Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sloth - the forgotten sin


Sloth, the English term for acedia (Latin) and akedeia (Greek), denotes a baleful indifference or laziness. Aldous Huxley called it the primary affliction of this age.

Re-reading Thoreau's Walden his description of a neighbor as "an honest, hard-working, but shiftless man" impressed me as a great description of a slothful person. The neighbor found countless excuses to avoid work and activities that would build a better life for his family and himself. Today, it's easy to picture the slothful person glued to a television or spending countless hours playing video games. Moralists condemned novels in the first centuries after the advent of printing as an indulgent of the slothful, among other reasons.

Recreation is not sloth. Recreation consists of activities through which one experiences an enjoyable and renewing change of pace. Kathleen Norris has written, "Those who suffer from acedia are unable to rejoice in beauty or in the gift of life."

Clinical depression is not sloth. Clinical depression, with its associated lassitude and negative emotions, is a diagnosable, pathological condition. Treatment can sometimes cure, and otherwise generally alleviate the symptoms associated with clinical depression.

Conversely, the Protestant work ethic, with its unrelenting push for constant productive activity, is the opposite extreme of sloth. The Protestant work ethic, in its simplest form, represents a misguided attempt by an individual to demonstrate through consistent moral behavior, persistent hard work, and increasing material prosperity that he or she is among God's chosen, elected by God for the blessing of eternal life.

This is Norris' self-confession and a powerful description of sloth:

I have always been an industrious person, good at meeting deadlines. My strength has always been that of the woman warrior, good in a crisis, good at striving against the odds. But as so often happens when God sets about to change us, this year my strength became my weakness. I could function, but not feel. I could generally meet my responsibilities as a caregiver to my husband and my dying father, and help support my mother, but I felt dead inside. I dreaded waking in the morning, and sometimes went straight from bed to the couch, where I would watch television or do crossword puzzles until it became absolutely necessary to rouse myself to action. The hateful 'noon-day demon' of the desert monks had found me in the lush environs of Honolulu, and made me unable to respond to the beauty of the planet. I was a far weaker soul than I cared to admit, a person pathetically subject to the sin of sloth. ("Plain old sloth," Christian Century, January 11, 2003, 9)

What part of you is dead? What causes you to crawl on to a couch and to try to lose yourself in a TV, a cheap novel, or endless puzzles? When do you lose your zest for life? Dying from sloth, unlike most of the other deadly sins, is a slow death, as indifference and laziness progressively erode one's spirit.

The cure for sloth? Easter, i.e., resurrection from death, the transformation of one's life through an encounter with the holy. For those who struggle with sloth, I recommend reading Kathleen Norris' Acedia and me.

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