Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care


Photo: Luke MacGregor for Bloomberg

A century ago, a small group of psychopaths, who had been largely ridiculed as incompetent buffoons for more than a decade before, rode a wave of confusion, chaos and anger over inequality to autocratic terror, and plunged the world into a horrific war that might well have ended human life on Earth, had the discovery of nuclear weapons been made by others than those who pushed us to the edge of extinction with a savage demonstration of its power, or if that discovery had come earlier, or later.

Since that time, we have watched the Doomsday Clock tick perilously closer to midnight, and then briefly retreat, only to edge closer again.

There is a strong argument to be made that we are once again at the buffoon stage, once again increasingly in the hands of a small handful of psychopaths whipping up fear and fury and setting the stage for global autocracy, confrontation and brinksmanship. The so-called leaders of most of the world’s most powerful nations are incompetent and unstable, and this has been the case at least since the events of 2001.

All civilizations end, and a study of them shows that there are usually two precursors to their collapse: widespread cultural acedia, and then a period of chaos.

You probably haven’t heard of the term acedia used, and it has several definitions, so I’ll start by defining it. It is

a disillusioned detachment, disengagement or dissociation that stems from an incapacity to cope with the realities of the moment. It may start with personal acedia, manifesting as a restlessness, a sense of hopelessness, anger, fear, anxiety, despair and helplessness, a sense of chronic and growing dis-ease, and then, when it infects whole communities, it morphs into cultural acedia, a collective incessant malaise, a “weariness of the heart”. “Most people”, Thoreau wrote, “live lives of quiet desperation”.

When a culture can no longer provide for the essential physical and psychological needs of its members, it inevitably starts to disintegrate — its members may try to revolt, or they may just walk away and leave the culture to collapse. It depends largely on what options its citizens have. It starts with the sense that the culture with which the members are, of necessity, associated and identified, no longer meets its essential needs, to the point the drastic step of revolution or abandonment is deemed less risky than staying with the sinking ship of state, manifests itself as a cultural malaise. This is cultural acedia.

Its effects are not limited to humans; they affect all mammals and other “social” creatures whose core sense of identity is connected to their culture. Scientists have demonstrated that rats whose community is in turmoil or which are isolated from their community are far more prone to what we would call the symptoms of emotional illness: acts of extraordinary violence, addictive behaviours, self-destructive behaviours, hoarding behaviours etc.

What most manifests this early acedic stage of social collapse is a moving away from caring. Caring for one’s fellow community members, for the shared qualities of the culture, and even for oneself, comes at a high emotional cost. When caring becomes too much to bear (such as when caring for a family member leads only to endless abuse, broken promises and disappointments), an essential coping mechanism is to detach, disengage, disconnect, even dissociate.

But surely, you may be thinking, the current situation is not so bad? By the measures of most societies, many if not most in the more affluent nations of the world are seemingly well off, no? Despite the ravings of some psychotic or despotic leaders, most people in these nations are safe, materially well-off, and, as much as possible, “free”.

Well, perhaps not. The soaring prevalence of stress-triggered chronic diseases (both physical and psychological) suggests something is not quite right. It is easy to blame the victims — our mostly sedentary, overweight and malnourished citizens. Or to blame the capitalist system that almost inevitably makes us that way.

But blame is not the point. Over the last century a remarkable consensus has arisen among health-care practitioners and those studying our culture that even an apparently-affluent society can suffer massive malaise and social disintegration, if it fails to meet the essential human needs that are common to all humans of all cultures. While these needs have been parsed in different ways, here’s a list of basic psychological/emotional needs combining the work of Johann Hari, Gabor Maté and David Foster Wallace, recent writers who have focused attention on what happens to us when those needs are not met:

  1. the need to belong to and connect with a safe and engaging community, starting with attachment to one’s mother in the critical first years of life
  2. the need for meaning and purpose in one’s life, including meaningful work
  3. the need to be valued, appreciated, and heard
  4. the need to be optimistic about the future for oneself and loved ones
  5. the need for control and a degree of autonomy over one’s life and work
  6. the need to be regularly and closely in touch with the natural world
  7. the need for a sense of place and home
  8. the need for freedom from chronic stress (financial, physical etc.) and the time and space to recover from it (including getting adequate sleep)

