We’ve been catching up on reading magazines lately, and I saw something in a back issue of Christian Century that made a lot of sense. (We’re playing catchup because we’re “quarantining” our mail till we know more about how long the COVID-19 bug lives on surfaces. Debi stacks it up in the garage and doesn’t bring it in till she figures it’s safe.) Like everyone else, we’re making up new routines as we go along.

So we have a stack of magazines to go through. And in the April 22 issue of Christian Century I noticed a brief item headlined “Naming Grief,” credited to the Harvard Business Review (March 23), of all places. It quotes David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, as saying “many people are experiencing a number of kinds of grief during the pandemic.”

It makes sense. We’re all grieving, in one way or another, and that may be why we’re so antsy and short-tempered these days. The Century counts the ways:

Anticipatory grief imagines the worst about about the future; focusing on present realities is the antidote. People are grieving over loss of normalcy, connections, and economic security. Collective grief is in the air.

And it suggests a general antedote for them all:

Naming and understanding the stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance, finding meaning — helps manage it, but the stages are not necessarily linear. Think about how you can let go of things you can’t control and stock up on compassion for others.

Well, that explains why I’ve been so antsy since everything changed at the first of March. Anticipatory grief? Check. Imagining the worst possible outcome? Check. Loss of normal routines (not to mention the chicken biryani and dal makhani at my favorite Indian restaurants)? Check and double-check.

Collective grief may also explain some of the anger about “reopening” churches and the “freedom” not to wear a mask as the pandemic wears on and the virus refuses to go away like magic. None of us like adapting to this new normal; denial and anger come with the territory; and there are politicians all too willing to stoke the fires.

Closer to home, unacknowledged grief probably explains some of what I’m feeling, too. Unfocused, antsy, sad, sluggish. Morose. Frittering away my time arguing politics with strangers on social media. Or it could be some kind of situational depression brought on by the stress sheltering in place from a pandemic. Logical enough. Or it could be something else.

We don’t talk much about sloth these days, and most of us couldn’t name the Seven Deadly Sins of the medieval church if we tried. (Hint: One of them is sloth.) But Kathleen Norris, a poet and author who has influenced me quite a bit over the years, thinks the pandemic may be triggering the sin of sloth or acedia, to call it by its Latin name so we don’t confuse it with laziness.

“Most people wouldn’t know the word,” she told National Catholic Reporter last month. “It isn’t just depression. It isn’t just boredom. It’s a lot of things.” 

Author of a book titled Acedia & Me after the death of her husband, Norris told NCR news editor Peter Feuerherd it’s a common reaction to the kind of quiet and solitude the pandemic has thrust upon so many of us when we weren’t ready for it and didn’t want it.

“There is no place to run to,” she said. “That is one of the hardest things for us.”

But quiet and solitude came with the territory for the Desert Fathers, the third- and fourth-century Christian hermits of Egypt who coined the term acedia, and they knew how to deal with it. One story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (also known as the Apophthegmata Patrum), which I got from Wikipedia, goes like this:

It happened that as Abba Arsenius was sitting in his cell that he was harassed by demons. His servants, on their return, stood outside his cell and heard him praying to God in these words, ‘O God, do not leave me. I have done nothing good in your sight, but according to your goodness, let me now make a beginning of good.’

It can be a struggle. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer links acedia with the medieval vices of envy and anger (ire): :

For Envye blindeth the herte of a man, and Ire troubleth a man; and Accidie maketh him hevy, thoghtful, and wrawe [peevish]. / Envye and Ire [wrath] maken bitternesse in herte; which bitternesse is moder of Accidie, and binimeth [takes away from] him the love of alle goodnesse.

In Chaucer’s Middle English, “wrawe” also means contrary, perverse, irritable or fretful, and, yeah, all of those fit these days of pandemic, too.

But Kathleen Norris, who has written extensively about the Desert Fathers and practices spiritual discipline as a Benedictine oblate, suggests ways of dealing with acedia. Some, like reading the Psalms, are very old. Others, more up to date. It helps, for example, to “establish a daily routine.” She adds:

Monastic living is established with a routine, for a good reason. Times are set aside for morning prayer, mealtimes, afternoon prayer and work.

It’s like a scaffolding, akin to the way buildings are kept together, much like our spiritual and emotional lives, she said.

Her other bits of advice: Take a shower and wash your hair every day. Little items of grooming, when neglected, can create a “feeling of ‘Why bother?’ “

Take a walk, keeping in mind social distance concerns. There’s nothing wrong with simple pleasures as well.

“I provide myself with enough chocolate to keep going,” said Norris.

Most important of all, perhaps, Norris suggests “taking opportunities not to be totally self-absorbed.” For example:

She makes a point of thanking her postal deliverer for working during the pandemic. She connects via social media to her 4- and 6-year-old nieces, who tell her jokes, often bad ones. Such little interactions are a way of moving out of self-absorption.

Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what Christian Century recommended, too, in its note on the piece in Harvard Business Review, that we “let go of things [we] can’t control and stock up on compassion for others.” That’s pretty much the 12 Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, too — change the things we can, accept the things we can’t and get outside of ourselves in service to others. Maybe, just maybe, it’s what Abba Arsenius prayed for back in the desert, O God, let me now make a beginning of good. And maybe, just maybe, it’s a way out of the wrawe, peevish, contrary, perverse and fretful wrath and envy of our time.

Works Cited

Apophthegmata Patrum [Sayings of the Desert Fathers], quoted in “Desert Fathers,” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_Fathers.

Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, quoted in “Acedia,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acedia.

Peter Feuerherd, “Feeling antsy? Morose? Kathleen Norris offers tips to cope with acedia,” National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2020 https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/feeling-antsy-morose-kathleen-norris-offers-tips-cope-acedia.

Nicolle Monico, “The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA),” Alcohol.org https://www.alcohol.org/alcoholics-anonymous/.

“Naming Grief,” Christian Century, April 22. 2020, p. 8.

2 thoughts on “Tips from a Harvard Business Review item on grief and a poet’s advice on the medieval sin of sloth in a time of global pandemic

  1. Several years ago I went to the Glen Workshop East in South Hadley Massachusetts, a week long writing and arts experience. Kathleen Norris was the chaplain. She was pretty unsocial, which surprised me. But I have always loved her writing and think her thoughts on acedia are on the money.

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