Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth

Mar 27, 2014

Credit Jenny Jozwiak/flickr creative commons

From Faith Middleton: For some time on the show, long-time contributor Gina Barreca and I have been making our way through The Seven Deadly Sins. (Lust was fun.)

Honestly, the last sin is sloth because I didn't think we'd have more to say about it other than how we associate it with being lazy.

Really, an hour on sloth, I thought?

Well, after I confessed this to Gina, she sent me an essay she once wrote on sloth, and I realized that in Gina's deft hands every deadly sin is interesting. Turns out sloth is major. We hope you'll call in.

Here's her essay:

Sloth, or at least my version of it, keeps me very busy. The house is never cleaner, my desk is never tidier, the silver is never so perfectly polished, as when I have a deadline. I’ll do everything except the work I’m supposed to do, you see, so that I’m a frantic bundle of random and useless energy when I’m avoiding a specific task. Take this assignment, for example. I’ve known for , oh, seven months or so, that I need to get these words on paper. And it isn’t like I haven’t been thinking about the topic; I’ve been driving my friends mad with hints that I want all their stories along with permission to quote directly. But knowing that I have to sit down in front of this blank screen and begin makes me decide that what I really need to do is give the cat a flea-bath or alphabetize the spice rack. (I mostly rely on basil, garlic, and oregano which made that task incredibly disappointing and which also makes every home-cooked meal taste as if it were delivered by Little Ceasars).

That’s why this essay is last.

But I’ve also saved it for last because of a more secret, more authentic reason.

I’m terrified of sloth. More than any other of the cozier, more familiar sins, Sloth I regard as my natural enemy and therefore as the embodiment of my biggest fear.

I’m not kidding now. I’d take a festive feast with gluttony, a steamy night with lust, a stuffed purse from greed, I’d relish a shouting match with anger, compete proudly with pride, and stare down the unblinking gaze of envy and not worry too much about my immortal soul. Maybe I’m overconfident (do I feel a breeze created by heads nodding in unison?), but I still have a feeling that we’ll all be waiting in a really long line at the Pearly Gates only to hear the shouts of celebration when somebody yells from the front of the queue “Hey! Good news! Sex doesn’t count!”

But what will count, I think, are sins of omission, and I’m afraid these will count big time.

Probably we’ll have to account not so much for all the sins we’ve committed because we’re weak or foolish or scared or needy—they’ll understand all that, I bet-- but instead we’ll have to explain in detail why we just didn’t get around to doing all the good we could have done. Somehow the answers “It didn’t seem worth it” and “It wouldn’t have done much good anyway” or even “I was watching the weather channel” won’t cut much slack. It’s my suspicion that there will be a lot of forgiveness for everything except wasting the stuff nobody gets too much of: time and talent.

Sloth whispers that you might as well do it tomorrow, that nobody will know if you cut corners here and there to save yourself some trouble, that the world will be the same in a hundred years no matter what you do, so why do anything? Sloth says “Don’t strain yourself,” “What’s the big hurry?” and “Just give me five more minutes.” Sloth hits the snooze alarm, hits the remote control, and hits the road when the going gets tough. It’s Sloth’s responsibility to make you stay up late watching an old movie you’ve seen before when you know you’ll only get all cranky at customers the next morning at work, and it’s Sloth’s business to make you assume you know enough to pass judgment when all you’ve done is listen to what others have to say without doing any figuring out on your own.

Sloth cheats on exams, drinks straight from the milk carton, and leaves exactly two sheets on the toilet roll so that it will have to be replaced by the next poor soul who finds out too late that the remaining paper is nothing more than a mirage. Sloth never gets around to RSVPing but shows up at the party anyway.

Sloth slides over to say: “Marry her; she’ll make your life easier because she loves you more than you love her. After all, they’re all basically the same.” It murmurs “Don’t contradict him; it isn’t worth an argument. He’ll only sleep on the far side of the bed.” Sloth does slightly less than the right thing. It doesn’t bother returning something to the lost and found but pockets it instead; it doesn’t tell the clerk he’s undercharged. It’s never written a thank you note, sent a birthday card on time, or entertained angels unawares because it all takes too much effort.

When other sins get mixed in with sloth they become exponentially more unappealing. Slothful lust dials a 900 number, slothful gluttony eats cold food from the can, slothful pride congratulates itself on a shoddy performance, slothful envy believes everybody else got an unfair advantage, slothful anger screams and hits instead of argues, and slothful greed doesn’t leave a tip.

