An essay in the New York Times takes up the topic of “mental drift”, and distractedness without entirely buying into clinical terms like ADHD, or psychological ones such as “top-down processing deficit”. Instead, the essay’s author John Plotz suggests that while this kind of distraction may seem new, and germane only to the age of proliferating social media, in fact it is as old as the fourth and fifth centuries, when it particularly affected monks. And it was called Acedia or the “noonday demon”.

Who are the people prone to Acedia?

Acedia “afflicted those whose pursuits prefigured the routines of many workers in the postindustrial economy. Acedia’s sufferers were engaged in solitary, sedentary, cerebral effort toward a clear final goal — but a goal that could be reached only by crossing an open, empty field with few signposts. The empty field is the monk’s day of spiritual contemplation in a cell besieged by the demon acedia — or your afternoon in a coffee shop with tiptop Wi-Fi.”

Ask any tenured or tenure track academic, especially in the humanities, and they will say this describes their own work-lives. The solitary, cerebral and sedentary work of turning out publications pretty much describes the kind of work I am required to do. I would add the near-absence of routine outside of set teaching hours to this description. Then there is the clear final goal [tenure!] – that can only be reached by crossing an open, empty field with few signposts [your contract/university handbook for faculty, the occasional chat with a senior colleague or chair].

Plotz goes on to write:

“When I read [St. John] Cassian [a 4th century theologian] on “disgust with the cell,” I look around my own office and sigh deeply; and I greet like an old friend the monk whose gaze “rests obsessively on the window” while “with his fantasy he imagines the image of someone who comes to visit him.” Cassian’s description of acedia as mental drift, meanwhile, perfectly encapsulates the pointless and random detours that stop me from bearing down on a particular page: “The mind is constantly whirling from psalm to psalm, . . . tossed about fickle and aimless through the whole body of Scripture.””

So what is to be done? Plotz offers up a number of responses to this condition.

The monks figured out that collaborative work in convivial contexts might ward off distraction and drift. Scientists are one step ahead of humanists in this regard. But in our time, self-disciplining is also a crucial antidote: the failure of which says more about the person than the context. Then there is consolation to be drawn from the fact that like moths drawn to the fire, we keep courting the temptation of our solitary work-lives, including its attendant risks.

Plotz’s essay is worth reading. I don’t think it has solutions as much as consolations for being unable to “bear down the page” without being distracted. But at least I can bond with my 4th century theological desert father in common purpose.