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"The Anomie/Accidie Syndrome"

     Lewis Thomas, author of LIVES OF A CELL, wrote a book about
words, entitled ET CETERA, ET CETERA.   In this book Thomas digs
up two old, almost forgotten words to describe an ailment that
can infect human individuals and human societies.  The words are
"anomie" and "accidie."  By studying word-origins, we find that
"anomie" means "no-law," and "accidie" means "not-caring".  These
two words give us the label for the anomie/accidie syndrome.  
     In human individuals, the syndrome appears in varying
degrees of severity, from mild to seriously disabling.  The
person suffering this ailment no longer cares what happens next,
and is not held on track by obligations or duty or law. 
Accidents become highly likely.  We can see how that word is
related to "not-caring."  Energy is lacking; get-up-and-go has
     What brings on this ailment?  Weariness can cause it.  Too
much responsibility.  Too much experience.  Too much thankless
effort expended in something that feels more and more hopeless. 
Watching for too long how the mean-hearted people of the world do
well, and pick up the honors and the awards and the pensions.  
     What could cure it?  Rest.  A sale.  A "thank-you" letter. 
A smile.  A visit from a friend.  Contact with an old friend who
is far away.  A new friend.  In individuals, especially in the
mild beginning stages, the ailment is easily dealt with, provided
some help and thanks and companionship really are granted, and
not just admonitions to "snap out of it," or the statement that
"you're just feeling sorry for yourself."  Persons really can and
do run out of gas.
     When this ailment infects a society, however, it is much
more serious.  The society is in danger of going under, suffering
deep change from the root, after a great die-off.  It is becoming
clear that the society that we are part of has a serious case of
anomie/accidie syndrome:
       * widespread not caring,  
       * almost universal not giving a good goddam,
       * a general mood, on beyond cynicism, that says that
nothing can be fixed, that things cannot get better,  
       * a generally accepted attitude that nothing at all is
worth the botheration.
     It becomes difficult for thoughtful individuals to remain
cheerful in the midst of such a society.  Powerful forces
recommend that we leave off thinking.  "If ignorance is bliss,
'tis folly to be wise," especially since there are no guarantees
that either wise or cheerful individuals will survive the pending 
collapse of the society.  Attempts to apply logic to this
situation are laughed off as ridiculous.
     Nevertheless some of us find ourselves thinking about our
society and its effect on the world.  We even muster sufficient
cheerfulness to try to do something about it.  The energy we are
able to put into trying to do something about any one of the
dozen or so very serious problems that confront this seemingly
doomed society is curtailed and limited by the nagging feeling
that it is all hopeless, no matter what.
     For instance, persons not suffering the anomie/accidie
syndrome feel constrained to try to prevent or hinder the
pollution of more and more of the world with nuclear waste.  It's
just one example -- the lack of rioting over the theft of a recent major
election could be thought of as another,  but I happen to be personally
acquainted with this particular concern.  
     Those who are determined to increase and spread that nuclear
pollution, which will be fatal to all living forms that come in
contact with it over the next 250,000 years, are so much more
numerous and powerful than those few in opposition that our
efforts to delay the destruction of all living things seem doomed
to failure.  And we are made to appear foolish at the same time. 
"No one wants to spread leukemia," we are told, even with some
indignation.  But they do.  We can tell because they keep on
doing it, even after all our pleading that they stop.
     And if all the few activists left give up and decide to go
enjoy our families and friends and cultivate our own gardens for
these few last precious moments before the end comes, then we
will have caught the infection that guarantees that the survival
of this society is impossible.  Then, we, too, will have decided
that we don't care, that it is foolish to care, that not even the
survival of the Biosphere itself is worth the botheration.  It's
a very serious situation, and most people don't think so.

                            *   *   *
Copyright © 2001 Harry Willson

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