Kathleen Norris (on Acedeia, Ego, and Being Sincere) Helps me Work it Out

Oh, brother.

My interview with Kathleen Norris, author of Cloister Walk, Dakota, Acedia and others, was one of the few that was not run by The Sun. It wasn’t my favorite either. However, this part about acedia and ego was interesting, I thought, especially in light of my last post.




SALTMAN: In Acedia, you quote an early monk as saying, “A disciple who bears insult is like a tree that gets watered every day.”


NORRIS: Yes. It’s really helpful when you’re dealing with family.


SALTMAN: How do you help people understand that in a culture where people tend to self-flagellate all day long?


NORRIS: Well, people self-flagellate, but also inflate themselves too. You know, “I’m special. Don’t you know who I am? I’m deserving of some kind of special treatment.” That seems to be the mode under which so many people operate now. When you get road rage and you hear about people having fits at airport check-in counters, that kind of thing, it’s like, “Wait a minute, I’m important. You can’t treat me this way.” But the truth is “Hey, you know, you’re just one of the crowd.” Nobody wants to be told in America that they’re just one of the crowd, because we’re all special. But there’s this totally inflated, very unrealistic sense of “I’m special, and you better treat me like I’m special.”


It’s like that wonderful monastic sense of “Get a hold of yourself. Who do you think you are?” You know? That little voice is so important, and again thinking about your thoughts. When you’re feeling self-inflated and about to act in a really rude way or something, if you notice that’s what you’re doing, go, “Hmm, who do I think I am? This is pretty silly.” Maybe, just maybe you can control it. You can say, “Okay, I’ve seen myself now in a more truthful light. I don’t want to act this way. I want to act in a more humane, constructive, balanced way.” Whatever terminology. And so, in a more mindful way would be one way you could say it.

It’s a really valuable perspective, and it doesn’t take religious belief or anything like that. It just takes mindfulness and maybe seeing yourself in a more realistic light.


SALTMAN: And the desire to do something different, which is huge.


NORRIS: Yeah, once you see yourself in this more realistic light, you say, “Well, you know, this is obviously not appropriate behavior. This is silly. This is not what I want to be doing. This is not who I want to be.” I really find this is so valuable with my mother, because there are times when I get really impatient with her. Sometimes it’s because she’s done things that really are annoying, and she knows better. But there are other times. And I really have to try to remember, you know, she’s 91 years old, almost 92. There are things she can’t help anymore, and I can. So, there you have this distinction, “Well, then who better get control of herself here?”


SALTMAN: It’s like with a child.


NORRIS: Yes, I’m the one who needs to work on my impatience and my anger. Be aware of it. And when I’m in a really foul mood, sometimes I’ll just tell her, “I’m in a really bad mood today, and I’m going to try to watch it.” Sometimes I get really annoyed. Then I have to say, “Okay, wait a minute.” That’s when I ask, “Who do you think you are, what are you doing?”


SALTMAN: How many times a day would you say you have to say that to yourself?


NORRIS: Sometimes not at all. Yesterday was a really good day. The day before, it was like every five minutes.

SALTMAN: In terms of bearing insult—you have to be able to have a strong ego to sort of take a teaching like that.


NORRIS: Oh yeah. That’s something that writers have to be able to learn to do, not only to take criticism from a writing teacher, say, even as early as high school or college. You have to learn how to take criticism and use it, because you know it’s going to help make your work better. You really have to learn to do it for yourself. Whenever I’ve taught a writing workshop, that’s one of the main things I’ve said. Because when you’re an adult, you’re out in the world, you’re working and you’re trying to write, you’re not necessarily going to have a teacher or a college professor or somebody to give you advice, to critique your work. So, you have to learn how to do it—at least some of it—for yourself.


I think just knowing how much you need that, that what you write really is going to need revision and need work. It kind of translates over I think into the spiritual realm for me, at least. It makes sense to me that my own behavior can also stand improvement. If somebody’s really insulting, I’ve actually more or less tried to see the comical aspects of it. I think if you can get to the comedy of it, when someone is going to the trouble to insult you, isn’t that interesting? Even if they’re being rude and insulting and really crazy, they’re demonstrating some kind of concern for you that’s usually inappropriate. I mean, it’s crazy. Why are they going to the trouble to insult you?


There have been times actually, both in writing, I think, and in life, when I really have been grateful for a criticism because it’s brought me to my senses. I’ve said, “Oh, yeah! That’s not who I want to be. That’s not what I want to be doing.” It’s almost like good advice. Even if the person really meant it in a malicious, sometimes it’s actually a helpful thing to be told something that you don’t want to hear.

I was at a conference a couple of years ago, and a Buddhist nun was there. She said one of the hardest lessons for her, but also one of the best ones, is that all things teach. All things teach you, if you let them. And that means the good things and the bad things. There were a couple of other Buddhists there. But it was mostly Benedictines. It was interesting to see them nodding, “Uh-huh. Yes.”


SALTMAN: Which doesn’t mean that we stay passive and say, “Oh, I’m going to learn from this terrible situation,” right?


NORRIS: It’s not like just giving in and allowing some kind of insult or abuse to undermine your legitimate self-esteem at all.


SALTMAN: I think that’s where we go to extremes. We think we’re the best. We think we’re the worst. We don’t have a stable sense of self.


NORRIS: Yes. It’s sort of prideful attitude. “I’m the worst. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so proud of myself.” I mean it’s weird. People can get themselves twisted in all kinds of knots. I think one of the points of any kind of monastic perspective—whether it’s Buddhist or Christian—is to maintain some kind of balance, some kind of equilibrium, so that you’re not the best, you’re not the worst, you’re really just like everyone else. That’s not a popular message either. You’re just one of the bunch of human beings that has to struggle with this stuff.



SALTMAN: In Acedia you say, “Self-consciousness feeds on sincerity, and both have attained cult status in America.” What’s wrong with being sincere?


NORRIS: I think sincerity is good up to a point. But when it combines with that sort of self-consciousness, it’s like a mask you hide behind. People might be sincere about what they believe about a situation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to really know what’s going on. There’s a kind of a mask attitude when it reaches that point. I mean, when a child is being really sincere, that’s one thing. But I think for an adult to just rely on sincerity as something that’s all they need, that’s going to get them through life, that’s almost a dangerous attitude. It’s kind of false.


SALTMAN: Can you give an example?


NORRIS: Al-Qaeda’s sincere about what they’re doing. They’re really sincere. They really want to kill the great Satan. Well, that kind of sincerity is rather limited in its outlook. That’s really an extreme example. George Bush might be a good example. He was actually really sincere about a lot of the things that he believed, but he just didn’t know much about them.

Please enjoy the entire interview.