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December 6, 2009

Sloth: Keeping the main thing the main thing

By Joe Paprocki


Poor sloth. As far as the seven deadly sins go, sloth gets no respect. It’s not as sexy as lust or as dramatic as wrath. It’s not as juicy as envy or as flashy as greed. It’s not as lurid as gluttony or as attractive as pride.

And that is precisely why sloth is so dangerous. Like a cancer, sloth can slowly eat away at our spiritual “organs,” leaving us incapacitated and in critical condition.

The first problem is that sloth is highly misunderstood. We simply equate it with laziness. Let’s face it, we all get lazy from time to time and it certainly doesn’t seem like a deadly condition. Sloth, also known as acedia, refers to a spiritual laziness — a lack of focus on what is truly important, beginning with our relationship with God.

Keeping first things first

In his books, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “First Things First,” Stephen Covey explains that we tend to focus our energies around events and activities that can be arranged in four quadrants (with examples):

_ That which is urgent and important (a crying baby, a kitchen fire, some phone calls and e-mails)

_ That which is not urgent but important (exercise, vacation, planning, recreation)

_ That which is urgent and not important (interruptions, distractions, other calls/e-mails)

_ That which is not urgent and not important (trivia, busy work, time wasters)

Covey’s point is that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” We can be very busy people, but we may be focusing our time and energies on that which prevents us from doing and being what God is truly calling us to do or be. Sloth is the tendency we have as human beings to ignore or put off what is important but seemingly not urgent. Taking time for prayer, doing works of mercy, reading and studying about our faith — these are all activities that most of us would agree are important but don’t seem to be urgent. Covey asserts that when one of the four quadrants grows, the other three quadrants shrink.

Sloth can lead us to make the third and fourth quadrants grow (activities that are not important) at the expense of the first quadrant (responsibilities we cannot shirk) and especially the second quadrant (activities that enable us to keep the main thing the main thing).

On the physical level, we may assert that we are too busy to undertake an exercise regimen. Years ago, I used that as my argument to not exercise regularly.

A health-club salesperson put things in perspective for me, however, when he said, “You know, the president of the United States has time to exercise regularly. If the leader of the free world can find time to exercise, so can you.”

Today, exercise is a regular part of my daily routine and I still have time to commute (three hours round-trip) to a full-time job, raise a family, cut the grass and do other household chores, teach religious education once a week, read books and maintain a heavy publicspeaking schedule. What dropped from my life to make room for daily exercise? I honestly don’t know.

Not “too busy”

In our spiritual lives, we can fall prey to the same temptation: thinking that we are too busy to take time for prayer, for solitude, for reading Scripture and other inspirational literature, for participating in faith formation, for doing works of charity and mercy.

When we do fall prey to this temptation, we have entered the realm of sloth. The consequences of this are spiritual burnout, stress, anxiety, short-term focus, indifference, callousness, shallowness and depression. The ultimate and most destructive consequence is despair — a feeling that nothing is worthwhile.

The antidote to the deadly sin of sloth is the virtue of zeal, also known as diligence. The First Commandment calls us to zeal, to be enthusiastic and proactive in recognizing that God is the “main thing.”

On the spiritual level, there is one twist to add to Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” He identifies one of the seven habits as being proactive. In truth, there is no such thing as being spiritually proactive because God is the proactive One. God has already taken the initiative to enter into relationship with us.

We combat sloth not by putting our noses to the grindstone and trying harder, but by recognizing more fully how God is reaching out to us and by taking the time to respond with zeal. This is why Jesus said, “Stay awake! You too must be prepared for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Mt 24:42,44).

Paprocki is the author of “The Bible Blueprint: A Catholic’s Guide to Understanding and Embracing God’s Word” (Loyola Press).