Sloth: The Deadliest Sin
The ‘outlier’ sin is the only one among seven that is the absence of something. Left unchecked, our physical and intellectual sloth conspire to weaken not only our bodies and minds, but our souls.
I never really understood the biggest ‘outlier’ among the Seven Deadly Sins of early Christianity. It wasn’t until recently that I realized it is — I believe — the most complex, insidious, and far-reaching of them all. Until I understood it, I thought lethargy — in a sense, the absence of something, was a far less objectionable conduct when compared with the visible ravages created by the destructive acts associated with greed, envy, pride, wrath, lust and gluttony — the other six.
Sloth’s origins are straightforward enough. The so-called Desert Fathers — a group of ascetic hermits living in Egypt’s Scetes Desert who had an outsized influence over the development of Christianity — concocted the lot of them in order to double down on their faith, putting certain behaviors that the ten commandments didn’t adequately censure beyond the pale. One of these monks, John Cassian, evangelized the practices to the Europeans, where atoning for these transgressive behaviors became part of confessional practice. Medieval Europe’s two greatest authors — Britain’s Geoffrey Chaucer, and Italy’s Dante Alleghieri — brought them to life through their work, giving them emotional weight, and form. From then on, the Seven Deadly Sins were forever more emblems of human failure, and reason enough for repentance.
Sloth, according to Wikipedia, “refers to a peculiar jumble of notions, dating from antiquity and including mental, spiritual, pathological, and physical states. It may be defined as absence of interest or habitual disinclination to exertion.” Additionally, acedia (Latin for ‘without care’, which we translate into sloth), “has a number of distinctive components of which the most important [mentally] is affectlessness, a lack of any feeling about self or other, a mind-state that gives rise to boredom, rancor, apathy, and a passive inert or sluggish mentation. Physically, acedia is fundamentally associated with a cessation of motion and an indifference to work; it finds expression in laziness, idleness, and indolence.”
It’s easy to see why sloth could have led to the fall of Christianity, because without proselytizing, the religion would have died; thus it appears on the list in an act of self-preservation, like the invention of purgatory and Hell — eternal pain few would dare risk courting. It is equally easy to see avoidance of sloth as the engine of Project Human, because if anything, the world we have created has only become more and more vested in — and thus inseparable from — our ability to continue increasing productivity, and by extension, our reach.
So just this week, I saw sloth in a new light. Next to fire, water seems utterly benign to us. It doesn’t hurt to touch it. It doesn’t strike the same emotional fear in us as fire does. It’s pretty. Our bodies are comprised primarily of it. And it is, more than food, what keeps us alive. But if left unchecked, water is incredibly destructive. It can cause more damage to buildings than fire can (trust the architect); but you don’t have to be an architect to know that underwater, we can die within seconds. In fact, according to the United Nations, flooding alone has killed an estimated 157,000 people since 1995, and displaced 2.3 billion others. Well, if the other six sins are fire, sloth is water. It, too, is quiet and seemingly benign, but the outcome of slothful behavior, if left unchecked, can well be the wholesale destruction of a person, a nation, or us all.
That’s because sloth is, unlike the other sins, self-destructive. Wikipedia adds, “Sloth not only subverts the livelihood of the body, taking no care for its day-to-day provisions, but also slows down the mind, halting its attention to matters of great importance. Sloth hinders the man in his righteous undertakings and thus becomes a terrible source of human’s undoing.”
Gluttony has emerged as one of modern humanity’s greatest killers, in the form of overconsumption, which can destroy the body, and in stellar fashion, is doing exactly that to an increasing proportion of us. But worse than the destruction of one’s body is the weakening of one’s spirit; because it is our spirit that gives us purpose — a reason to live and act in the world, in virtue. Sloth extinguishes our internal fire.
And when this fire goes out, all is lost.
The Drive to do Less
Nearly everything we have done as a species, since we first settled down 13,000 years ago, has been aimed at ‘improving’ our lives, either directly, through invention, or indirectly, through outsourcing. The physical artifacts of our creation — our inventions — have mostly been wrought in order to make life easier, starting with the movement of water to grow crops without having to physically fetch it, and ending (so far) with digital services that deliver everything to where we sit. These are all clear acts of sloth, and our muscle density and brain power have both taken a giant hit in the process, requiring us to expend compensatory, non-essential effort — such as running, weight-lifting or things like jazzercise — in order to maintain what was once our birthright, and our default state: our physical health, and our weight. Moreover, the moment we left the forests and began outsourcing this-and-that in our ever-expanding settlements — our shoe-making, our food preparation, our shelter-building, our tool-making, and our protection, to name a few — we embarked on a slow descent into sloth, one reduced effort at a time. By sometime in the 20th century, those of us who live in developed nations no longer produced or procured the overwhelming majority of the tools and services we required and employed in life. Instead, we specialized, in order to have something with which to trade for the things we needed. All of which means, bluntly, that we do less and less, physically, because we have refocused ourselves toward earning enough money to pay someone else to do it for us.