What characterizes our modern industrial culture is its failure to meet, or even really value, any of these needs. Prehistoric societies, up until about ten millennia ago, provided them all. With the advent of language, settlement and the chronic scarcities that accompanied exploding human populations, cultures that depended on large-scale settlement and agriculture quickly sacrificed the value of and attention to these needs in favour of meeting the more urgent and desperate physical, military, political and industrial needs of these new fragile, unstable civilizations.

“We are all homeless.”, Johann writes. To remedy our cultural malaise “we don’t need to be drugged or imprisoned, we need to be together.” By neglecting our basic needs, he says, we have turned the whole world into our prison. What’s at fault then? “It’s not you. It’s your cage.” David echoes this metaphor, describing most contemporary writing as “the song of a prisoner who’s come to love his cage.” In The Pale King he adds:

Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly with our full attention.

So now we live in a world where our sheer busy-ness, and multi-generational traumas handed down, deprive young children of the essential security of attachment and belonging that even many earlier war-ravaged societies provided. Hence we have an epidemic of related psychological illnesses, ranging from psychosis and chronic anxiety to PTSD and attention disorders, and a parallel epidemic of physical illnesses now primarily ascribed beyond any plausible doubt to traumas, mostly passed down unintentionally from each generation to the next and exacerbated by conflicts and encounters with similarly-traumatized peers.

And we have a world where most people despise or are bored by their work, which is mostly meaningless, offers little or no personal autonomy (and often far more responsibility than authority) and which in our increasingly-unequal society takes up more and more of their waking lives. A world in which many are so desperate for attention, appreciation and reassurance that they have to seek it in inarticulate, insubstantial, precarious online “friendships”. A world in which everything seems to be getting worse, including the prospects for future generations and the prospects for a secure and peaceful retirement. A world that offers no stable and enduring home, and no continuous contact with the more-than-human world. A world that suffers from chronic sleep deficits and attention deficits, an epidemic of stress-related diseases, and a collective sense of hopelessness, helplessness, disenfranchisement, fury and dread. A world of exhaustion.

Underneath the appearance of affluence (for the dwindling number who even have that) what most characterizes our modern industrial civilization culture is a severe and growing scarcity of everything that is important for a healthy and resilient human society.

No surprise then that we see an epidemic of acedic psychological and physical coping mechanisms: depression and anxiety disorders, addictions, attention disorders, autoimmune diseases, compulsive behaviours, self-destructive behaviours, and hoarding behaviours (the ultra-rich are furiously buying up remote islands and farmlands in the absurd belief they will provide sanctuary as economic, political and climate collapse worsens).

One of those self-destructive behaviours is supporting the psychotics who (just as the fascist/corporatist leaders did a century ago) promise a return to the good old days, the old order, and the old values, promise hope of a better tomorrow, stir up xenophobia and civil hatred through lies and promises of more for their followers and less for their “enemies”, and promise more autonomy for individuals (making “government” the inevitable whipping-boy), and more security against the trumped-up enemies. People afflicted with acedia voted for Trump, Bush, May, Brexit, Harper, Ford and the growing number of angry damaged megalomaniacs gaining power all over the world. You can’t blame them. When people are desperate and angry and feel hopeless and helpless they’re ready to try anything different from what they feel has led to the current (personal and collective) malaise. They can no longer care.

It’s subtle and deceptive, this wave of acedia, this wave of anger, fear and “sorrow of the world”. It manifests in different ways among different demographics, but it afflicts us all. Gene McCarthy used the term acedia in the 60s to describe the sentiment of those fighting the military-industrial complex and the continuation of the Vietnam War and other wars of colonial occupation and resource theft. Once that war ended, his concern about it getting out of hand was quickly ignored by the media and citizens alike. Now it’s back.

