This is the third post in a series about the seven deadly sins. I have been reading and discussing with a church men’s group a book on the topic, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies by the philosopher Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. The “capital vices” were first described by the Desert Fathers and were seen as source vices from which a multitude of other vices spring. As an older adult, I’m particularly concerned with how these harmful thoughts and inclinations occur among those of us past midlife. I’ve written already about two of the vices, envy and vainglory. This post is about sloth.
The term ‘sloth’ evokes associations with laziness and indolence, but this isn’t primarily what the term meant to the Desert Fathers. A better term for this condition is “acedia,” whose literal meaning is “lack of care.” What the slothful one fails to care about is his or her spiritual calling and the practices related to that calling. Thus, in Evagrius of Pontus’ fourth-century description, acedia is the “noonday demon” that comes as the monk prays:
“He attacks the monk about the fourth hour [vis. 10 a.m.] and besieges his soul until the eighth hour [2 p.m.]. First of all, he makes it appear that the sun moves slowly or not at all, and that the day seems to be fifty hours long. Then he compels the monk to look constantly toward the windows, to jump out of the cell, to watch the sun…. And further, he instills in him a dislike for the place and for his state of life itself, for manual labour, and also the idea that love has disappeared from among the brothers and there is no one to console him.” (quoted by DeYoung)
In essence, the slothful person is resistant to those practices that shape one’s identity as a follower of Christ. He or she tries to find fulfillment in some other way. That other way may entail industry or indolence–in either case, the person is running from God’s transforming love. We run, then, whether we take the way of escape or that of resignation. If there seems some way to avoid the despair of the human condition, the person will devote herself to that escape strategy; if despair seems unavoidable, he becomes resigned and apathetic. In either case, habitually avoiding God’s love results in a coldness of heart and inability to love others.
So how does sloth manifest itself in older adults? In her book Acedia And Me, Kathleen Norris suggests that acedia becomes a particular temptation in midlife. For her, it is “not only the demon that lobs an assault at midday, but also the bad thought that afflicts us in the middle of life.” She cites Evagrius to the effect that, “while young monks contend with lust, or the impulse to pull others toward them, the middle-aged have to fight the desire to push others away.” They are “tempted to grow angry and resentful over experience thwarted or denied.” This reminds me of a phrase by the priest Ronald Rolheiser in his book The Holy Longing. He believes that in the second half of life, one of our main tasks is to grieve our losses, among them our “radical inconsummation.” All those things that we had hoped to do or be that now seem impossible can lead us to anger and resentment, and eventually to weariness and apathy–in other words, to the resigned, indifferent form of acedia. Having failed to become the persons we had hoped to be, we refuse to become the persons God would make us into, if only we would let him.
Not every slothful older adult takes the path of resignation or apathy. Perhaps the path of escape is best seen in those who move to senior communities designed specifically to provide endless amusements. The temptation there is to don the false self of the perpetual adolescent for whom life has become nothing but play. I suspect the greater danger for most of us is apathetic resignation, though. Norris quotes a snippet from Evagrius about the temptation to an acedia “that sets before [my] eyes a lengthy period of old age, a bitter penury that goes unrelieved, and illnesses capable of killing the body.” Think about those things enough and any of us might despair!
How can we resist the temptation to sloth? DeYoung recommends “steady commitment and daily discipline, even when we don’t feel like it.” Norris says acedia involves a refusal of repetition; the antidote, then, is to accept the highly repetitive nature of daily life, be that in the physical acts of feeding and cleaning and dressing ourselves, the interpersonal acts of conversation and touch, or the spiritual acts of prayer and meditation. Norris gives her “best weapon against despair,” a verse from Psalm 27: “I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness/ in the land of the living.” I found that verse (no, it found me) twenty-five years ago when my life was on a shaky footing, and I can testify to its power. God’s goodness is a present reality, and reflecting on that goodness strengthens me against the temptation of sloth.