Sloth, one of the infamous seven “deadly” sins, is a disordered desire to pursue comfort and avoid what is difficult. While unbridled comfort-seeking may not seem as exciting as the idolatries relevant to the other deadly vices, sloth makes overcoming any of them especially difficult. Moral growth, creating good habits, and consistently living a life of value can be hard work, so we are tempted to seek what is easy and follow our misleading desires and bad habits (vices). Thus, greedy addiction to money, gluttonous overconsumption of food, lustful pursuit of sex, envious worship of status, vainglorious obsession with reputation, and even anger’s unproductive seeking of justice share in common what Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung calls sloth’s “resistance to the demands of love.” She suggests that sloth is wanting to “stay comfortable with who you are and stay the same, in your comfort zone,” rather than giving in to the “transforming power of God’s love.

The stereotypical sloth is the couch potato wasting their life away rather than doing the hard work of making the world a better place. However, DeYoung points out that sloth can also take the form of excessive busyness, when one finds comfort feverishly doing many things that ultimately do not matter, in order to put off the difficulty of tackling what does. Whether lazy or busy, the habitual sloth needs moral conversion, which Bernard Lonergan defines as a change of the criterion of decision-making from mere “satisfactions to values[1].”

So how do we figure out what is truly valuable?

The philosopher of Ancient Rome, Marcus Aurelius, presciently summed up the solution that the popular movements of minimalism and essentialism offer to the busy sloth: “do less, better.”  Current self-help books like The One Thing say to “find the one thing that makes everything else easier or unnecessary.”  Such advice helps the minimalist de-clutter their life in an effort to carve out more time, energy, and attention to what is authentically important.  This can be tricky, because the hallmark of vice is to misidentify what matters.  In Lonergan’s terms, we have a disordered scale of values at such times[2], when we give too much importance to some values over others, as when we value money (greed) or bodily pleasure (gluttony, lust) over true friendship and genuine personal development. As Augustine would say, we have failed to correctly order our loves (ordo amoris).

Boston College theologian Michael Himes offers three key questions to help us discern our values.  First, does it bring me joy?  Contemporary minimalists tend to agree with this principle.  In her popular book and Netflix series Tidying Up, Marie Kondo says we should ask of each of our material possessions, “Does it spark joy in me?”  If it doesn’t, get rid of it.  As Himes’s first question suggests, this strategy can be generalized to include all potential courses of action: will they bring me joy?  Second, am I good at it—does this potential path use my gifts and talents?  Third, does anyone need me to do it—will this activity serve the common good?  If one is having a hard time discerning one’s vocations, one might follow the advice of minimalist Joshua Becker:  just start getting rid of things and activities that don’t seem to be serving you and the world, and discover what matters in what’s left.

Of course, rightly identifying what to do is only the first step.  One must then do the difficult, uncomfortable work of following through and choosing the good that one knows. The lazy sloth will simply avoid the difficulty, and the busy sloth will do so by distracting themselves and rationalizing that they have more “important” things to do.  Meanwhile, virtuous minimalists are willing to detach from everything that gets in the way of their true callings, and they find authentic happiness in what is left—the process of doing only what matters with a grateful spirit.  This willingness to do what’s right no matter the discomfort involved is what sparks true joy.

 

[1] Lonergan, Method in Theology, CWL 14, pages 225.

[2] See Chapter 2 of Method in Theology (CWL 14).