There is likely nothing that can be done to stem it, but we can at least be aware of the phenomenon, as acedia builds and gives way to growing chaos and then to collapse. Gabor stresses the need for us to start (over) with small children, giving them at least a sense of safe attachment, and then a sense of belonging, and enabling them to realize and fill the remaining essential needs in the list above. But for all of us, he says, the key is to stop blaming (our genetics, our parents etc) and recognize that we’re all doing our best and that our coping mechanisms (depression, addiction, attention disorders, autoimmune disorders etc) are perfectly understandable but ultimately unhealthy for us, so we would be best to strive to find a way of living that meets the eight essential needs as well as possible, even if that requires some dramatic changes in our lives.

David’s only prescription is to exercise as much freedom as we can muster (he wrote his Master’s thesis on free will) in the choice of what we pay attention to, rather than automatically falling back into our “natural default setting”.

That’s unlikely to make a difference for the billions already sliding into acedia, whose collective actions and inactions are likely to usher in an era of chaos (already evident in several political capitals) and empower psychopaths and despots who will churn things up further. But at least, instead of blaming them, or the media, or anyone or anything else, we will be aware that this is what inevitably happens as a culture reaches the scale and the limits at which it can no longer meet the essential needs of its members.

It’s going to be a rough ride, and I was hoping it wouldn’t be accelerating as soon or as quickly as it now appears to be. Maybe, like in 1945, we’ll avoid the bang again, and get to witness the whimper; if so, it will be perhaps the most astonishing one our planet has yet witnessed.

But it won’t be the end of the world.

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13 Responses to Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care

  1. 1 in 7.6B says:

    Great read!

    I have no disagreements with this.
    “Because it’s obviously my programming. ”

    Some foul language & something to consider.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8x73UW8Hjk
    Some things can be possible?

    Bookmarked this site.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, 1 in 7.6B. I was not familiar with the show, nor with the philosophy and writings of Thomas Ligotti, which apparently inspired the “pessimistic philosophy” monologues that MM delivers in the show. So it’s fascinating to see someone coming at (our lack of) free will and non-duality from such a different perspective than the radical non-dual message I have been espousing on this blog. I can now appreciate why some people (mistakenly IMO) see the message of radical non-duality as being pessimistic and even nihilistic. I see our lack of free will as wondrous and liberating, and the emergence of the illusion of the separate self as an unfortunate evolutionary adaptation, but one that is not a “nightmare” of “endless supernatural horror” as Ligotti puts it, but rather something that is not real and hence not worth taking seriously. It is as if Gaia is playing a cosmic joke on humans to poke fun at our self-importance. We can feel humiliated and terrified, or we can laugh along. If I had free will, I would choose the latter. As it is, I find the joyous pessimism that seems to percolate through my worldview much preferable to Ligotti’s nihilism; though he seems to have his facts right, his way of dealing with them makes me grateful I’m not him.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Just found this poem by e.e. cummings which kinda speaks to my inextinguishable joy in spite of everything; my acedia seems to abate more and more with each year as I learn more about how the world really works, and realize that life is utterly amazing, and that no one is to blame and nothing needs to be done:

    i thank you god for most this amazing day.
    for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
    and the blue true dream of sky
    and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.

    i who have died am alive again today
    and this is the sun’s birthday, this is the birthday of life, and of love and wings
    and of the great gay illimitably happening earth.
    How could any tasting touching hearing seeing breathing,
    lifted from the no of all nothing,
    human merely being doubt unimaginable you.

    Now the ears of my ears are opened
    Now the eyes of my eyes can see.

  4. Stephen says:

    What is the study referred to? Does it provide details of how society moves from Acadia to chaos?

  5. Anonymous says:

    I guess we live in a “DIS” generation……..?

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Stephen: I’m not methodical enough to do citations, but here’s a bit of background on how I came to the conclusion about acedia leading to chaos and then to collapse. In my research on depression (from which I suffered for most of my life, but no longer do) I re-encountered the concept (first encounter was Gene McCarthy’s philosophy) with the book The Noonday Demon. And then when reading books about civilizational collapse (notably those by Diamond, Wright, Orlov and Gray) and about grief in the face of environmental destruction and the threat of collapse, I could not help notice the presence of what could only be called acedia as each collapse began to occur.