If we look at it from a distance, to willfully become less independent and self-sufficient is more than a bit weird.
This combination of human and technological delegation has conspired, of late, to undermine us as a species. We now do less than we ever did; and because we do, without consideration for reversing the trend and becoming more active agents in our own lives, we must keep earning more and more money in order to keep us in comfort — to pay for the privilege of doing less. The more money we have, the less we do because we have to, and the more we do because we choose to. While this doesn’t seem so bad on the surface, it removes us from our immediate connection to our origins — origins that still, exclusively, control our psychological health, and that directly connect needs and actions.
We are hard-wired to do that which must be done to survive. But we have stolen the wind from our own sails, and have stalled in the water, and need a push.
Sloth, it turns out, may well be the thing that kills us, because we are just clever enough to continue doing less and less, until we eventually manage to do nothing, and lose our corporeal and psychological selves in the process. In fact, not only have we outsourced our physical labors, we have largely outsourced our thinking, to a half-century old artificial mind we now call the Internet.
When was the last time you got into a car and looked at a map to find an unfamiliar place, or even stopped to ask for directions, then committed them to your mind? When was the last time you made an appointment, weeks or a month in advance, and didn’t rely on your phone or computer to remind you? When was the last time you even crafted a full, error-free, well-thought sentence in a text, let alone a paragraph, and re-read it to make sure it was right before sending it? And when — insidiously — was the last time you read something online and cross-referenced it with another website, one you also researched, to make sure it (re)presented unbiased scientific truths, before deciding to believe in whatever you read in the first place?
These are just a few examples of outsourcing our thinking — or psychological sloth.
Way back in 2011, the American Association for Advancement of Science termed this “the Google Effect” — a form of external or transactive memory.
The Future of Humans
The Pixar film WALL-E is one of just a handful of films I’ve seen to tap into truly deep truths about ourselves. After humans — at the behest of an all-powerful commercial conglomerate — have despoiled the planet by extracting everything that Nature needed to self-regulate, and in the process, have turned the Earth into a giant trash pile, an airship’s worth of humans takes to the cosmos for a period of time so that ‘the company’ can clean up the mess. Of course, years turn into generations, and some 500 years later, with all of our technology, humans have turned into six-hundred pound marshmallows, unable even to walk anymore, and instead, sit on hovering lounge chairs, shuttled from room to room, with their fields of vision obscured by digital panels, through which they interact with one another — as we’ve all mostly done for the past six months. Except that in their case, they are in the same physical space… kind of like when my daughter sits on a sofa next to her friends, and they interact only through the interface of their phones. Sloth, in all its glory, has come to visit the spaceship, and finish the job. Their bodies and their minds have turned to mush, and in the trade for convenience, they have lost what makes them human.
Of course, it’s Hollywood, so a 500-year old rusty robot with audience-endearing anthropomorphic qualities joins forces with a shinier, newer model he has conscripted—and in the process, fallen in love—and they eventually save the day, after which the humans return to Earth, and redeem themselves by planting seedlings in the ground, thereby allowing the humans to re-discover their humanity in the process. Happy ending notwithstanding, the WALL-E parable is an incredibly powerful one, precisely because we are headed there.
Physical, Mental and Spiritual Sloth
There are three forms of death. Our body can die, leaving our mind without an outlet, as happens slowly when gluttony overtakes our health, destroying our organs; or with illnesses like Steven Hawking’s ALS; or for those of us who remain mentally sharp in old age, and have no alternative but to watch our time-ravaged bodies slowly fall apart in front of us, in an act of entropy. My uncle, Teddy, was like this. He lived reasonably long — to the age of 94, more or less. He was tack-sharp, auditing classes at nearby UCLA literally until the year he died, some seventy years older than the other students. I once lauded his mental faculties at an age when most people descend into darkness, or at least slow down significantly. His response was terse:
“Growing old sucks. I’m literally watching my body fall apart. I wish I had Alzheimer’s instead. That way, at least, I wouldn’t know it.”
