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Sloth: It’s not just for the lazy anymore!


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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 08/21/19

In this 2nd of a series of reconsiderations of the 7 Deadly Sins, we might find that we're guiltier of this than we thought ...

My get-up-and-go has got up and went!

Is that statement merely a joke, or a declaration of fatigue—or a sign of something worse, perhaps even deadly? In this second in a series of a renewed look at the seven deadly sins (part one is HERE), we’ll be looking at the sin with the unfortunate name of “sloth.”

“Sloth” suggests a lack of industriousness, a lack of “busy-ness.” Unfortunately, overemphasizing that aspect of this sin can mask today’s more common and deadly forms. Let’s replace “sloth” with the Greek term “acedia” meaning “lack of care.” We’ll see why in a moment.

I’ve observed students in the library, with their laptops lit up, their screens cluttered with various social media programs, some streaming videos, a game running, and maybe, just maybe, something school related. At the same time, they’ve got some form of audio stuffed into their ears. Their eyes and hands are on their phones. Somewhere nearby, there may be a textbook or school-related notebook. They’re very active, but little is getting done. They will leave the library tired, but with no sense of satisfaction, and little or nothing accomplished. They say that they’re “multi-tasking”; I say that they’re “multi-slacking.” Why do I describe such frenetic people as slackers? 

They’ve spent an enormous amount of energy doing lots of little things very briefly; they’ve scattered themselves widely even while sitting in one place; they’ve attended to little, and invested themselves in even less. They’ve accomplished nothing and worse than nothing. The most likely end result of all that time and energy spent is that they’ve further entrenched in themselves an addiction to electronic stimuli, while wasting precious resources and failing in their duties.


Read more:
Why we feel so satisfied when we do our duty

They view this dynamic as acceptable because they see it as inevitable—they just don’t see any other way of proceeding, and they have a lack of care—acedia—for their duties as students. This dynamic is not unique to students; workers of every kind, and even vowed religious (who should certainly know better!) cultivate this restless and fruitless way of proceeding. What’s the spiritual import of all this?

Acedia, according to Aquinas, is a kind of sadness, “a species of sadness according to the world.” I describe it as an interior sulky whining and pouting because doing the right thing (including doing one’s duty) is often hard, often quite unglamorous, and, very often, not immediately fulfilling or stimulating. Typically understood, sloth is what prompts us to hit the snooze button repeatedly, or, worse, prompts us to refuse to get out of bed at all. But the restless, fidgety “multi-slacking” I described above is also acedia according to Aquinas, because one sets one’s energy on the trivial, rather than on the more demanding (and more rewarding) spiritual goods. We can become busy with many distractions, as a means of shielding us from the demands of our higher calling and purpose. Aquinas calls this a “sluggishness of mind which neglects to begin good.” 

Acedia is worse than its agreeable cousin, procrastination. (Pro-cras—literally, “towards tomorrow.”) At least procrastination (denounced by 18th-century author Edward Young as the “thief of time”) acknowledges that there is a something good that should be done and elicits at least a half-hearted promise to “get around to it.” Acedia, despairing of finding anything worthwhile to do, avoids the demands of work and true leisure by frenetic and restless distraction.

Matthew 19: 16-22 depicts the rich young man who rejects Christ’s call and who “went away sad, for he had many possessions.” My fear is that many today (especially our young!) will reject Christ’s call and go away sad, for they have many distractions.

What to do?

We have to replace the vice of acedia with the virtue of magnanimity. The Greek root of magnanimity is megalopsuchia, which may be understood as “greatness of soul” or “the orientation of the soul towards great things.” It is the habit of refusing to settle for the lesser good, for the easy way out, for the path of least resistance.

We’re not likely to win people over to this virtue by arguing for it: “Vice is bad, virtue is good—now get to work!” Rather, we are more likely to win people over to this virtue by example. No one was ever inspired to virtue, much less heroism, by a grudging minimalism. A cheerful giving, a generosity beyond the demands of duty, and an honest joy in living up to high standards—these are the lights needed to help people see an alternative to the rut they’ve settled for.

Let’s call people out of darkness and despair, starting with ourselves.


Read more:
Why you shouldn’t sleep in on weekends

When I write next, I will continue our series of reflections on a renewed look at the seven deadly sins. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.


Read more:
Pope explains how to find rest when you’re a slave to yourself

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