Just Stay: Reflections on Acedia

It was a warm day in early summer, and I was home for the week. I picked my way across town to get to the Appalachian trailhead, a spot about eight miles from my home. Just as I arrived at the trail, my mom pulled up in her car, so I stopped my watch and greeted her. Then the two of us went for a hike together. We had been going on hikes since before I could walk, but things were definitely changing. In the past, she was the leader of the pack, always driving the pace from the front. My mom was an ebullient person—energetic, joyful, and talkative—and I would almost have to jog to keep up with her walking pace. Now she was still joyful but more subdued, and her pace was slower. We only hiked a couple of miles that day, and we stopped multiple times so she could catch her breath. It was the first time I really started to worry.

Summer ended. School began, and my mom’s cancer progressed. I spent my weekdays at Yale University, attending classes. On Fridays, I would drive the 3.5 hours home or to various hospitals so we could spend our weekends together, returning to school early on Monday mornings. I usually got a run in, and I often did my homework while sitting in her hospital room. I was present, but only sort of. I definitely kept busy. We talked about what it would be like when she would attend my graduation that spring, but she didn’t even make it to Thanksgiving.

From that time of my life, I regret all of the runs I took for which I could have been spending time with her. I regret the school work that prevented me from being fully present with her in those hospital rooms. And I regret that I drifted inward and kept my mind busy, failing to adequately stay.

Sloth

The formal name for sloth in the classical tradition is acedia—apathy or resistance to the demands of love. (1) If you are anything like me, you probably think this vice has nothing to do with you. Sloth is laziness or indolence. It is unproductive. Sloths (the animal) are metabolically sluggish and idle, and not at all like the runners I know. Honestly, I’m not tempted by these things. Just the idea of laziness makes me squirm.

But our contemporary imagination for sloth has shrunken by half. In fact, at its core, sloth is an inner resistance that has two opposing manifestations: the idleness I just described and busyness. Sloth is either undue rest on the one hand, or restlessness on the other. That is, instead of failing to adequately love because of laziness or idleness, my resistance can look like moving about at a frenetic pace or doing frivolous work. (2) Sloth can mean filling my life with diversions or distractions so that I fail to stay present or to do the right work, in the right way. This definitely describes me. It describes a lot of us in the Western world and has been variously called ‘the cult of busyness,’ ‘the busy trap’ (3), and (mistakenly) ‘industriousness.’

When I say ‘resistance to the demands of love,’ you can think about your love of running. Indeed, this is what I am going to address next. But I provided an image of my relationship with my mom because there are certain loves in our lives that are more important than our love of running, for which running might be the diversion that prevents us from being fully present and loving well. And in a lot of situations, we won’t have the opportunity to go back and fix that.

Stay

In a recent interview, I was asked what I tell myself when I feel bad during a run. The answer is, “Stay.” Any time things are difficult and I am not sure if I can continue, I tell myself that all I need to do is exactly what I am already doing. This is what perseverance is—to remain under a burden. Perseverance is firmness of purpose or steadfastness. In the case of a journey that is already begun, perseverance only asks that we keep doing what we are already doing. We have to stay.

In the running scenario above, I see myself as resisting two temptations—to stop or to divert myself with aimless, trivial thoughts. It would be easy to lie down on the sidewalk or to walk off the course—to resist the demands of my sport by surrendering the task. It would also be easy to mentally evacuate the scene. This is because when I fail to persevere, the temptations I face are actually the twin manifestations of sloth. For both types of acedia, if my workouts are lengthy or if they demand that I give my best, I won’t be well-positioned to stay.

In Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung writes, “Acedia’s greatest temptations are escapism and despair… to abandon ship and give up, to drift away inwardly or outwardly toward something more comfortable or immediately comforting.” (4) Within a run, this might look like resisting the mental work of ‘staying’ and committing to the task, or it might look like quitting altogether.

Over an extended course of training, sloth can look like one of two things:

  1. I may fail to put in the necessary work needed to perform at my best, which will look like idleness or laziness. These are deficits natural to the typical conception of sloth. I am failing to love my sport by failing to show up at all and to put the work in.
  2. Or I may work frenetically. I might perform the wrong sorts of work, busying myself so that I fail to notice the difference. My busyness might be performance-relevant (as in, doing lots of superfluous activity or stacking on training without a logic to my methods) or performance-irrelevant (such as by spending too much time on unproductive diversions, like the internet or video games).

This second type of acedia (busyness) can manifest as a failure to sensibly rest. Rest is often compromised with frivolous work—second runs we don’t need, unproductive diversions, and short jogs ‘even though it’s my rest day.’ It might seem like these are good things—that we are checking every box twice and guarding against laziness—but this restlessness is not helpful to us. There is a perverse comfort in filling up our days with distractions to feel like we are doing work because we confuse busyness for diligence.

How Can We Fix This?