Replacing earned self-reliance with unfounded self-esteem (“I’m good enough, I’m nice enough, and doggone it, people like me”), Slothful folks don’t have convictions. They have prejudices. They’ve memorized a series of pre-formatted responses to the world and choose to label as integrity that which is more accurately called inflexibility. Archie Bunker was slothful; so was King Lear.

Being slothful, by the way, doesn’t mean you can’t be busy. Some of the busiest people I know have a prize-winning case of the Sloths because they spend all their time by filling the day with evasions from life. They bake their own bread, not because it cuts costs, tastes better, or is fun to do (all sparkling and excellent reasons) but so that they can then complain to the family about all the time they spent doing it which took away from what they really should have been doing—whatever that is. The family maybe likes store-bought bread better, but they daren’t say so because the bread-maker has been diligent and has worked hard. But he or she hasn’t worked as hard as the kids or the spouse for whom every mouthful is a recrimination. If baking bread is one of your joys and satisfactions, then it is a terrific service to the world around you. If it becomes a way to avoid facing the crisis of deciding what your service to the world actually is, then the bread becomes dust in the hands of the one who makes it and dust in the mouths of those who eat it. Sloth sweeps everything under the rug—dust, crumbs, lost ambitions, past hopes, once-dear dreams--because who’ll know the difference?

And Sloth doesn’t only apply to the slobs of the world, some of whom are the least slothful inhabitants of this planet despite scoring low in Dress Code (consider Einstein’s unruly hair and unkempt clothes). At the risk of hearing from my grade school teachers, neatness doesn’t count. One of the most slothful souls I know is a perfectionist. You want to see a hell of a neat spice rack, then his kitchen is the place to find it. If he can’t do something right, then he won’t do it at all. Sounds good? On paper maybe, but implementing this motto in life means that he doesn’t do much. It’s tough to get everything right and easier not to try if you can’t permit yourself to fail, make a mess, or lose your place in line. For him, and many others--myself included—sloth is nothing so much as a thin camouflage for fear.

Maybe this is why sloth seems insidious to me. Indolence and a reluctance to get off my seat and into the world’s chaos is a signal of danger to me. Sloth’s sirens can call in warm sleepy voices from mossy rocks that can shipwreck your soul. This much I know.

I spent one year of my life indulging in sloth, steeped and swimming in the waters of indolence. I look back on that time when I lived in England seventeen years ago and wonder whether I could have done anything differently. I doubt it. Maybe I was depressed, maybe it was one of those crisis-moments I mentioned earlier, but whatever it was, I couldn’t make myself get on with my work or get through the day without focusing on the pointlessness of every single action. Unhappy in love and dissatisfied with my job, I hunted through Camden Town flea-markets and thrift-shops for bargains I didn’t really have to make and browsed through stores for things I didn’t really need to buy. I read trashy books and watched bad television. The hardest things were falling asleep and waking up. I didn’t want to lose the young man I was involved with and so I didn’t bring up the fact that our relationship was eating away at my already rickety sense of self like termites at the foundation of a wooden shack. I drank rivers of tea. And yes, you got it, I baked bread.

Rescue came with a letter from my brother who wrote, in response to the note of despair I’d sent him, simply “You can always stop what you’re doing.” It was the one line written on the blue airmail stationary but it was all the permission I needed. I realized that I could stop doing nothing; I understood at that one astonishing moment that I could begin a voyage home that would also be a journey away from a shadowy life filled with compromises, inertia, and regret. I left town fast, not because the going got tough but because I knew that seductions of sameness were strong. I knew, too, at that moment, that I’d used up my slothful days and that I’d never get to give into indolence for any length of time ever again. That was the bargain I made with myself; living as fearlessly as possible was the price I would pay for escaping what had once laughingly seemed like an easy life. I left the keys on the bed and a note on the door. It was one of the hardest and one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

So I’d like to reclaim some of those days when I was twenty-one but they’re lost to the long afternoons when I half-napped and looked down the street to see what possible use other people were making of the day. When I have a guilty feeling coming on, I find myself feeling worse about the year I did nothing than I do about anything else I’ve actually done. And so even on those days when I can’t face stringing words together I clean my desk and polish the silver, so as to appease a heaven I believe rejoices in every human action willfully and honestly performed—even if those actions sometimes mean making love, making a profit, making someone angry or envious, making one’s self proud, or even making (dare I say?) a devil’s food cake.

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  • Gina Barreca is Professor of Literature at The University of Connecticut and author or editor of twenty-six books including It's Not That I'm Bitter...: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Visible Panty Lines and Conquered the World.


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