Accidie, Acher, and the Zero Sum Game

Accidie is one of my favorite words. (This is Tzvi typing.)

“ACCIDIE has been in the language since the Middle Ages, and in classical Greek as ‘akedos’, much longer ago. Its literal meaning is ‘not caring’, but the IE root was ‘KAD’, sorrow hatred; ‘kad’ is the origin of our word HATE. ACCIDIE was used in vernacular for a while for slothful, surely a misreading of its real intent. It is a word darkened from within, as are few others, and it contains layers of significance that can be quickly inserted as a fixed disturbance in a reader’s mind. It speaks of an old, enduring flaw in human nature, living without emotion, without sorrow or hatred or love, a condition of the mind that should worry the species by its very presence in the language. If ever turned loose, spreading from the occasional change of mood in one or another single mind out to the population at large, ACCIDIE could unseam society, reducing institutions and governments to standing empty ruins…
ACCIDIE is not so much a description of a state of mind, it is, in itself, a feeling. It could almost serve, in a word, as a suicide note. It has moved nearer to the surface in this century than in earlier times, I think…”
– Lewis Thomas

We are raised to see life as a zero sum game. (A zero sum game is a term used in game theory to describe both real games, and situations of all kinds, usually between two players or participants, where the gain of one player is offset by the loss of another player, equaling the sum of zero. For instance, if you play a single game of chess with someone, one person will lose and one person will win. The win (+1) added to the loss (-1) equals zero.) We are taught this in insidious ways from an early age – for example, the deep philosophical ruminations (and assertions, in the Talmud) about those who are judged to be Tzadikim (righteous) inheriting the reward of those who are Reshaim (evil), and vice versa for punishment.

Now, it is not an accident that the source for this assertion, in the Talmud, is a man called “Acher” (“the Other One”) – the man who defined himself by “since that man [i.e. himself] was kicked out of That World, let him have this one”. Upon hearing from the heavens that he was no longer wanted by G-d, and saying the above quotation, he went to find a companion for hire. When he propositioned her, she asked incredulously “Aren’t you Elisha Ben Avuyah, reknowned sage?” He then plucked a radish from the ground (it was Shabbos that day, and that is assur/forbidden). Seeing this, she said “he must be someone else” – “Acher hu”. This became his name, and how generations of people have referred to him. “Someone else.”

I am someone else.
This is a sentence familiar to teenage drama queens and lost young men, immortalized in the words of many, many rock songs and idolized by the Hollywood depiction of coming of age.
It is also the product of a society that looks at life as zero sum game – when I dont like the outcome, I simply cease to identify with it. It becomes something else, something I am not engaged in, or attached to, or care for. Even if it’s me…

It is this exact phenomenon that the Sages refer to when they say that Avoda Zarah (idol worship) is called “Elohim Acheirim” (other gods) because they are “Acheirim L’Ovdeihem” (others to those who serve them).
(That also seems to suggest that HaShem would be the one thing that you cannot walk away from [the ultimate Reality, if you will.])

It is my hypothesis that looking at life as a zero sum game will create that feeling/condition of accidie. (Call it my pshat in the gemara, if you will. It is Maseches Chagiga [BT] 15a.) People have a need to be able to self define, to be in control of their lives, to live as a verb and not a description. In simpler and starker terms, when the terms are set for you, you respond by abandoning the game.

And when that game is life itself, then accidie fills the vacuum created by the withdrawal of engagement, of process, of creating, of becoming.

It is this, I fear, that people of our age are facing. For if you define yourself as an “other” automatically, without any self-definition, then you are essentially drawing yourself into a corner from where there is no return. You can only exist as a self defined non entity, and turn yourself into an Acher/Other. Whether you do this by defining your G-d as an Other, or yourselves as an other, the result is still the same. And at some point down the line, you abandon the enterprise because it is not you. Anyone who went through a “flipped out/born again” phase, or knows someone who did, knows that after a while it stops feeling authentic, and stops feeling like you are yourself. And you say “I am someone else”, and leave it behind you.


We need to think long and hard what we are. Who we are. Not just what, or who we are not.

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