Interestingly, the treatment for sloth sounds a lot like running practice. The desert fathers, who were ascetic Christian hermits in Egypt and Mesopotamia from the third to the seventh centuries, spoke of stabilitas loci—the practice of staying in place. This is essentially perseverance—training our “physical frailty and fickleness of will” to stay. (5) Because our sport is one in which perseverance is the ultimate objective, runners are well-positioned to learn to better ‘stay in place.’ We train for this. The extent to which we can persevere is measurable—in miles or minutes—and hopefully these numbers increase over a training cycle. That said, you still might be unsure about what the demands of running are, or what meaningful work (rather than busyness or aimless activity) looks like. For guidance, it can help to have the vantage of a friend or a coach to teach you, to serve as an exemplar, or to keep you accountable to staying when things feel hard.

These suggestions are directed at combatting sloth within the domain of running, and we probably love other things, too. As I said, sometimes our love of running can detract from more important things. So, my suggestions are as follows:

Figure out what you love.

If running fast is at the top of your list, that’s fine. But you won’t be fast your whole life, so privileging running as your greatest occupation will probably lead to regrets in other areas of life. To be clear, I am not saying that running itself is frivolous. I love it, and it has been a great source of purpose in my life. However—if I am being honest with myself—at the end of the day, I am just a person who takes recess very seriously. Love of people should far outshine my love of sports.

You may love your city, your family, friends, the outdoors, and sport. Enumerate these loves and prioritize them so you can start asking yourself the right questions.

Figure out what love demands of you.

If you love a person, ask how you can build into that relationship and be deeply present, rather than fail to put in the necessary work (lazy-type sloth) or to be distracted and aimless (busy-type sloth). If you love your city or your country, then ask what being a committed citizen entails. Be reflective, and then act accordingly.

Stay.

Blaise Pascal writes, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” (6) Sometimes the best thing we can do is to be fully present where we are and to not be physically busy or internally busy, or to drift away. Stay in one place. I regret that I was not able to do that better with my mom, and I aim to not have similar regrets in the future.

Sloth is either undue rest on the one hand, or restlessness on the other. Both hinder our ability to love our sport and the people around us. But as athletes, we know what it means to persevere and can practice being fully present—to do the right work, in the right way.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you challenged by the vice of sloth somewhere in your life? Are you willing to share a little about this?
  • What areas of your life do you think could be improved by this idea of ‘staying’ and persevering through when things get difficult or uncomfortable?

References

(1) DeYoung, R.K. Glittering Vices. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009. pp. 79-80.

(2) DeYoung, R.K. (2007) “The Vice of Sloth: Some Historical Reflections on Laziness, Effort, and Resistance to the Demands of Love.” The Other Journal. Web. Accessed 7 February 2019.

(3) Kreider. T. “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” The New York Times. 30 June 2012.

(4) DeYoung, R.K. Glittering Vices. p. 97.

(5) DeYoung, R.K. Glittering Vices. p. 97.

(6) Pascal, B. Pensees. VIII. Diversion. 136.

Sabrina Little dressed up as George Washington for President’s Day in fifth grade while her mom walked her to the bus stop. All photos courtesy of Sabrina Little.

Sabrina Little and her mom in 2006, when her mom was in remission from cancer. Sabrina ran 100 miles in her hometown as a fundraiser for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition to celebrate her. This was Sabrina’s first ultramarathon and she didn’t yet know ultrarunning was a sport.

Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 19 comments

  1. Jonathan Gardner

    “From that time of my life, I regret all of the runs I took for which I could have been spending time with her. ” This is one of my arguments against “streak running.” If you have a running streak that is decades long, there have surely been times when you went out for a run when you should have been spending it with a loved one. It is a manifestation of busyness, in my opinion.

    1. Sabrina

      Jonathan, that’s a great point about streak running. We might be compromising quality purposeful work in order to keep running every day. My guess is that if people err on the side of lazy sloth, then building momentum through a running streak might build the right habits. But if we’re people who err on the busyness side of sloth, then run streaks would really just worsen the problem.

  2. Rachel

    Such. Good. Words. I’ve been trying to figure out how to “rest well” this year. This two sided look at acedia is thought provoking… Thanks for sharing about your mother too.

  3. Catherine

    Poignant. And important for all of us to ponder … often.

    Please don’t have regrets. Some of these lessons take time for us to learn and act upon. I would have been the same as you at that time, Sabrina. Your mom looks so proud of you in the photo at your hometown 100 to celebrate her.

    I moved in with my mum about a year ago. I still run, but I’m glad I didn’t run from the opportunity to help her stay in her home in her elder years. We talk about community a lot in running circles, but there is a wider community too that can use our talents. I like your suggestion: to reflect and enumerate our loves and priorities, of which family to me is top of the list, and to act accordingly.

