Forgive Yourself7 mins 189 7 mins 189
“So, what is your excuse today?” Sarcasm rampant in her voice, my wife emptied the wastebasket, full of falls starts, and queried.
I threw up my hands and kicked the wastebasket in disgust; two more hours wasted and not a single page of productive writing work. This tendency continued in the workplace also; when the Boss wanted to know what happened to the project I was ‘supposed to be working’; I had nothing to show except my long face!
I am sure there are days when you would yearn to complete the long list of items on your “important things to do”, but somehow, you are unable to start? Do you straightaway blame it on being lazy or better still, call it a period of procrastination? Wait! Most importantly, I believe that what most of us suffer from, when we just can’t seem to get started on a project that we very much want to do or write that all-important story, is not procrastination at all, but rather ‘acedia’.
Let me explain.
Like many other people, I used to feel terrible on days when I knew I should be working but simply couldn’t make myself get started. I would clear a day for writing weeks in advance, and then when the day arrived, somehow fritters it away. “This is just procrastination.” I would tell myself. “Don’t give in to it. Break the job into a tiny part and do just one small task. Be disciplined. You can do this.” I used all those advice; but needless to say, nothing happened.
Then one day, years ago now, a dear friend who is an artist and art teacher told me about acedia. Acedia, my friend explained, is the slow and arduous forward motion required to start a new project or to return to work after a break. “Every creative person experiences acedia occasionally. It is a known, and completely acceptable component of the creative process,” he said.
His words were magic for me. Suddenly, those awful hours – or days – when I was involved in writing my first book (When Death Do Us Part) was not a waste of time. Every time I thought I was ready to get started but couldn’t make anything happen were transformed for me. I wasn’t lazy and undisciplined! Rather, I was allowing the creative forces inside me to gather steam. I was oiling the machinery, filling the tank with fuel, preparing for the journey.
What a concept!
Procrastination, on the other hand is putting off something that you don’t want to do – like writing a thank-you note or clearing your desk of papers. A lot of times, the world will go along just fine if the dreaded task gets put off so long that it finally drops off the ‘to do’ list altogether and never gets done at all (like one of our famous Prime Minister did!)
Acedia is completely different from this. Acedia is the inner process you must go through in order to undertake a creative endeavor that you not only want to do but actually long to do. Such a creative task is often a huge undertaking. For example, the book I published; there were days when I used to just sit and gaze at my computer outlining the cover page of the book, or the contents. When you are working towards something that feels monumental, you may actually need time to work towards it.
Relax, and view your delays as an integral part of the creative process.
Procrastination is resistance to doing a task. Acedia is the opposite; a slow laborious giving-in to the task, a letting go of resistance, an embracing of the challenge of creativity. It is like a huge jet plane taking off; the initial inertia (the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest) required putting that heavy object into the air. A staggering amount of energy is required to get that huge thing into motion.
This is exactly parallel to acedia. Acedia is the monumental effort required to overcome not being in motion, creatively speaking. Just like a plane, once you get into motion, the process will be almost effortless; it will sustain its own momentum. But you need to forgive yourself for experiencing difficulty in getting the huge creative machine started. Getting into motion requires far more energy and effort than staying in motion.
When my friend told me about acedia, I found it enormously comforting to hear what common experience acedia is among artists of all flavors. Of course, understanding and accepting acedia does not make it any more pleasant to endure. Acedia is usually painful; in fact, it can be excruciatingly so. But when you name it appropriately and see it for what it is, then instead of hating and belittling yourself for these painful times, you can instead treat yourself gently and lovingly.
Staying put at home during Corona days is the classic case.
This is a distinction that makes an enormous difference – in both the quality of your acedia and the duration of it.
Even though I have been spreading the word about acedia for years, I still never anticipate it. When I am preparing to start writing after a break, I am usually excited and eager to get to work. I may even get as far as sitting in front of my computer. But then, mysteriously, I become very sleepy and find I must lie down for a short nap. Or I think of several phone calls that seem ever so urgent, I convince myself I can’t start on a creative project until I have cleared my desk.
As I said earlier, these hours – or even days- can be most unpleasant. As my friends know, I can become quite anxious during bouts of acedia – even though I understand what is happening and fully believe I will get through it. Once, just when I was really going to get started that day, the hard disk on my computer crashed. My resistance to the beginning was huge; I managed to get my computer to conspire with me!
But my understanding of acedia has transformed it for me. I know from much experience that being angry and tough with myself, and forcing myself to work, simply won’t be effective. The more I resist and fight my muse, the more it will persist. Instead, I give in to it. I have lived with it long enough to know that it won’t last forever. I choose to believe that something important is happening inside me, that my brain is cranking itself up, my muse is dusting himself off. So I let go and trust a course of events over which I for the moment have no control.
Sometimes when I realize I am having an acedia attack and I just know that nothing worthwhile is going to get written that day no matter how I try to force it, I deliberately pamper myself. Other times, I throw myself into the errands; letters, phone calls and organizing that seem so much more urgent than my writing. Often, I can actually accomplish quite a bit during my acedia attacks. I also notice that, during my acedia days, I am thinking about what I will write so that when I finally do get round to it, I already know exactly how I will start or organize my material – which can make the actual onset of writing much easier.
After I have given in to acedia a few times, I gently trick myself into moving through it. I type gibberish or challenge to write only one sentence, or I write a letter to my muse. Inevitably, once the words coming, I find myself back in the ‘flow’, like a jet easily cruising through the air. Before long, the creative cruise becomes exhilarating and well worth the massive effort that was required to get it going.
Now that you know that all those days when you were actually planning to do something but were not necessarily involved in it physically, were after all not days of procrastination, but a period of acedia.
Do me a favour, please spread the good word!