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The Roman Catholic Church has recognized some version of an enumerated list of mortal sins since at least the late 4th century when Evagrius Ponticus refined and taught a list of eight evil thoughts. Pope Gregory I revised the list a century or so later into an early form of the Seven Deadly Sins. The thirteenth century saw Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica written, wherein he compared the severity of those cardinal sins. And less than a century after that, the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, gave us the flavors of sins that has stuck through today.

The current list (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride) just seems to describe a Las Vegas vacation, but Dante’s seven (Superbia, Avaritia, Luxuria, Invidia, Gula, Ira, and Acedia, mnemonically recalled as SALIGIA) sound like some badass demons’ names. Or stripper names, maybe.

Through the different versions, lust and anger have held strong against change. No wonder sex and violence are everywhere — they’ve had a long time to build up social momentum! Sloth, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to make a career choice for a while. Originally designated acedia, it was more like religious apathy at the start. Gregory the Great decided that the duo of acedia and sadness should combine their efforts and that the latter would get the credit for their work. Depressing. Mr. Aquinas challenged Gregory’s ideas about how those sins should be ranked, but that didn’t stop Dante from ordering them the same way for the ascent out of Purgatory. At least Dante gave acedia the proper respect on his fourth terrace designed to exercise the slothful. That’s right, exercise.

Just because I’m not a Christian doesn’t mean that I disagree about the wrongness of those character flaws called sins. I just interpret them my own way. For instance, that insidious tendency towards non-productive behavior in all of us is what I call Sloth. I think that’s the worst of the mortal sins, not in effect, but in scope. All of the other listed sins require volition and movement, albeit for purposes with varying degrees of nefariousness. But at least they show action. At least they require pursuing a goal. Even if the goal is an unhealthy one, the fact of the pursuit opens the possibility of redirecting the pursuer toward a better destination. A victim of laziness displays no movement in any direction!

The Sloth continues not to move today. I don’t agree with people who automatically decry the television or computer as the definitive progenitors of couch potatoes. There is good to be found in all types of produced entertainment. Couch potato is a label best applied to people who don’t bother to search. The greatest problem with television and the internet is that they expose us to so much information that the curious mind may be struck by a paralysis of indecision.

In attempting this article alone, I would find myself wandering away from the writing when I realized that Dante had some interesting ideas, or when I found that the seven sins were often anthropomorphized through the past couple of centuries as villain characters in fiction, or when I discovered an essay by Thomas Pynchon about this same topic. Each of those tangents could have led me down a path of investigation, producing some interesting conclusions. If I were assigned a homework to investigate such topics, or if I were writing a book on any of those, then there would be obvious benefits from taking those directions–but I’m doing neither.

Games are another distraction. I don’t play games where I just virtually pick up a gun and kill someone. Well, I rarely do that. I’m generally taken in by games that stimulate my problem-solving abilities. Psychologists could tell you that by practicing figuring out the correct order of steps to take in a game in order to win a level quickly or score the highest, a gamesman can develop excellent analytic skills… That may be true, but beating a level of Super Mario Whatever faster won’t actually earn me a paycheck today. If only.

Today’s Sloth is insidious in that he takes the form of potentially productive pursuits — just not the pursuits you intend to follow. At the end of the day, Sloth and cohorts like Procrastination, Distraction, and Idle Curiosity (not to be confused with his sister, Directed Curiosity) can not only have prevented you from accomplishing worthwhile goals, they’ll leave you exhausted as well! I’m not impervious to their wiles. After all, I’ve been trying to write this article for a couple of weeks, now.

I would be remiss if I offered up this declaration of danger without posing some tips for safety. Here’s my best one: self-censor only AFTER you’ve written a few lines. In real life, that can be interpreted to mean that if you spend all your time just trying to resist distractions, you’ll find that costs you a great deal of effort with little reward. When you’re done resisting temptations to sloth, all you’ve accomplished is still nothing. Pursue those distractions just enough to get a taste and THEN redirect yourself. Instead of resisting TV and then staring at the dead set with longing, turn it on and channel surf until you get to something that you can safely use as background noise for a useful activity. News while folding laundry, for example. Instead of just declaring that you will stay off your computer, get on there and update your resume. Remember that movement can be redirected, but immobility cannot.

I hope this helps. I know that I’ve been a victim on numerous occasions. So, I write up this article as a warning to others on the internet: Beware! Here there be Sloth! Its name is blog.

About Paul Roth

A vegetarian, agnostic, lindy-hopping, dog-loving tv-watcher who likes to read his own words.
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