The seven deadly sins are a Catholic idea birthed by the mystical desert fathers and matured in the middle ages. They sound like good fodder for horror movies, seeds for a life of shame and guilt, and old ideas which have no place in a modern world where science and the market rule supreme. I live in America a country overrun by two major sins, Greed and Pride (doesn’t matter which political side is in power). I struggle mainly under the thumb of a lesser understood sin, Sloth. Ironically, I have been working on this article for 6 months and kept putting it off…
The most famous sins we all know: Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, and Envy. Pride and Sloth are less understood. Pride is more than narcissism. Sloth is more than being lazy. We also don’t understand the adjective. Deadly doesn’t mean one will immediately die if trapped in their gravitational pull. Deadly means they will harm you, others, and the world; however, left unchecked, they will kill you. It has been worth my time to wrestle with the idea of deadly sin.
The idea of deadly sins doesn’t sit well in our modern world. “Sin” is a word that is ironically sinful to talk about in non-religious settings. We in the west are used to thinking of sin in moralistic terms: Right and Wrong, a.k.a. doing something anti-right is a sin. However, the classic understanding of sin as something that twists or distorts is how I will be using it. Thought of in classical terms, sin becomes an archetypal malady of the mind/being. Our personality types make us each vulnerable to one or more of these archetypes of malady.
Full disclosure, I don’t think of sin in moralistic terms anymore. I know there are those who do, and I respect that opinion. I don’t think it is useful to dwell on sins as isolated acts one cannot overcome, nor as a corruption that cannot be remedied. As a Christian, I certainly don’t see sin in those terms. Sure, this is at odds with much of current Evangelical thought, but it is not foreign to Christianity nor heretical. For my atheist readers, I think using the word sin in a classical sense can be helpful. I do believe we are working on being better people. It is for this reason the classic virtues and their mirror sins are helpful constructs to consider as we move forward as a society. We are all struggling with our own garbage.
How did I come to understand that Sloth was my cardinal sin? I am a fat man, so one may think Gluttony is my main struggle; however, my weight has more to do with a society of cheap and easy carbohydrates than it does with classic Gluttony. As a Christian man I am conditioned to think Lust should be my main sin. I can get angry, I can be selfish, and I can be prideful. We all experience being flawed and broken people hurting ourselves and others, yet those momentary and episodic twists aren’t necessarily our cardinal sin. Yet, I never considered Sloth to be the lynch pin, (lynch sin?), for me and the twisted things I do to myself and others.
Last year I encountered the Enneagram via an episode of the Liturgist podcast, the book The Road Back to You, and a close friend who fell in love with the Enneagram. It’s a personality tool categorizing people into 9 basic types and is focused both on our core motivations and the problems we possess. I discovered my core Enneagram type is number 9, the peacemaker. Sounds great, right? In actuality because of the drive to make peace between all things, inaction is the core struggle of the 9 type.
In the autumn, I was rereading Dante’s Divine Comedy and the poet’s images of Sloth kept speaking to my own struggles. According to Dorothy Sayers, a translator of Dante, a Slothful person is “[one] who believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which [they] will die.” An extreme definition, but its hyperbole helped to shake me enough to see the trap I was living in.
My working definition of Sloth: “The inability to act in a meaningful way for the good of self, others, or the living world.” I also call it a “moral and physical paralysis.” It causes me to be afraid of standing for an issue, ideal, or person because of pushback from those on the other side.
In college the Director of Student Activities, Reaganite Republican, and good friend of mine, Patrick Miller, told me that my biggest problem was how I couldn’t decide on anything. I often spared with him politically, but easily let go of the liberal side of an argument and quickly conceded whenever and however another stronger idea was used against what I was proposing. I was neither conservative nor liberal. I was ultimately apolitical, yet believed in certain principles of human dignity I’d get worked up over and do nothing about. As anyone who knows me well can tell you, I am like Macbeth’s definition of life, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
I didn’t correctly call this Sloth. Even though many friends have called me out on my beige morality (#beigemorality) or labeled me as “wishy-washy,” I didn’t understand the root. It has always been Sloth. And I have used this twisted sin throughout my life to avoid things good and ill.
During my Junior year in High School my English teacher, Mrs. McGowan, wanted me to enroll in the Advanced Placement English class my senior year. I told her no. She called my parents to tell her how she felt I needed to be in her AP class. They asked me to consider being in AP English. They said it would help my college years. They said my teacher thought I had a gift with words and literature. I said no, again and again. They caved. I didn’t do it. I was afraid of the effort AP English would’ve demanded of me. I was fearful of competing on a higher level with other students who I thought were superior to my abilities of writing and understanding. I chose the easy road. Ironically, I became an English Major in college, but only after another brilliant and forceful teacher told me she thought I should be studying literature.
I also gave up on chasing the dream of cartooning or animation in High School because of Sloth. I was fearful that the road would be too hard. I wanted to do the easy thing. I chose things that were below my abilities. I settled for things because trying harder was unthinkable. Even years later with a masters degree in sequential art under my belt, I continue to take the easy road. Afraid to actually be authentic with my cartooning or make comics/graphic novels that SAY SOMETHING. #beigecreativity
Those who know me would call me a workaholic. I have deadlines and projects hanging over my head all the time. I burn the midnight oil almost every day. I work my 40 hour day job and then work 20 to 30 more hours a week on freelance work or on other projects or things I think I need to do. How can one who does all this struggle with Sloth? Easy. I am acting. I am trying to justify my indecisions and create a smokescreen to my heart for others. I feel that if I can keep myself busy I may be earn the admiration of people, the deadlines are real but I take on too many. If left to my own devices I’d live a life of unreflective inertia. I rarely challenge myself to do better at anything. I fear something else, something at the core of my being, authenticity.
As I have stated in my other To the Side essays, I am afraid of being authentic. Honesty to the world at large, others, and myself is really challenging. It’s as big a fear for me as heights or spiders are for others. I get short of breath, I lose my ability to speak, and I have small panic attacks. If I were to actually say what I think about things honestly to everyone, rather than to small groups of close friends, I fear losing things and enduring the wrath of those who disagree with me. I don’t publicly talk about my faith, politics, or opinions on life. Authenticity is frightening. Sloth is an enabler to that core fear. It offers a seductive response to the world, “just opt out.”
Classically how one works through a cardinal sin is to cultivate the opposite cardinal virtue. Our ancient brains tend to hold on to stressful thoughts or things we tag as necessary to survival. Sloth is a defense mechanism. It seeks to preserve me from stress by avoiding stress, but doing so in ways that hurt other people (being passive aggressive), hurt myself (overworking to prove I’m valuable), and damage the world (being a passive consumer). Decisive action, a.k.a. Zeal, is the cardinal virtue I need to practice. This takes my frontal lobe and it takes effort. I can passively let my monkey and lizard brain default to Sloth. I have to actively engage the human part of my mind to be decisive. It’s damn hard.
I am working through my slothfulness and learning, slowly, how to become more decisive and authentic. I have many issues and problems to work through, but understanding my core sin has given me language to begin tackling the monster of myself. With the grace of God manifested in others and honesty, I hope Sloth can be redeemed, day by day, moment by moment. Maybe one day I will be in a healthier place, hurting myself, others, and the world a little bit less.