This past weekend, I learned of the suicide of David Foster Wallace, a writer of immense talent and insight, whose short piece in the Atlantic Monthly, "Just Asking," I have circulated among more than a few friends. Along with Wallace's death came the news that Lehman Brothers, a firm that has been in business for more than 150 years, is going bankrupt, beginning predictions that we are only starting the slide into the financial crisis of a century. I begin this week with sadness and a sense of how very fragile life and society and relationships and markets and our very ecosystem really are. Ours is a society that values strength and power. We proclaim it from our public buildings, mostly based on the architecture of Rome, an empire that fell after its tenuous grasp was loosed by the lowliest barbarians. But behind that power there is a carelessness and fragility that threatens to engulf us as it did the Romans.
In thinking about our fragility, I came across a word that I think describes our situation well — acedia. It is classically among the Seven Deadly Sins, but it has mistakenly been characterized, more often than not, as sloth. But acedia is not sloth. Acedia is a kind carelessness, as Kathleen Norris chronicles in her newest book, Acedia and Me. It creeps in, distracting us from what is really good through either lethargy or a frenetic busyness that keeps us from the possibility of seeing and reflecting on what is really valuable.
The answer to this acedia, I believe, is humility — a lowliness and closeness to the earth; a sense of our limits against what we do not understand or know, our powerlessness against what we cannot ultimately control. But humility also brings with it a better understanding of the simple and good things all around us. It helps us to have a reverence for life that the ennui of acedia blinds us to.
In this contrast, I think of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illych, in which a dying wealthy man, whose life is falling apart from acedia and boredom, is rescued by the care of his humble peasant servant. Though lacking power, the servant was very close and aware of the simple goodness of life and completely accepting of Ivan Illych's impending death, rather than denying it as Illych's family does.
As Ivan Illych lies on his bed, dying, he begins to think why he wants to live. His response is that he wants a pleasant life as he had before. But as he thinks about his life, he realizes that it wasn't really pleasant. The only memories of goodness he really has are those of his childhood when life was simple, before greed and power and eventually acedia settled in.
My attention then is turned toward humility and care, two things farming teaches better than anything I know. We need both virtues now more than ever. My hope is that our world will turn toward closeness to the earth, a simplicity of living that opens us to the stability of the ground, before our towers of greed come crashing down all around us.
Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008.