Do you ever find yourself clicking mindlessly through web pages, not so much “surfing” the internet as adrift on it? Have you noticed that more surfing tends to lead only to more mindlessness? The spiritual background of this temptation, however, may suggest a way for us to resist it.
A little ways back, I reflected on boredom and the Internet and the way I sometimes catch myself thoughtlessly clicking through — from picture to picture, YouTube video to YouTube video. But as I do so, I’m not even really paying attention to any of it. As I noted in my last post, this hybrid of restlessness and boredom has many similarities with what Christian authors traditionally call “acedia.”
Acedia is a concept with long roots, but it describes well the kind of restless boredom that sends one clicking through the web. It starts as a need for diversion, but can quickly spiral into lethargy and even a type of despair. Monks called it the “noonday devil” for a reason, after all, and some earlier writers even identified acedia as one of the seven deadly sins (and that was well before Facebook!). But whenever this particular devil hits, even on the web, it torpedoes one’s ability and desire to work or pray. It may also lead us to disengage from the communities that support us, even at a time when we are yearning for meaningful connection with others.
So what do we do about it? For about as long as Christians have experienced acedia, they have been proposing ways to resist it. But unlike, say, curing the hiccups, there is some agreement on how to go about it. Borrowing a phrase from Ignatius of Loyola, the best way to overcome acedia is to “act against” it when we become aware of it. For example, Ignatius suggests that when we’re tempted to bolt early when we’ve set aside time to pray, we should instead linger for a few extra minutes. Or if we are tempted to remain all alone, bouncing from one browser tab to another, it may mean reaching out to others instead.
On the internet, for me, this often means closing those ‘diversion’ browser tabs altogether. Initially, that may seem daunting, but abandoning the hunt for the next viral sensation can be a freeing experience. And it may even let us get to those things (or relationships, or…) that we are chronically “too busy” to do.