Sunday, August 21, 2011

Anomie and accidie

Every morning, just after I put on my glasses and before I drink my first cup of coffee, I fire up my computer and check out the news online.

Most mornings my computer screen is immediately filled with stories about events which are distressing. There are famines, floods and other natural disasters. There are wars, suicide bombings, forced relocations, insurgencies, military crackdowns and other hardships and sufferings that arise from the actions and decisions of human institutions and governments. There are kidnappings and murders, assaults and thefts committed by human beings alone or in small groups.

What do I feel as I sit reading the news knowing myself utterly inadequate to respond in any meaningful way to those crimes and disasters? Robert Merton might diagnose me as experiencing anomie as a result of "an acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals and the socially structured capacities of member of that group to act in accord with them".[1] I have been brought up to believe that people should do something in the face of need and to act in the face of injustice. So, along with my dose of news, every morning my computer is delivering to me a reminder of my own inadequacy.

The more I read the more frustrated I become that the world is full of injustices which I cannot attack and needs I cannot minster to. I feel disempowered and disenfranchised. I wonder why I bother to read the news at all. Perhaps I should just pass by the stories about famines and floods. Perhaps I should ignore the news of crimes that cannot touch me and disorders that do not threaten my neighbourhood. I have worked hard all my life -- do I not deserve to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labour? It isn't as if I can make the life of someone in Horn of Africa better by denying myself my favourite sports shows. My choice to sit back and enjoy a novel won't help (or hurt) an American family about to lose their health insurance and, perhaps, their home.

Then a small voice within whispers to my inner ear "this is but accidie, the sin of spiritual sloth." This is the self-indulgence of focusing on what I can do nothing about so that I do not see that which I can do. By comparing what I do only against the actions of the exceptionally good, charitable and brave I am giving myself license to do no good, to give nothing and be a coward.

I will never know what the world would be like if each of us tried every day to be just a little better, a little more charitable and a little more willing to stand up just a little longer and speak a little louder in defense of others. It is my choice whether I get to see what the world is like if I try to do and be all those things.

[1] Merton, Robert (1968) Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press. p. 216

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