Worthy of Our Mystery

On Burnout and Ennui
May 4, 2015

If life were a movie, then at about this time in the year the first faint rumblings of satisfying bass and the earliest echoes of a soon-to-be-soaring melody would waft into the background of our days at school, cueing the year’s approaching end. Week by week, they would crescendo majestically, till the last day of school would arrive and our final sage words in the classroom bring the orchestral swells to a resounding tonic chord resolution. Roll credits, please.

But, iPods to the contrary, life does not come with a soundtrack. And along with prospective students (as per Mr. Gibbs’s recent posting), the end of the school year often brings—not strings and brass—but burnout. The siren-call of summer starts, and teachers and students alike face Qoheleth’s dilemma: doing what we love becomes difficult.

“And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them,” writes the Teacher. Great Books and great conversations, great essay prompts and learning activities and mentoring of students: “my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11).

Not always, but often, a sense of apathy accompanies the end of the year. Our labour, though good, has fallen short of what we hoped to accomplish; our students, previously open to wonder, are once again pining for Netflix and the beach and the melons of Egypt; we too, though holding to the bitter end, find ourselves skimming through texts and dreaming of June.

Burnout seems as pervasive a malady today as was ennui in nineteenth-century novels. According to most, this malaise of the information age stems from “too much”: too much work, too much stimulation, too many expectations, too great a confidence in technology to help us transcend human limits—or, in our schools, just one too many of books, essays, assignments.

Doubtless the pundits and prophets speak the truth, and we ought to hearken more to our finitude. But is “cutting back” the final answer?

Much has been written here on teaching from a state of rest and the fact that this does not equate to doing less and relaxing more. Rather, Andrew Kern recently suggested that rigor is “sustained, focused attention.” If this be true, then the root cause of burnout is not merely “too much.” It is a lack or a wrong kind of attention—which is too say, a lack or wrong kind of love.

Such, at least, would be the diagnosis of the desert Christians and medieval theologians, who among their formulation of Seven Deadly Sins included acedia. The vice commonly translates as “sloth,” but this captures only half the picture. Acedia manifests as both a dying of interest in life and also as a hyperactive preoccupation with whatever life can offer. Despair and distraction are both effects of acedias true definition: resisting God’s love.

Human relationships lend a useful analogue. A frenetic schedule stuffed with the kids’ classes and activities is, truthfully, easier to manage than long days at home with chores, schoolwork, mealtimes, and the marrow-of-life conversations that suffuse such things. A few hours alone surfing the TV or web before an early bedtime are easier for a husband and wife than time spent recounting the day’s strains and working through its tensions together. Committing to teach fifth-grade Sunday school and organize the church workday and plan the teen missions trip and play the offertory for worship is easier than spending two hours in prayer. Like Jonah we may book a vacation to Tarshish, or like Jonah we may sulk under our vine, but either way we may be fleeing the presence of the LORD.

For, as Jonah learned, the love of God is no small thing: the love of God is our death. It is leaving our people, rescuing our enemies, confessing our sin, praying our repentance. It is becoming His people, being redeemed from His Enemy, receiving His righteousness, accepting His forgiveness. It is our only life.

All the instincts of our old man will be to flee, or even just to “shortcut,” this life in God’s presence. Love bids us welcome, but our soul draws back, pursuing a pattern of either withdrawal or busy-ness in which we seek justification: “I would memorize Scripture if it helped, but it’s just not interesting.” “I would love to pray more! But there’s the Sunday school lesson to plan and the kids’ church outfits to iron and—Oh! I forgot to bake the cookies for tomorrow’s fellowship lunch!!” The thing about the Seven Deadly Sins is that they are ours by inheritance, entailment of Adam. Acedia is not something some of us may at some point struggle with; it is an instinct to which, if we do not resist, we will all succumb.

From the Symposium onwards, philosophers and mystics have known that our loves are all of a kind; in other words, the shape or direction of our love for the highest things will be oriented by our love for the lower things, and vice versa. A man who loves his wife well will quite probably also be kind to the dog and reverent towards God. If this is so, then might not the acedia which afflicts our love for God afflict our love for all else, too? Might not the patterns of withdrawal and distraction that warp our relationship with Him warp our engagement in work and school as well? Might not our reluctance to give the sustained, focused attention of love to our Lord fester as reluctance to give the sustained, focused attention of love to anything else?

Perhaps burnout is kindled not by habits but sin; perhaps it is quenched not by adjustment but repentance and redemption.

Such was the remedy the medievals prescribed. Stabilitas, or staying still, was how they fought acedia: attending carefully to the thing at hand rather than the thing far off, making of it an occasion for prayer and gratitude and love.

For after all, we are doing what we love. We are worshipping the Lord we love and are living out the vocation of learning and teaching that we love. When the papers pile up, testing takes precedence, students are distracted, and we’ve run out of words, there is a temptation to rebuke ourselves for not feeling joy. But recall how such frustrations are voiced in Scripture: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” “Where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The disillusionment is not unfaithfulness and need not lead to acedia; it rather opens a door for deeper love. I have found great comfort in that thought through these weeks, and in this practice: at the moment of despair or distraction, choose instead to pray and give thanks. Attend to the One Thing that matters most—responding to the love of God. Then the other loves will fall in place.

According to his biographer Edward Mendelssohn, the poet W.H. Auden considered vocation “the most innocent form of love, the voluntary loss of self in an object.” His homage to such love in his poem sequence Horae Canonicae (from the monastic canonical hours) indeed embodies a life of entire response to love, and thus entirely freed from acedia. May it be our meditation and imitation for these days and weeks: 

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

To ignore the appetitive goddesses,
to desert the formidable shrines

of Rhea, Aphrodite, Demeter, Diana,
to pray instead to St. Phocas,

St. Barbara, San Saturnino,
or whoever one’s patron is,

that one may be worthy of their mystery,
what a prodigious step to have taken.

There should be monuments, there should be odes,
to the nameless heroes who took it first,

to the first flaker of flints
who forgot his dinner,

the first collector of sea-shells
to remain celibate.

Where should we be but for them?

(Horae Canonicae, “Sext,” ll. 1-25)

Lindsey Brigham Knott

Lindsey Brigham Knott

Lindsey Knott relishes the chance to learn literature, composition, rhetoric, and logic alongside her students at a classical school in her North Florida hometown. She and her husband Alex keep a home filled with books, instruments, and good company.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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