Why Everyone Should Espouse Their Inner Sloth

Each year theres an autumn weekend which is anticipated with particular hilarity: the one in which the clocks go back. The prospect of an extra hour in bed is certainly tempting, and the Sunday has duly been labelled National Sleep In Day. But the fact that sleeping in is designated to this one particular day betrays something else that idleness is seen as wasteful, self-indulgent. A lie-in is only promoted when time itself moves to accommodate it.

For some perspective on how the idea of laziness has changed over time, we could do a lot worse than consider the natural environment undisputed champion of lazines the sloth. Because the one thing everyone knows about sloths is that they are slothful. The clues in the name.

But its a name with a long and curious history. Sloth entered the English language in the early 12 th century as a term for mental and physical sluggishness. It wasnt until the early 17 th century that the word was applied by European explorers to tree-dwelling mammals in central and south America. Sloth, in other words, was the name of a human quality long before it was the name of a distinct species of animal.

And sloth is not any old human quality; it is along with envy, gluttony, avarice, lust, pride and wrath one of the seven deadly sins, a catalogue of depravity that has been circulating in one version or another since early Christian times.

Abraham Bloemaert, Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, 1624. The demon sows weeds in the field while lazy peasants sleep .

Deadly Torpor

Definitions of the sin of laziness have changed notably over the centuries. What we now call sloth was originally understood as an occupational hazard for the early Christians known as the Desert Fathers, the hermits and monks whose punishing regimes of piety, prayer and self-denial uncovered them to the temptations of de-motivation and listlessness and a sorrowfully distracted state of torpor known as acedia.

In the medieval period, as sloth superseded acedia in the religious vocabulary of the time, the concept broadened to encompass all manner of sinful inactivity and workshy idleness, from neglecting everyday chores to falling asleep in church. The particular danger of sloth, in the medieval imagination, was as a gateway sin. Anyone who is prone to idleness is, by definition, going to lack the energy to defy the temptations not just of sloth but of all the other sins. For this reason, popular tales of people who were victims of their own laziness too lazy to move as mouse nibble away at their ears, too lazy to cut the noose from which they are about to be hanged had significant currency in the medieval imagination.

Sloth Mad

Its fair to say that the seven deadly sins dont have quite the grip on the imagination that they once did. Images of sloth in the modern world have precious little to do with its origins in early Christian theology. For instance, in recent years major UK furniture retailer Sofaworks has operated a high-profile advertising campaign starring Neal the Sloth, who is every bit at home lounging on this firms various chairs and sofas as his fellow sloths are in their natural rainforest habitat.

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A spin-off website, which sells Neal merchandise, excitedly announces that owing to the success of the sloth campaign the world has gone sloth mad. The arrival this summer of London Zoos latest newborn sloth, Edward, would support this: he was greeted with widespread press coverage and thousands of YouTube viewings of the tiny nocturnal mammal clinging to a sloth-teddy from the Zoos gift shop.

What, we may ask, would a time-travelling visitor from the medieval period construction of our fondness for sloths? They would probably be slightly perturbed to find a deadly sin as the stuff of soft furnishings and cuddly toys.

// platform.twitter.com/ widgets.js Unleash The Sloth !

We could reassure our sceptical visitor that its possible to learn a thing or two from sloths. They live a low energy lifestyle; they are generally peaceable; and they understand the virtues of taking your time. Any animal that takes 2 week to digest a snack could certainly teach us a valuable lesson in the virtues of mindfulness and contemplative patience. The sloth is the perfect mascot for a culture that is looking to remedy itself of addiction to a hyperactive 24/7 run ethic. Now that we have rehabilitated sloths as the slacktivists of the animal kingdom, perhaps the time has come to formulate a laziness ethic as an alternative to the run ethic that has predominated national societies for so long.

But a closer look at sloth merchandise reveals that work and laziness arent always quite so simple to separate. Take Rob Dirckss humorous self-help book, Unleash The Sloth !. The book promises to provide 75 ways to reach your maximum potential by doing less. Who wouldnt want to unleash their sloth? But do we really have to do so in 75 different ways? Unleashing the sloth is beginning to sound like hard work. Which is to say that even a tongue-in-cheek book, which is all about cutting corners and streamlining your life, is still part and parcel of the meddler culture of personal growth, self-improvement and enhanced productivity.

Even the most unapologetic attempt to champion inactivity call it sloth, laziness, idleness, rest does so in the name of activity and productivity. Laziness has a job well done whether its selling sofas, cuddly toys or books. And so sloth, despite our affection for the being of that name, retains its place as one of the deadly sins of the 21 st century.

I hope you enjoy that lie-in.

Michael Greaney, Senior Lecturer in English, Lancaster University

Read more: www.iflscience.com

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