On sloth

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good lifeSin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and so, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation. 

On New Year’s Eve, my partner and I were throwing a big open-door party, as we’ve done every year since moving to the Melbourne CBD. In the hours leading up to the party, we received a number of messages, either on our event page or privately, that people would not be coming because they were ‘unwell’. ‘Unwellness’ is a frequent and accepted way to decline social engagements. The term is vague, and covers a spectrum of conditions from hangovers to food poisoning, mild social tiredness or the darkest pit of depression. ‘I’m unwell’ codes: ‘this is too much for me right now, I don’t feel that I can cope with it, and would rather retreat.’ To what extent, I wonder, is unwellness a manifestation of sloth?

The sin that we call ‘sloth’ has received various names over the centuries and across languages. Among those, ‘tristitia’, melancholy sorrow, and ‘acedia’, negligence, lack of care. Exploring those various names, I hope, will help me better understand elements of its nature. Sloth is not a deliberate decision to lie under warm sheets and watch an indulgent rom-com rather than cleaning the fridge, doing the tax, or conversing with a bore. It is a more insidious failure on our part, not stemming from the voluptuous pleasure of doing nothing and regaining shape, but rather a withdrawal from duties, engagements and activities based on a lack of appetite for the world, a ‘why bother’ attitude, or a sense of overwhelming despair.

What are the varieties of sloth, I wondered as I started the year? As a migrant to Melbourne, I have often called sloth ‘the Australian sin’. I amusingly remember this memorable quote from a Hong Kong friend ‘You know Australians, they’re a bit lazy sometimes.’ But isn’t everyone? Rather, I thought I should try and understand what form sloth takes in this country.

On my first trip, in 2007, I saw the piles of mess lining the walls of gigantic suburban houses as a sign of sloth – as I did the shapeless afternoons slumping on couches in a backyard, idly drinking beer. The curse of abundance? Maybe, but could that Australian form of sloth be more precisely defined as a chaotic relationship to time and space, and a lack of decisiveness regarding the best use of them. I wondered: could it be the natural reaction to the sheer size of the country – why make effort to keep things in order when space is abundant – to the disturbing overlap of a northern hemisphere culture and a southern hemisphere location – how could our days be structured when summer is winter and winter summer – and underlying both, the nagging but repressed question of land ownership and sovereignty – why make a deliberate and collective effort to create order and structure down here, if we’re not quite certain who the land belongs to, and what can be done on it.

Sloth is particularly noticeable in professional settings, where it adopts a number of forms. Sloth may be the basic failure to show up and keep commitments. Sloth may be slow replies or unclear communications. Sloth can be lack of preparation and a ‘she’ll be alright’ attitude. Sloth can also take a more perverse form, whereby one retreats into the mechanical execution of delegated tasks instead of making a difficult decision: there is such a thing as ‘busy’ sloth.

In all cases, sloth easily spreads. When one organ fails, soon the whole body collapses, either because essential functions are no longer performed, or because the pressure on other parts of the system becomes excessive. People weighed with an extra load of responsibility through the sloth of another will eventually give up – thus adding a new link to the chain of sloth. There is a logical consequence: that the person who failed us was surely failed by someone else, and that someone else by another, ad infinitum. We must resist sloth, as individuals and collectively. But we must also cultivate forgiveness, for others, and ourselves.

Sloth is not a voluptuous desire for the comfort of bed, but an absence of courage hiding under the veil of reason: sloth will more likely manifest itself when goals appear impossible, and therefore, action seems useless. I have been working for the last few weeks on a full draft of my PhD, which I committed to completing on the 17. By Wednesday last week, the text overall was in order, but I still had two and chapters and a half – over 30,000 words – that I needed to review before I could share them with my supervisors. I was overwhelmed, and started procrastinating in all sorts of way. Time before the deadline reduced, and the task of ‘completing a draft’ remained a seemingly never-ending path to the top of a mountain lost in clouds. Since I could not meet the deadline, should I not, rather, prioritise other things, so that I could better continue the PhD journey later, when the clouds cleared? And so, rather than making progress in any direction, my brain went in endless circles, spiraling into despair.

I collected myself on Friday, and took a different approach. I opened my cloth-bound, grey 2018 agenda, looked over the coming week, and calculated that I had approximately 21 hours available to work on the draft before the deadline. With about 30,000 words to review, this meant I had to make progress at the rate of 1,500 words per hour. Since the goal was to write a first complete draft – not a final one – my goal should simply be to do whatever I could at that pace. I went through the three word files containing the current text of chapters 5, 6 and 7, and broke down my to-do list into 33 sections – each corresponding to one section which I would spend 15 to 45 minutes editing. My mood instantly lifted. I was out of the despair spiral.

Sloth has nothing to do with short breaks between sessions of concentrated work. Sloth is blankly looking at the wall and repeating in loop, since I can’t have it all, I might as well stop now. I met a partner to discuss a new project Friday, to reframe language learning as a way to better cope with failure, chaos and uncertainty. Whenever I coached anyone wishing to learn a language, I told them: ‘the only reason people fail is because they give up. Therefore, anything that will make you give up, you should stop; and anything that encourages you forward, you should pursue. Now let’s figure what will do that for you.’

Sloth may be the sin most opposite to prudence: it is absence of movement towards the good, born from a sense of overwhelming confusion. The best way to resist sloth, then, may be discernment and careful goal setting. But the path forward is not straight, and as we progress, the goals we set are no longer relevant. The world is chaotic, of its inherent nature, from the sins of others, and our own. Therefore, the work of careful discernment, goal-setting and decision-making is never-ending. Resisting sloth is learning to find joy in this ever-changing world.

On gluttony

Today, I calculated my body fat ratio. There is a website for it. The result is a factor of your waist, neck and hips circumference in relation to your height. I took out a tape, filled in the blank slots, and was placed in the ‘acceptable’ category.

From there, I fell into an Internet burrow, and discovered a number of facts I didn’t triple check. You burn 350 calories in one hour of exercise. One pound of fat is 3500 calories. Tips to lose weight include, drink more water, eat vegetables, cut sugar, reduce carbs. Sustainable weight loss requires long-term lifestyle adjustment.

When I was growing up, all adult women around me were on rotating diets. Sometimes it was all meat and fish, sometimes it was alternative foods on alternative days, and sometimes it was protein shakes and cold wrapping sessions. Then they put weight back on, and the cycle started again.

We may think of weight loss as a vain pursuit, but I am curious about its odd, contradictory status. Half the magazines currently selling will offer weight loss tips. Meanwhile advertising – and our surrounding urban environment – bombard us with images of desirable food in extreme quantities. Yet one word is absent from the debate between ‘an epidemics of obesity’ and ‘body positive’ movements: gluttony.

Old Medieval Europe identified seven deadly sins, one of which was excessive desire for food, or the pursuit of it as an end in itself. But who would be radical enough now to simply condemn recreational eating? Let us appreciate slim bodies as a token of character strength – only by resisting the pressure of consumerist messages can you maintain one. But let us not develop a transparently moral tone when talking of controlling our appetites. Our economy might collapse.