek other people so he could use them to distract himself, then they would say, “No, you have to stay in your cell.”
So it’s a question of discernment, because if you are using other people as distraction, that to the monks was lust. That was one way they defined lust, trying to draw other people to yourself just for your own amusement so you can be distracted from what you should be doing. That’s lust, and that’s a no-no. And you know that’s also a very good definition of lust, the misuse of another human being. So I love that psychology because I know as a writer I have experienced those states where I’ll do anything to look for a distraction from writing, and at other times, I’m not really getting that much work done, but I am scorning other people. I don’t want to be around other people for the wrong reasons, so that kind of discernment I think is very important.
TOJ: I’m curious, this being the election season, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that or if you followed that.
KN: Oh, yes, I mean you have to. I tend to avoid the news media because they have to have stuff on twenty-four hours a day. Basically, I read the newspaper. I read the paper online. I try to see what candidates are actually saying instead of what the news media says that they’re saying. Where do they stand on the issues? Not their latest public gaff or whatever stupid trivia that we get caught up in. I do think it’s interesting because for a long time people have been so apathetic about the political process, and this is one election where people really did care. So it’s healthy in that sense because at least a lot of people voted who haven’t been voting. It’s just drawn a lot more interest, and that is a good thing for the culture.
TOJ: And people are becoming a lot more concerned with where they themselves actually stand on issues. So it does seem that there is a passion being built up in people, which is good.
KN: Yeah, and I worried that since a lot of young voters were especially fired up about Obama that if he lost they might just fall back into apathy and acedia. That was one worry that I had, because that is easy to do, get yourself all worked up, and then you lose. I thought people would need some emotional help at that point, if that happened.
TOJ: I do wonder, too, about the consequences of things not changing as quickly, the temptation on that side of lapsing into apathy or acedia.
KN: Oh, yeah.
TOJ: It’s just that faithfulness is so necessary in anything that has to do with the human heart, even the election.
KN: Yes, because I do think that people really do want a change. Even the fairly conservative papers like the Wall Street Journal and the Barron’s are saying that the government basically changed the rules in the last ten years to allow banks to do what they did. Now everyone is upset that these banks took advantage of these loopholes and the economy is really suffering. Well, the government let them do it, and so now we’d really like a change, maybe a little more sanity. Obviously, some regulation is necessary if we are going to have a stable economy, just the recognition that some government regulation in terms of food safety, for example, is necessary if we are to have a civilized society. If you want a really unregulated society you can go to the parts of Pakistan that are run by warlords, where there is no regulation, and a guy can do whatever he wants. That is a deregulated society. So I think trying to talk about it in nonpolarizing terms, but more sanely. You obviously don’t want overregulation because that really is bad for innovation and all of that, but if you have no regulation you end up with the kind of crisis that we are in now. If you allow certain things to happen, and you just look the other way, don’t act surprised when it crashes and goes crazy. I’ve been reading the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, which I don’t normally do, because I wanted to understand more about this myself. It’s been interesting to see that they’re coming down pretty hard on the kind of deregulation that we’ve had.
TOJ: Does your experience of the farming crisis in the Dakotas during the eighties have any parallels to how people are reacting or how you are able to understand the economic troubles today?
KN: Well, not so much, except what I talked about in Dakota, that the farm economy in particular has been like the canary in the coal mine. The depression hit in the twenties in North and South Dakota: It hit the rest of the country in the thirties. We had a major depression in farm country in the early eighties, and then in ’87 when the major depression hit—well, actually it was a minor recession—the stock market dropped. Well, we were sitting out there in South Dakota, and everyone is whining, and we are there thinking, “Hey, we’ve been in this mess for about three or four years now.” So I do think that it is interesting if you find out what is going on in farm country, you might look at the larger economy and see what’s happening.
TOJ: There are just two more questions, and they are pretty open-ended. I was wondering what makes you particularly hopeful about our time, our culture? What makes you really hopeful about this time, this generation?
KN: Actually, I’ve got nieces in their early thirties and late twenties, and they’re so much more focused than I am. They went to the same high school I went to, but they had a social service component. In order to graduate, they had to demonstrate some social service commitment, and so I am actually really impressed with the younger generation. They’ve got a lot going for them. And also, I guess the other thing that gives me hope is just the basic decency of most people under most circumstances. You can’t always count on it, and when you read about civil wars erupting and panics and crazy things happening—it can happen to anybody. You never know how you are going to react in a bad situation, but just traveling around in airports, people are being kind to each other. I guess I have this belief that people really do have better instincts, and if they are given half a chance, they will act on them.
TOJ: And then the last question was kind of a reverse. What would you want to say to this generation or what has broken your heart about this generation?
KN: Well, I think for any generation, like the generation of my parents and the stuff that they survived in terms of the depression and World War II and the Korean War and Vietnam and all of that, people living in really dire times—
For example, I have this friend that is only about twenty-five, and she was going to work in Manhattan, and she saw the second plane hit the Trade Center. One building was already on fire, and she saw the second plane hit. I talked to her a week afterwards, and she said that she was still in shock. She said, “I am just twenty-five years old, I am just out of college, and I never expected to see anything like that in my life, and I don’t know how to deal with it.” She’s dealt with it OK. She got married a few years later. In fact, they were getting married that fall, and they decided to keep on with the wedding, and go to their honeymoon in Italy, and carry on. They did a great job with that. But, I think, just trying to remember that hope is always available to us even though things can look really bleak and look really bad.
That’s probably the most important lesson you can learn, ever. Societies go through upheavals, wars, and terrorism, and all these things that are around us, they can really reach in and affect us pretty drastically, but you just remember that human history is big and long. Terrible things happen, and really good things happen. Just try to keep your hopes up. Don’t give in to despair or acedia, which is basically the belief that none of it matters and so it’s best to not care at all. Even a good honest bit of despair or depression is better than that. Depression is sometimes a normal response to a tragedy, but just saying, “Oh, well, it doesn’t really matter, and I am not going to care,” that is not healthy, at all, ever. I guess that would be the difference.
TOJ: Well, thank you very much. Courage is a word that is thrown around a lot, but this book really is courageous. It shines.
KN: Well, thank you, nobody has said that to me, so now I’ll be sure to tell my mom that you said that.
TOJ: You need to get an icon of St. George slaying the dragon because Acedia and Me really did address an affliction that is so near—you shined a light on some dark, familiar corners.
KN: Thank you, I am glad it worked that way for you.
TOJ: I think it will work that way for a lot of people. It is courage on so many levels. So, again thank you, and I am sure that you hear people say often that they will remember you in their prayers, and I will too and have for a while.
KN: Oh, thank you. God bless.
Be sure to read Part I of our interview with Kathleen Norris here.