Which is, in a way, the alternative. We can remain physically healthy, but our mind can die, or dissolve, such as it does with Alzheimer’s — one of my grandfather’s afflictions, before he slipped away at 91, blissfully unaware of the world around him, or his own decay. Notwithstanding pathological breakdowns like that, or trauma-induced ones, our minds, like our bodies, require exercise to keep them healthy. In fact, the two are connected, insofar as a healthy body keeps a mind well-fed and physically healthy, while the synaptic and neuronal connections between parts of our brains can only thrive when we engage them with problems to solve that maintain their psychological health, independent of what we feed our bodies.
We call this thinking.
But exercising and thinking are just two of three things we need to be healthy. The third is the most arcane of the triad, because we don’t know where it lives within us, exactly. It’s our spirit. This, too, can die, when we lose our sense of purpose, and our connection to others — our place in the world. It’s possible — and not uncommon — for our bodies and minds to remain robust, while our lack of spirit makes us wistful, like a pristine sailboat with no wind to push it. When our spirit dies, we are at risk of harming ourselves, or even taking our own lives. It could be argued that losing one’s spirit is the most crushing of the three deaths, because it is our spirit with which we identify ourselves.
Perhaps this is why suicide, anxiety and depression rates have skyrocketed in the Age of the Internet. It has become, in a very real sense, its own pandemic.
But how have our slothful actions conspired to weaken our bodies, our minds and our spirits?
We’ve already looked at the fact that we’ve largely outsourced our physical labors. According to the World Health Organization, global obesity has tripled since 1975, less than a half-century ago. 1.9 billion adults are now overweight, with 650 million of them obese. As alarming, “most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.” It’s not just a broken food system that’s doing this to us. That’s a large part of it, of course. In fact, in 1900, half of Americans were farmers, but a hundred years later, just 1% remain so. Since we outsourced our food growing and preparation to third-party businesses (think agribusinesses; fast food; prepared foods; and snacks), we sealed our fates there. But it is not just that. We drive more and walk less; we order things online instead of hoofing it to a store to find them. We sit at desks in lieu of working in fields. And we look for pills, special diets, highly paid trainers and technological gizmos to return us to physical health, because we are no longer willing to put forth the efforts required to maintain it ourselves.
We are a severely slothful lot.
It’s not just our bodies. In a 2018 article, Scientific American posed a question: Is Smart Technology Making Us Dumb? The article’s author, Brett Frischmann — a broadly learned, polymathic professor who teaches no less than law, business, economics and Internet and society — poses rhetorical questions, before answering them. He writes:
“The internet provides us with seemingly limitless data, prose, images, video and other raw materials that could in theory enhance our intelligence and enable us to become more knowledgeable, to be more skillful or to otherwise use actionable intelligence. Maybe we could improve our decision-making, reflect on our beliefs, interrogate our own biases, and so on.
But do we? Who does? Who exactly is made smarter? And how? And with respect to what? Are you and I, and our siblings and children, engaging with the seemingly limitless raw materials in a manner that makes us more capable, more intelligent? Or do we find ourselves outsourcing more and more? Do we find ourselves mindlessly following scripts written or designed by others?”
He then shares his own views:
“I believe we may be making ourselves dumber when we outsource thinking and rely on supposedly smart tech to micromanage our daily lives for the sake of cheap convenience.”
Indeed. Our sloth is far from just physical. The Digital Revolution has conspired to make us intellectually slothful; except that, as with our food, it’s not technology’s fault. We have voluntarily — even zealously — outsourced our thinking to the algorithms we created in order to do more with less effort.
It’s not just opinion. The science backs up Frischmann’s own research. James Flynn, a New Zealand intelligence researcher, and creator of what’s now called The Flynn Effect, studied human intelligence over the long term, and determined that it rose, on average throughout the 20th century, by 3 points per decade. All of that stopped in 1975, when for the first time in a century, it began falling, by 7 points per generation. The research, published by the National Academy of Sciences, and corroborated by independent studies in four other countries, concluded that the atrophying of our minds was not biological, but rather environmental. A HowStuffWorks article on the subject states that “Scientists hypothesize changes in our education systems, nutrition, the current media environment, a decline in reading and an increase in online activity as possible culprits.” Moreover, in another telling study cited in the article, “researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, found people could retain and process data significantly better if their smartphones were in another room. Just turning their phone off, or even hiding it in a pocket or bag, didn’t work; phone owners still suffered brain drain when their device was nearby.”
What does it mean to be human? I know it’s a crazy question, and one that cannot be answered even for one person, let alone all of us. But as we continue to lose our bodies and minds to our slothful inaction, the only remaining thing that we have yet to outsource is the meaning of life. For the time being, we remain hard-wired to the notion that our humanity lies in our spirit — that which drives us to act, and provide us with purpose to fulfill. The question is, by removing two thirds of what makes us human — our physical labors and our intellectual output — does that not also weaken our ability to directly contribute to what it means to be us? That is, by removing the act of fulfilling our purpose — by outsourcing those — does that not negate our core purpose?
