Burnout as Acedia
This is the second letter in the Total Work series, the first of which was Life as Nonproductive Act. You can read this letter as a standalone, but you might get more out of it if you read the previous one first.
This series is primarily inspired by the book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which introduced the idea of “Total Work”, and I’ll continue exploring its themes in this letter. Specifically, I’m going to tell you about acedia.
Acedia (pronounced a-seed-ee-a) is a state of feeling unable to care. It’s not the mere absence of caring about things, but the feeling that caring is difficult or impossible. As a sense of hopelessness is to hoping, a sense of acedia is to caring.
If acedia sounds like depression and/or burnout to you, it does to me too, but I think it’s useful to have the word for a specific aspect of that experience. One can be acedic (i.e. experience acedia) without many of the other experiences of depression, and even within depression one can experience greater or lesser degrees of acedia. I also think that being able to provide fine-grained explanations of our emotional states can help us to understand and improve them - naming a feeling gives you some power over it.
I’ve talked about the distinction between existential and intentional feelings before. To briefly recap, a feeling is intentional if it is directed towards something (e.g. you hope for something in particular) and is existential if it is a more generalised orientation towards the world, through which experience as a whole is structured (e.g. you feel hopeless). Existential feelings are often experienced as restrictions on intentional ones (e.g. hopelessness is a felt restriction on hope), especially ones associated with mental health issues.
In this sense, acedia is thoroughly existential. One does not feel acedic about something (although some things can bring the feeling of acedia more or less into focus). Instead, acedia is felt as a broad restriction on our ability to care. Acedia isn’t merely not caring, it is the feeling that we can’t, or struggle to, care.
Why do we become acedic?
Josef Pieper thinks it comes from a rejection of god:
[Acedia is] that the human being had given up on the very responsibility that comes with his dignity: that he does not want to be what God wants him to be, and that means that he does not want to be what he really, and in the ultimate sense, is. Acedia is the “despair of weakness,” of which Kierkegaard said that it consists in someone “despairingly” not wanting “to be oneself.” The metaphysical-theological concept of [acedia] means, then, that man finally does not agree with his own existence; that behind all his energetic activity, he is not at one with himself; that, as the Middle Ages expressed it, sadness has seized him in the face of the divine Goodness that lives within him - and this sadness is that “sadness of the world” (tristitia saeculi) spoken of in the Bible.
(“Leisure: The Basis of Culture”, p 28)
There is, as they say, a lot to unpack there.
In my previous letter I referenced autotranslucence’s post Art as the Starting Point, and she has more to say on this subject of acedia (though she doesn’t use the term):
Why was I so dissatisfied with my (paid, professional) work? Because it was misaligned with my values and sense of what needed to be put into the world. Why did I get disillusioned with my circus show? Many reasons, but the biggest, starkest one is that it felt like I wasn’t saying anything I wanted to say – it felt empty and meaningless.
This wasn’t about utility or ‘impact’. It was about me, and my sense of self, and how that tied in to what I wanted to make in the world.
Pieper is very much a Christian philosopher and so roots everything in god. Setting that aside, I think at the core of what he is describing is an experience of being in conflict with yourself - what he describes as not wanting to be what God wants you to be. Autotranslucence is describing a similar experience: by living in conflict with what she wanted to put into the world, she found that her experience was robbed of meaning.
Why might living in conflict with yourself lead to acedia? The mechanism that seems most plausible to me is that it’s an internal defence. We can only spend so long in a state of guilt and shame over not doing something that we feel we should, or in a state of misery through forcing ourselves into doing things that we don’t want to, before acedia kicks in as a protective measure: If caring is hurting us, we learn to stop caring.
This protective response feels like the defining characteristic of burnout to me, and suggests that burnout comes from an excess of caring: You care too much - about being good at your job, making a difference, doing the right thing, etc. - but are not able to actually act on that to a degree that would satisfy that care. This conflict between your caring and your life leads to acedia, and this acedic response is burnout.
This suggests some possible ways to avoid burnout. If acedia is an emotional response to living in conflict with our values, then it can be avoided in three ways:
We can learn to better manage that conflict.
We can change how we live.
We can change our values.
All three of these are potentially good solutions, but they are also all potentially open to abuse, and I think they are all regularly abused as part of the program of Total Work.
My suspicion is that a lot of corporate mindfulness programs exist to try get us to focus on the first solution (managing the conflict), and a lot of corporate culture and team building programs exist to try to force the other two on us: changing our values to more better in line with the company’s, and changing our life by trying to fit it into an unattainable Total Work ideal of productivity.
For me, the question of how we change our values is the most interesting one to explore, so it’s the one I will focus most on in this newsletter. Changing our lives is important, but it’s a very individual problem, driven by individual practical constraints (most of us can’t afford to ditch everything to go make art). Better managing the conflict is important, and I’m not going to ignore it, but I think other people have covered that better than I can, while the question of how to change our values seems under explored.
So, how do we change our values to be healthier for us, and to help us avoid burnout?
Well… I’m not sure. I don’t yet have a good answer, because I’m figuring all of this out pretty much as I write it, but I do have some ideas that might help.
The first is that I think we need to start by learning to interrogate our values and decide whether we actually want to buy into them. I’ve written about this goal in a bit more detail in Jiminy Cricket Must Die, and some of the techniques I’ve been exploring on the notebook blog around alief/belief reconciliation will help by letting us investigate whether our values are ones we really want to live by. This will help us embrace the nonproductivity that I talked about in my last letter, by helping us let go of harmful norms we’ve acquired.
After we have learned to reject the values that are not working for us, I think we need to find better ways of grounding value - finding new things that we can care about. I don’t yet quite know how this will work, but I think it starts by engaging with the people around us - building links with and empathy for the people we work with, and finding value in each other above and beyond the work we do. More on that in a future letter though.