An Exploration of Sloth

Jacques Callot, The Seven Deadly Sins - Sloth

Sloth -- image by Wikipedia

As I was reluctantly dragging myself out of bed this morning (ahem, actually, this afternoon), I realized that while I don’t spend much time thinking about the seven deadly sins (which, if I remember, include envy, avarice, gluttony, lust, sloth, pride and one other, obviously I need to LOOK THIS UP) and, to a lesser extent, the seven cardinal virtues (of which I remember not even one), I would have to admit that of them all, sloth seems to be my most besetting sin at this point.

Of course, it’s an interesting concept anyway, the idea of sin or virtue.  There are a lot of differences (and a lot of similarities) among the living beings on this planet, but I don’t think any other species than us, human beings, require an operator’s manual (in other words, a religious text, a set of laws, a constitution, an etiquette book).  Other living beings seem to come with a set of instructions that keep them acting according to their best natures at all times.  (No, Virginia, a tiger’s best nature is to stalk and kill prey, it is not being “evil”.)  But we, whether because of our relatively big brains or because we are social animals that operate less by instinct than others, seem to be unable to live in this world without a rule book.  And whatever the rule book we choose, there are certain basics that we seem to have to be continually told not to do — thus, in my cultural and religious background, comes a concept of sin that keeps us from naturally behaving according to our better natures and without requiring that the rules be continually drummed into our heads.  In the Western Christian tradition, there are other greater sins, but the seven deadlies are the everyday sins that, as human beings, we are inclined to commit.

So, today, I’m thinking about sloth.  I don’t normally think of myself in terms of sin and redemption, although there are those people who probably think I should.  But sloth is easy.  I am slothful.  I am not one of those fidgeters who cannot sit still.  I can sit still for a very long period of time without even noticing it.  I am one with the person that originally said “do not stand if you can sit, do not sit if you can lie down.”  I think it’s great advice.  I find it restful and I find fidgeters highly irritating.  I keep wanting to tell them sit down and shut up.  Although I don’t.  (Being irritated irrationally and showing it may not be a sin but perhaps it should be.)  So, it’s a pejorative word, sloth, sounding as sinful as almost all churches, schools, businesses and governments think it is, and thus I need to refresh myself on the rules and get up and at ’em, and DO something.

But, being human, I’m thinking about these seven deadly sins, or at least sloth, in a slightly different fashion today.  What the heck is so sinful, anyway, about sloth?  It is quiet, after all, and apart from irritating busy people, doesn’t really hurt anyone.  And to my way of thinking, there’s a great deal too much busy-ness in the world anyway.  If we all dialed it back a bit and stopped running around like crazy people, perhaps the world would slow down and we could actually catch our breath and figure out what’s going on.  Or so it seems from the perspective of my sofa.

In reality, I do know why sloth is a sin, or considered so.  For the vast majority of our history, a slothful person would either, because of it, die of starvation or in the jaws of a much less slothful beast or, more important to the society, cause the tribe to be less prosperous, less happy, and put the tribe, especially the more helpless members, in greater jeopardy.  Later on, as civilization (and all its discontents) got started, sloth interfered with the creation of wealth.  And that’s from both perspectives.  If you were a landowner, say, your industry and work ethic, your constant busy-ness, would help you increase your holdings, increase your crop yields, give you more clout in your village, town or city.  From the point of view of one of your laborers, you would need to work constantly and diligently, or you would starve, be beaten, be driven off or even killed because you were a liability and not an asset.  As cultural institutions got started, all their wealth and thus continued existence was based on that diligent labor growing ever larger yields since (either through tax or through tithe) all had to contribute to them.  So of course, as a government, church, or business, you would institutionalize the work ethic and the fundamental idea that sloth is a sin.  And, for the development and continued growth of civilization and of wealth, it is.

And I have to (reluctantly) agree.  Nothing comes to any of us without some kind of mental, emotional, spiritual or physical effort.  Sitting on my sofa is pleasant, but the fact that I have a sofa in the first place is due to effort I expended in the past to earn the money for the sofa and to find, choose, buy and have it delivered.  Of course, we all know or know of people whose wealth is hereditary, but let’s face it, somebody had to expend the effort to gain that wealth sometime and, for that matter, a life of such ease in which one does literally nothing is not really a life at all.  And I think quite impossible.  If done right, a rich person’s life of leisure can be spent studying, learning new things (quite a few scientists and explorers in other centuries had private means and did not have to labor to earn the money for expeditions or the time to think), supporting art and artists (or engaging in art and artistry), creating gardens or museums or donating to and working for hospitals and universities.  In my small town, many retired people, if not most of them, or people who have wealth who come here to live, end up working for nonprofits, taking part in the artistic and cultural life of the community, doing volunteer work in many different fields.  At least one retired person of my acquaintance hikes every day and picks up litter to recycle or dispose of as they do so.  That is NOT nothing, by any means, it is part of the rent we pay for our space on the planet.

But I have to admit that fairly recent anthropological studies have reported, after research including today’s hunter-gatherer tribes (and most anthropological thought seems to agree that human beings began our still short run as hunter-gatherers), that even in today’s more constricted world, hunter-gatherers need to work only about 20 hours per week to “make a living.”  That is, in order to hunt, kill, dress, cook and eat the meat from the animals they hunt, and to search out and find the grubs, insects, roots, leaves, fruits and whatnot actually forming the majority of their diet, plus all preparation, takes only about 20 hours per tribe member per week.  And these people are apparently not bored with all that leisure, either, inventing songs and dances and enjoying each other’s company, raising children, listening to tribal history from the elders.  (Current thought says that to maintain this rather idyllic society, there are some drastic measures that are taken by the tribe, including shaming of exceptional performance, discouragement of any private property and maintaining a very small population.)  Some of this sounds good to me (although other parts don’t), and I do wonder for such reasons (and for others such as the inevitable, it seems, rise of treating other people as property) why in the world we ever did something so silly as to invent agriculture.  From the pre-historic traces and the historical record, we were as individuals and as a species healthier, had better teeth, lived longer, and had a much more pleasant life before we started all this growing of food and herding of animals. Agriculture, it seems, provides calories to larger numbers of people in a small area without, apparently, providing the trace minerals, vitamins, and whatnot we need for full health.

NOTE:  Re-reading the above, I would like to firmly state that I am not making any kind of comment on current political views.  If I can manage to do so (although in an election year it may be difficult), I would like to keep this blog clear of my (or other people’s) politics, primarily in my own case because I seem to arrive at my hopefully middle of the road views by a series of rather illogical jumps from side to side.  The above paragraph comes from reading recent research into the pre-history of our species.  I have always loved history and the study of the origins of our world’s civilizations fascinates me.

I’d love to continue to explore how humanity got started on this road, what its benefits (and civilization does have them; for example, probably a hunter-gatherer society would not have invented the computer) and liabilities (working for others for low pay and bad food seems to top that list) are, but right now I’m too slothful.  That sofa is looking very good.

Oh, by the way, a wise person, possibly Mark Twain or more likely my friend Sharon Goldstein, once said that if you are doing what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.  And here, to finish this post, is a picture of a being who is exceedingly good at sloth, because he IS a sloth.

Bradypus variegatus Deutsch: Drei-Finger-Fault...

Central American Sloth - fromWikipedia