2013-04-01

Student Assistants to Life

There's a lot to like about sloth. In his 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” British philosopher Bertrand Russell says:
“I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached. [A] traveler in Naples saw twelve beggars lying in the sun, and offered a lira to the laziest of them. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it, so he gave it to the twelfth. This traveler was on the right lines. But in countries which do not enjoy Mediterranean sunshine idleness is more difficult, and a great public propaganda will be required to inaugurate it. I hope that, after reading the following pages, the leaders of the YMCA will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”
Long work days keep us from activities that are more fun and creative, and the economic productivity of work enriches the government, which uses what wealth it has to build up its military and fight wars. Thus, says Russell:
“The road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s book on Sloth is a parody of self-help books. Her book within the book is called Sloth and How to Get It: A Guide to Living a Happy and Guilt-Free Slothful Life. In it, the authorial persona “claims to have tried every self-improvement plan known to addled Americans, from the Atkins diet to getting in touch with her inner child, until discovering the solution, Sloth.” The book lays out “a program for achieving absolute indolence, the secret of a stress-free life.”
"You have the right to be lazy. You can choose not to respond. You can choose not to move."
The book describes a process to "break the cycle of excess energy and stored dreams," the vital first step in becoming a sloth.
“Sloth will release you from all the terrible shoulds dominating your life.”
It tells how to become a sloth in your diet, exercise, work, and even love-life: it warns against true love, for that leads to passion, and passion is the biggest enemy of sloth.

The rapier of satire shows us the real issue at one point when it is describing the false prophets who would lead us astray from the salvation of sloth. One of these false prophets declares, “I don’t need to rest. I get high on life.” The book responds:
“This is bologna if I ever heard it. Who could possibly get high on life? In life, there is disease, random acts of violence, natural disasters, undisclosed fascist governments, not to mention world poverty and hunger. If you look life in the face, you couldn’t possibly get high on it. Even love fades. Once you adopt sloth, you are dealing with a responsible reaction to the truth about living.”
There in a flash we can suddenly see why Evagrius regarded acedia as the most troublesome sin. In the traditional language, sin is disconnection from God. We might say it is disconnection from life. Confronted with disease, violence, oppression, injustice how do we not disconnect?

The spiritual calling is to stay present to life, even the hard parts. We are called to be a student assistant to life. I like this metaphor of the student assistant. We are all perpetual student assistants to life: ultimately not in charge, yet here to learn, and to help – to learn by helping and to learn in order to help.

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This is part 8 of "The Seven Deadlies" (Part 3 on Sloth)
Next: Part 9: "Beware the Ubersloth"
Previous: Part 7: "Flowers and Birds are the Smart Ones"
Beginning: Part 1: "Seven and Sin"