How can we fulfill our purpose in life, if we are not, in fact, the one fulfilling it?!
The earliest religions — created, largely, to answer the stickiest questions about the meaning of life — have relied on acts to connect with our spiritual selves — our souls. What happens when we can no longer offer our labors or creative output, because we can no longer move, or are kept alive by drugs or exo-structures, and when we can no longer even understand our worlds, because we have long since ‘left the algorithms to figure it out’ for us?
Is this so far-fetched? Is the writing not on the wall? Has the 20th century not conspired to severely weaken our physical and psychological health, to a tipping point? Is the current chaos we each experience daily — the assault on truth, and sense-making — not the direct result of our outsourcing?
Are we not already there?
Said simply, has our own sloth not created the meaning crisis in which we find ourselves? We like to blame our politicians, or greed, or foreign interlopers — enemies — for our diminished ability to make sense of the world. I’m sure they’ve all contributed to it. But as with water, which we pondered earlier, sloth is quiet, and supremely deadly. A pathogen cannot succeed in felling a healthy host that has the power to resist it. Like water, pathogens find ‘ins’ we cannot see; and ‘ins’, in the case of our meaning crisis, are, in my view, the continued weakening of our bodies and minds; and that the assault has conspired to make us lose our connection to nature — our own, and the planet’s — as well as to one another.
Sloth may, in the end, be the thing that kills our spirit. And again, if that light dims, all is lost.
So go ahead and fuel your envy, for that will feed your greed, and perhaps cause you to act. Wrath, too, can ignite fires that can be useful to you. Lust and pride are all good tinder to keep your blood boiling, your limbs moving, and your mind spinning. Don’t get me wrong, these are bad, bad things. None of them is a virtuous behavior. But at the very least, they are acts, or lead to them, and keep us busy, and focused. Even gluttony has us reaching to the drumsticks, like Henry VIII, or for an external non-food stimulus we feel we need.
It is when we stop feeling — the malaise, or acedia, of sloth — that our spirits can die.
Sloth is the existential crisis of our lives.
How to fight or reverse it? How to regain our strength — our health? Our appetite for the world? I have a few thoughts:
Grow a garden. Eat good foods. Stoke good friendships. Do things you love. Read books, and even long articles, like this one! [Congrats on making it this far.] Parry and thrust with others who disagree with you. Descend into debate. Be passionate. Move your body. Feed your mind. Wander aimlessly trying to find that bar, or remember when you were supposed to show up. And if you’re early, hang out, and be present. Put the phone down, in another room, for the entire weekend. Ask questions you don’t know the answers to, to other human beings, not Siri or Google. It’ll start something. Cook. Don’t order in. Learn what your body needs. Listen to it. Volunteer at a camp, or a church, or a shelter, or a jobsite. Break a sweat doing it. Dig a trench. Build a she-shed. Talk to strangers. Call bullshit. Get angry. Gather your thoughts and explain why. Figure yourself out. Play with your kids the way they want to. Develop a bucket list, then whittle away at it. Challenge yourself offline. No more f*cking sudoku. Buy the paper and do the crossword puzzle with a pencil. Meditate on everything. Get a sit-stand desk, and stand more than you sit. Find people who are still excited about things, and hold onto them. Buy things from a local place, not the Internet. Help your parents do what they no longer can. Be their limbs, or minds. Listen to your friends — really listen. Ask questions that get beneath the headlines. Learn a new sport or hobby, and force yourself to become good at it. Or even excellent. Clean out your house. Paint your walls. Make art, and put it on them. Take a hike, literally. Discover your own city, on foot, one neighborhood at a time. All of it. You have time. Walk over to a friend’s house, and ring the doorbell, unannounced. Give something you love to someone who could use it more. Donate what you no longer do to a shelter. Create a social group and commit to connecting once a week, without allowing yourself any outs. Care for a pet or an elderly person if you don’t have kids — something other than yourself. Call someone you once loved, in friendship, and have lost touch with. Then make a list of everyone who fits that description, and call them one by one, to reconnect. Walk at least an hour a day, alone or with others, meaning lost in your own thoughts, or in conversation… maybe in that new neighborhood you haven’t yet seen. And consider auditing classes at the local university. My uncle was sharp ’til the day he died. That was part of why.
Have agency in your own life. It’s the only defense any of us has against sloth.
Whatever it is that you choose to do, your body, mind and soul are so complexly interdependent that each act that benefits one, will benefit all.
Act, to live, and thrive.
Before it’s too late.