When many of us think of sloth, we probably conjure up images of an ugly South American animal that eats shoots and actually hangs around. Or maybe we think of unshaven Joe Sixpack lying on the sofa all weekend, not lifting a finger except to open another cold one.
The latter is a fairly apt image of the vice of sloth or its synonyms such as boredom, acedia, and laziness. Boredom refers to a certain emptiness of soul or lack of passion; acedia refers to the sadness that comes from our unwillingness to tackle the difficulties involved in attaining something good; laziness more generally refers to the torpor and idleness of one who is not inclined to exert himself.
Sloth encompasses all these ideas and more. In his Pocket Catholic Dictionary, the late Jesuit Fr. John Hardon defined sloth as “sluggishness of soul or boredom because of the exertion necessary for the performance of a good work. The good work may be a corporal task, such as walking; or a mental exercise, such as writing; or a spiritual duty, such as prayer.”
One might have the impression that sloth is not a typically American sin. The virtues of diligence and industriousness are deeply ingrained in our nation’s Protestant work ethic. Our youth learn early on that the way to get ahead—at least for those who don’t win the lottery—is by working hard. The early bird catches the worm. Early to bed, early to rise. In a competitive, dog-eat-dog business world, everyone is looking for an “edge,” and that typically comes from outworking the competition.
And even apart from an employment context, when we want to communicate that our lives have been normal and healthy, we report that we’ve been “keeping busy.”
Surely the Church has always championed the intrinsic goodness of human work, through which we become “co-creators” with God and exercise legitimate stewardship over creation. In his 1981 encyclical letter on human work (Laborem Exercens), Pope John Paul II writes: “Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’” (no. 9).
Mightier than the Minotaur
Yet sloth is a sin against God, and not against the time clock or productivity. The fact is that it’s possible to work too much, in a way that’s not in keeping with our dignity and ultimate good. The essence of sloth is a failure to fulfill one’s basic duties. Surely one such duty is the human vocation to work. Yet another such duty is the enjoyment of leisure, to take time for worship. The gentleman lying on the sofa may be a more popular image of sloth, but the workaholic, who’s on the job 24-7 and in the process neglects God and family, is the more typical manifestation of sloth in our culture.
Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it this way:
“In the United States the difficulties are not a Minotaur or dragon—not imprisonment, hard labor, death, government harassment, and censorship—but cupidity, boredom, sloppiness, indifference. Not the acts of a mighty, all-pervading, repressive government, but the failure of a listless public to make use of the freedom that is its birthright” (qtd. in William J. Bennett, “Redeeming Our Time,” Imprimis, November 1995).
Work and leisure are both products of human freedom, and both are intimately tied to our ultimate good. Most of us understand and periodically struggle with the natural aversion to work, but why do we find it so difficult to enjoy leisure? Why do we consign ourselves to a joyless workaholism instead of striking a healthy balance in our lives? There are many reasons for this strange phenomenon, but I’d like to point out a few contributing factors that reflect the spiritual malaise of our time.
First, Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical on the Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), identified “the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and of man” (no. 21). He noted that “when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, of his dignity and his life” (no. 21). The Holy Father was speaking to us: We in the west have largely lost the sense of God, leading to a loss of our own sense of purpose or mission. This has inexorably led to the societal emptiness and lack of passion that Solzhenitsyn saw so clearly decades ago. A striking correlation exists between the rise of secular atheism and boredom, as the reduction of human existence to the merely material divests it of its intended richness and meaning. This can only lead to the worldly sadness that leads to despair and ultimately death (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10).
Amusing Ourselves to Death
The most typical way of dealing with this tragedy is by not dealing with it, so as a society we tend to flock to entertainments. Certainly, these things are not bad in themselves, but excessive recourse to them reveals a flight from the depths of the human condition to the comfort of shallow pastimes. These pursuits are rightly called diversions, because they divert us from facing a life from which the living God has been excluded. For some, these diversions may be sports, television, or the Internet, among other possibilities. For others, work becomes a diversion, an escape. When it does, it ceases to be a manifestation of virtue and instead feeds the vice of sloth.
In addition, modern man tends to define himself by what he does and what he has. Yet, leisure isn’t about producing and owning, but about being—in other words, resting in God’s presence. We often fail to recognize the immense God-given dignity and value we have simply by being who we are, which is prior to anything we might accomplish in life. In Augustinian terms, without allowing for leisure, our hearts are forever restless, and our sense of worth gets tied to what we’re able to produce. This utilitarian mindset not only drives us to overwork, but it also negatively affects how we value others. That’s one reason why our society has such a difficult time valuing the elderly and the infirm in our midst.
Further, as the pursuit of success, acclaim, or riches becomes the source of our personal worth, these human goods in essence take the place of God in our lives. Few of us probably set out to become idolaters, but that’s what we’ve become if our choices and work habits are ordered toward serving mammon, not God (Matt. 6:24; CCC 2113).
This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of This Rock magazine, published by Catholic Answers. Tomorrow I will post “part two,” of this article, in which I offer a three-part plan for battling and overcoming the sin of sloth.