Sloth as a Mental Illness

Who doesn't, on occasion, like to stay in bed a bit longer, or take a snooze in the hammock or on the beach--maybe even veg out on the couch for an afternoon of old movies or a trashy novel? But most of us have only a limited capacity for inactivity before we start feeling guilty or stale, and so we then drag ourselves back to the vertical position and try to get something done.

What's so great about sloth?

What's the appeal of sloth, or laziness? Most of us do need some down time to recharge our batteries, but what keeps some people stretched out horizontally long after the point where boredom should kick in and thrust them back onto their feet again? What's the appeal of hibernating in your Snuggie when you could be going out and experiencing something fun like a good meal, an erotic encounter, a thrilling ride, or a vivid sunset?

What's the sin in it?

A theologian might suggest that the sinful aspect of sloth is that it keeps one from using one's time to do good and pious things. And, in some cases, a person will truly find more pleasure in doing nothing than in making the effort to do something "fun." But in other cases, a person's capacity to get off the couch and mobilize for action can be significantly impaired.

Just lazy, or in total collapse?

Because sloth is a sin of inactivity, it can be hard to separate the person who is merely lazy from someone who is genuinely incapacitated.

When, for example, a patient tells me about the long hours he spends watching TV, day after day, I have one key question that can often reveal whether he's just a run-of-the-mill lazybones or a truly broken spirit: "What TV programs do you watch?"

If the indolent person in my office can tick off some favorite shows that have come to shape her viewing habits, I tend to think that this is a person who has developed a highly avoidant attitude towards life. For whatever reason, she is shrinking from daily life, and her inactivity is driven by the expectation that work, family, community--even fun--are all too much trouble, or too risky, or too lacking in reward, to propel her off the couch for very long. And so this person takes pleasure where she can, by developing an ongoing attachment to a number of television shows, and watching them with satisfaction. She even gives off a certain aura of contentment.

But if my patient merely shrugs, and shows no interest in any particular programs--says he just spends the day idly channel surfing--then this signals to me that he is not so much avoiding the difficulties of life as he is simply incapable of finding pleasure or satisfaction anywhere. This state of utter apathy is a hallmark of clinical depression and the patient probably keeps the TV on just to have some company, or some background noise to distract from the misery of melancholia.

Theological disclaimer: I use the term "sin" to mean not only behaviors we might all be tempted to do but also actions that can sometimes be driven by mental disorder. In no way do I wish to imply that "sinners" are deserving of either condemnation or damnation.

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