    I do like Kathleen Norris’ definition of the term in her book Acedia and Me (a refusal or incapacity to care, as a means of coping with a seemingly hopeless situation), and was taken by a quote from this book attributed to Lars Svendsen: “In a world of emptiness, extremism will stand out as an attractive alternative to boredom.”

    A new acquaintance, David MacQuarrie (thanks to my friend Don Marshall for the intro) has written a book Acedia: The Darkness Within (and the darkness of Climate Change) which delves into this with considerable more rigour (and many citations) for those looking to explore this more fully.

  7. Beth Patterson says:

    Dave– It’s been beautiful to watch over the 10 years I’ve known you, as you move through your own acedia ahead of the curve. And to find your bedrock in deep, simple and abiding Joy on the other side- that just bursts my heart.
    Shared this post on FaceBook, Twitter and LinkedIn

    Deep bows, heart-friend.

  8. Philip says:

    I “lost” my job two and a half years ago which had some heavy ramifications. Was meant to be, although I could have had enough free will in an instant or two to avoid the personal calamity that followed. A blessing of sorts for various reasons, I was too identified with this job. Thought I could beat the cultural acedia around me. In a good place at moment and this partly due to following Dave’s blog over the years. This is another post that contains some spiritual insights to cope with the world. I know right now that the quiet desperation I have felt (and can sense in others) was because those 8 needs were not met- especially #5. Thanks for helping me to see. Gabe Mate and John Lennon were right….we are wired for love and connection. As ready as I could be for rough ride. Hive mind next?. Barbarism is an advanced stage of disease within civilization. Looks like we will lucky to have many decades ahead.

  9. Anne says:

    Great essay. I very much identify with personal acedia and agree re cultural acedia. Always nice to have words to match up to one’s reality.

    What does this mean: “Maybe, like in 1945, we’ll avoid the bang again, and get to witness the whimper”? Do you mean, if Hitler had won?

    And what do you mean by your final sentence: “But it won’t be the end of the world.”?

    Do you think humans will squeeze through the bottleneck? Or do you mean the third rock from the sun will still be traveling around the sun, in a new geological age? Or something else?

    Thanks again.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Anne. In 1945 some of the key scientists who developed the nuclear bomb were German. Had they worked for Hitler, it’s doubtful we’d have only seen 2 bombs before our current perilous detente. Or if the Germans who were working on it had developed one earlier. Or if the bomb were deployed earlier, or later, who knows what could have happened.

    It won’t be the end of the world because life will go on, either without humans, or with a fraction of the human population alive today, and without access to cheap energy to rebuild a large-scale centralized culture. I’m guessing that humans will survive in small, relocalized numbers in self-sufficient tribes, basically living a subsistence life — probably more joyful and meaningful and certainly more sustainable than is the case today.

  11. Greg says:

    Thank you Dave. I always visit your blog when in need of sustenance, and your writing provides it once again.

  12. Brutus says:

    I appreciate this post. The books you mention in the comments indicate that there’s a lot more available to consider if desired. Perhaps my lack of desire is evidence of my own acedia. Working out the psychology of how and why we’re doomed is not nearly of so much interest to me than the mechanisms and incentive structures that got us here and what to expect.

    From a somewhat broader perspective, there have always been optimists and pessimists, or alternatively, utopians (techno- and otherwise) and declinists. If my character is by nature pessimism, world history (especially the 20th century with its wars and genocides) and the history now unfolding (6th mass extinction) have only reinforced my outlook. Whether it’s truly part of the Zeitgeist to which only some are sensitive or a character issue is the uninteresting psychology part. You appear to be exploring that inner world (such as it exists), whereas I’m still consumed with the outer world.

  13. Anne says:

    Thank you, Dave, for your answers to my questions.

Comments are closed.