    1. Sabrina

      Thanks for your response, Catherine. I really appreciate it. Thinking of you as you care for your mom. That’s a really special thing you’re doing.

  4. Lucy

    Sabrina, this is such an amazing article – and you writing always is.
    I don’t comment very often, but it seemed important here.
    Sabrina, don’t regret your runs and schoolwork – you probably were much more present than it seems in retrospect.
    People frequently use “running makes me a better person so I can show up for the other areas of my life” as an excuse, but in the story you share it likely is true. I looked after my Dad after he had a stroke – stayed in his hospital room actually (my Dad was a really great respected surgeon & saved many people’s lives so the hospital allowed us to put a second bed into his room) – but I did go outside for walks or read books sometimes, and as a result I was much more helpful & patient & kind. It’s hard – very hard – knowing you are loosing a person you love so much – you do need to occasionally disconnect from the situation. My Dad would have found it appalling if I didn’t look after myself at least occasionally, and to add guit to how much he was already going through wouldn’t have been kind. Those 1 or 2 hours a day of going for a walk or reading something helped me be courageous & caring. Physical exercise always makes you stronger, especially when you are coping with something so traumatic. You still took time to brushed your teeth and take a shower – and you had responsibilities to other things in your life, and to take care of yourself. You were present a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Plus just like everybody, a hospital patient deserves an hour of privacy too.
    Thank you for sharing the true meaning of sloth too.

    1. Sabrina

      Thanks so much for sharing your own story and insight. I’m really sorry to hear about your dad. I appreciate your idea of balancing being present with trying to take care of yourself, too. Thank you!

  5. Allan

    Amazing writing Sabrina,
    Please don’t ignore the philosophical perspective of what love is. And this from your mother’s perspective which is what could be true love.
    You may find you have loved her even more than you planned.
    In other words I really doubt your mother believed you were being sloth in your love for her. She would have felt great joy watching you study and hearing about your runs. But it’s your perspective that makes your love likely true. It’s great to read.

    Thank you.

    1. Sabrina

      Hi Allan, thanks so much for your response. I know you’re right about how my mom would have interpreted this. Still, I know I’ve got work to do in staying in one place and not busying myself, so I’m going to keep working on that!

  6. Alex Parker

    Lovely piece. The world needs philosophers at least as much in 2019 as ever, maybe more so. Never doubt the importance of doing what you love.

  7. Tricia

    I have so much ambivalence about this whole “be fully present to your relationships” idea. For the longest time, I worked on being present. I believed in it. I worked on my communication, speaking precisely, owning my feelings and stating them in a responsible way. I showed up. It worked fine in some cases, but I still experienced painful conflicts in some of my most important relationships. No matter how I tried.

    At a certain point, I just gave up. I decided that my “presence” is simply too much for some people (not everybody, thankfully). Since I have become more distracted, invested time in hobbies that have nothing to do with others, and put less stock in my relationships, I’ve been happier. After years, some of those old, frustrating relationships even revived, to a small degree.

    I wouldn’t ever bang the tambourine of “be fully present to your relationships,” because it brought me so much pain. I’d say, “Be open. Make your best attempt to connect, and don’t take it personally if it flops. Above all, don’t be too hard on yourself.”

    When you’re talking about grieving a parent, it’s important to remember that the pain in proportionate to the connection. I’m sorry it hurts so much, and I’m happy for you, that you had such an amazing mom. I bet she understood what you were doing, and she’s good with it.

    1. Sabrina

      Hi Tricia,
      Thanks so much for your response. I guess I don’t see this as a challenge to working on diminishing our sloth–the fact that people don’t always reciprocate an interest in us. We’d still want to be able to stay in one place, without mentally busying ourselves or becoming lazy, because it’s a type of internal strength (just as it is in running when we get to the point where we don’t need to quit). The flip side of working on our own virtue–love or perseverance or whatever else–in a given situation is that you can’t always expect other people to receive it well or to be similarly conscientious. But if we can practice being where we are–fully present and not internally busy or lazy–chances are, our lives and the lives around us will be richer. Again, thanks so much for your reflection here.

  8. Tricia Kim

    My own experience wasn’t so much “that people don’t always reciprocate an interest in us.” That’s basic. It’s more about reciprocating an interest and skill in being present. It does take practice, and in my experience, a talent that people have in different degrees.

    It’s tempting to imagine missing out on some reward, i.e., that “our lives and the lives around us will be richer,” for doing that work. I say life is rich, either way. When you need it to be rich, it’s not, and then, by grace, it is. I don’t believe it’s possible to not be present.

  9. Eric R

    Sabrina, please don’t be too hard on yourself about how you spent time with your sick mom. My father passed away from a long bout with cancer in 2003. People deal with the stress and pain of a sick loved one very differently, and I think that is ok. As a parent, I would just be very appreciative that my child took the time to be with me and that they were doing something they truly enjoyed (for you, running and school work).

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