Acedia and Ennui: The Cousins of Mid-Life Manhood

A few years ago I ran across a light-hearted little meme with a solidly truthful and existential nougat core. It’s a smiling little cartoon guy in a series of pictographic scenarios: Shop for a new tie. Make macaroni. Do Cardio.

[Don’t Let The Existential Dread Set In]


Vacuum the rug.

I still chuckle at it (uncomfortably) today. We live out our lives as Christians trying to synthesize the meaning of our life in Christ with the reality of suffering, the seeming futility of making meaningful change in the world, and the fact that we are going to die at some point. I’m not a fatalist nor a pessimist, but those moments of questioning what it is all for and what one’s life has amounted to will hit from time to time. I’d like to think I’m not the only one.

Perhaps this is coincidental with the post-Christmas season and turning forty-four in a few months. In reflecting on the life of our Savior, I think it gets overlooked for a lot of people that Christ began his public ministry at the age of thirty, and died at the age of thirty-three. He was, for all intents and purposes, in the prime of his life—peak manhood. And since there are no accidents in the spiritual economy, perhaps this is why the Father chose that period for his son, who was to be a choice offering, an unblemished lamb—a worthy sacrifice. It meant something because it cost everything.

The solution in the modern economy is to sidestep malaise, or hop over it. If one is anxious and looking for a way to address the root causes of their anxiety, they are often advised instead to pop a Xanax twice a day as if that was a solution. If we are uneasy with periods of boredom, there’s no shortage of food, phones, or content to distract us and get us out of that moment temporarily.

Mid-life for men is a kind of predictable malaise that can’t be sidestepped or hopped over, however; you have to go through it on your way to old age, disease and death. It could have something to do with lowering testosterone levels. It could start in your late thirties or not hit until your early fifties. It’s not quite depression, though there can be some symptomatic overlap. It’s not quite doubt at the things we’ve committed ourselves to: marriage, family, faith, work. Mid-life seems to be its own unique thing, even when we’re not conscious we are experiencing it.

That recalibration “halfway through the tunnel” can often play out in stereotypical ways: the Corvette, the affair, the career switch or the moving to a homestead in the country. But like the Xanax, these are the pills we pop to try to make the problem “go away.” Many men do not seem to even have the capacity for introspection, but instead (again, stereotypically) relegate this nebulous malaise to externals; to mansplain it, it is a matter of externals, a “problem to be solved.”

The Devil, to his credit, will not let any good crisis go to waste. And so he flanks our defenses from all exposed angles. He may plant the tares of doubt about our marriage vows, for one: Is your marriage really valid? Were you really in the right state of mind to make such a commitment? Does God really expect you to live the next forty years with the same woman? What if you just…left? Or he could capitalize on our boredom and general comfortability. You get the idea.

In secular nomenclature, ennui is a kind of feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. It seems to go hand in hand with mid-life for men and can be hard to put a finger on. In the spiritual life, acedia is a close spiritual relative—a kind of mental sloth or apathy which, ironically, strikes the solider of God often at the mid-life of the day (which is why it is sometimes referred to as the “Noonday Demon”). St. John Cassian, in his treatise from the Philokalia (“On The Eight Vices”) lays out both the diagnosis and the remedy for this form of spiritual attack,

“Our sixth struggle is against the demon of listlessness, who works hand in hand with the demon of dejection. This is a harsh, terrible demon, always attacking the monk, falling upon him at the sixth hour (mid-day), making him slack and fall of fear, inspiring him with hatred for his monastery, his fellow monks, for work of any kind, and even for the reading of Holy Scripture. He suggests to the monk that he should go elsewhere and that, if he does not, all his effort and time will be wasted. In addition to all this, tie produces in him at around the sixth hour a hunger such as he would not normally have after fasting for three days, or after a long journey or the heaviest labor. Then he makes him think that he will not be able to rid himself of this grievous sickness, except by sallying forth frequently to visit his brethren, ostensibly to help them and to tend them if they are unwell. When he cannot lead him astray in this manner, he puts him into the deepest sleep. In short, his attacks become stronger and more violent, and he cannot be beaten off except through prayer, through avoiding useless speech, through the study.”

For a monastic under a superior and a rule, the solution is simple: stay in your cell and fight your wayward nature by staying put and not abandoning your post. Not easy, but simple at least. Stay and fight.

Perhaps my mid-life malaise at the age of forty-four does have a spiritual taproot: Ennui driving the ‘Vette, with its spiritual cousin Acedia in the passenger seat coming along for the ride. St. John Cassian gives sound counsel for dealing with the latter, but the former in my opinion can be a tougher nut to crack; a kind of tension that needs to be uncomfortably sat with and stared down, or wrestled with the way Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord. To pay attention to that heart and meaning-shaped hole rather than going out to shop for a new tie or pumping some reps, while not staring so deep into the abyss that we are overtaken by it and fall in. Navel-gazing is a weak currency, but prayer for the Christian exacts change—even when it feels futile and even when it feels like those prayers eviscerate into the ether.

Because we were hit with a storm recently, I had a small downed tree to deal with. I had no desire in this state of ennui-inspired apathy to do so, but forced myself to grab and axe and saw and get to work; it wasn’t going to move itself, and laying there in the yard seemed like a taunt. It seemed pointless and tiring to even think about, like everything else in my mind. Chopping a tree seemed as futile a distraction as cooking macaroni, or vacuuming the rug.

After an hour or so of sweating and straining, though, I came in the house to find that Abba Moses, quoted in Cassian’s treatise, had it right: patience, prayer, and manual labor worked to dispel the noonday demon, at least for today. That doesn’t mean he won’t return, either tomorrow or next year when I’m forty-five. But at least for today, this patristic trifecta of armory was enough to help me find meaning enough to get up, get serious, and get to work.

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash


Rob Marco is a married father of three. He holds a MA in Theology from Villanova University. He is the author of Wisdom and Folly: Essays on Faith, Life, and Everything in Between (Cruachan Hill Press, 2024) He blogs at Pater Familias.

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