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On Sloth And Other Virtues

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This month, we're celebrating Carl Honore's In Praise of Slowness and throughout The Huffington Post you'll have a chance to see how others are embracing the Slow Movement, of which Carl is the godfather. About twenty years ago, I nearly burned myself out, when a kindly shrink and a brilliant editor (Gini Alhadeff) intervened. The shrink got me to slow down and meditate, and Gini pushed until I wrote this piece about it. It was the very first piece of writing I ever got published. It came out in 1991, so forgive the ancient technology references, but this was the beginning of what has become the journey of a lifetime. I'm still learning and still reminding myself of the lessons--I'm a glutton for speed punishment--but I've made a few small inroads.

Without further ado, On Sloth and Other Virtues.

Odysseus and his men spent ten years in Troy being jerked around by egocentric, jealous gods. Their ranks were decimated and they lost their best men. They spent another ten years getting home, and on the way they were turned into pigs, eaten by a Cyclops, tossed in Poseidon's rage, tortured by the music of the Sirens. They arrived at Ithaca, fought to regain control of the island, and settled into a restored peace. But as Tennyson conjectured, they probably got bored within a year or two and left again. They hadn't sat still for over twenty years; how could anyone expect them suddenly to begin?

It must have required colossal strength of purpose for Odysseus and his men to leave the restful island of the lotus-eaters. One taste of the flower, and goals were forgotten, battles abandoned. "They longed to stay forever, browsing on/That native bloom, forgetful of their homeland." A reasonable concern, if forgetting home was what the crew really feared.

The Odyssey tells of the archetypal journey outward and triumphant return to home and a quietude founded on greater knowledge of the world. But common sense indicates that neither the crew nor Odysseus desired a peaceful old age by the hearth. Caught in the activity of survival, did any of them have time to consider what he was fighting for? The danger of the lotus-eaters was not to the crew but to the so-called cultural values of triumph and return. It was not the seduction of sloth Odysseus feared but the perspective that time to think might have supplied.

Odysseus and his men rest now in the company of other busy heroes and their feats: Hercules's seven tasks, Alexander the Great's domination, Columbus's discovering, Cortes's subduing, and Trump's money-making. From the busy contemporary "hero," who labors unwittingly under such a legacy, issues the complaint that the increase in daily activity is the result of high-tech industry and the nanosecond. But a glance down the list of cultural idols suggests that compulsive activity is so deeply rooted in the Western psyche that it isn't even recognized as a compulsion.

The 1980s saw students flying through college in less than three years, the eighty-hour work week, the de rigeur vacation briefcase, social and business calendars booked six months in advance, and people walking down the street carrying their telephones. Today's lawyers trip up the stairs of the courthouse as they edit arguments up to delivery; stock market traders eat meals while glued to their monitors; media executives miss their floors while gleaning last-minute information in the elevator. People put themselves into a constant state of distraction but regret not having time for friends, lovers, or smelling the roses.

Generations of dedicated citizens have told themselves that they live their youth and prime with a constant degree of self-imposed misery in order to take time out to enjoy life later, when they will finally be able to eat the lotus guilt-free. But after a lifetime of constant activity, it's difficult to stop spinning. The proliferation of books and therapies for coping with the inactivity of retirement indicates that, like Odysseus and his men, members of postindustrial society are chasing something they may not want.

The American dream consumes the imagination of its aspirants, leaving little time to consider alternative values. And the rat race associated with it is a time-honored habit. The Protestant work ethic, which justified labor for profit as a labor of God, has evolved into a carnivorous monster. Productivity has replaced religion as the ultimate protection against evil ("idle hands are the devil's workshop") and material desires seem to command more attention than spiritual ones. Overnight mail, the fax machine, and high-speed computers are not to blame for making life busier: if constant preoccupation didn't yield certain benefits, a social and economic order that demands it would not have been created. Compulsion is now pushing those who work hard to the limits of their physical and emotional capacities. Once again, one hears of people dropping out of high-powered or fast-track positions for the Canadian tundra or a hut on the California coastline. These people are eating the lotus, but when Odysseus comes looking for them, they hide in the bushes. The lotus-eaters have discovered something about habitual "busy-ness" that gives them the courage and capacity to break the pattern. They have discovered the paradox that productivity for its own sake may in fact be a mask for its opposite. At a lecture, a Tibetan lama who has lived in the West for more than twenty years was asked by an industrious American student of meditation about overcoming laziness. The lama replied that there are two different forms: Eastern laziness, which causes everyone to lie around in the heat, swatting flies and drinking tea; and Western laziness, which makes people too busy to get anything done. Since productivity is normally measured by quantity, and the more produced the better, the lama's statement left many, including myself, puzzled.

I came tearing out of an Ivy League college in the mid-1980s with a long list of honors and three publishing internships under my belt -- ready to become an editor in record time. After a few years, minor stress syndromes turned into acute stomach pains, constant colds, anxiety attacks, extreme irritability, and an attractive twitch in my eye. I started looking for relief.

I had some good lotus-eating role models in my brothers. Both had left dignified positions in investment banking and real estate for skiing in the Rockies and windsurfing in California. I wasn't brave enough to follow in their footsteps, so I stayed in New York and tried to protect myself from stress while still in the thick of it. But I had no idea of how to raise new defenses.

A friend suggested that I sit for five minutes every evening and watch my breath to relax. The thought of ceasing to replay the day's activity, of not rehearsing conversations in my head, of not returning phone calls, seemed more alien than walking across hot coals. I couldn't fathom spending time on something for which results would not immediately be visible and which seemed to have little connection with the more pressing demands of economic responsibility. But my friend was persistent, and to shut him up, I tried it for a week. I survived, though I didn't like what I saw.

Cut off from activity, I lost access to the devices I had relied on for reassurance that my existence meant something and that, besides a little tidying up, nothing really needed to be fixed. My mistakes and imperfections stared me in the face; weakness and the inevitability of death loomed just behind. I found none of these realizations enticing and, at twenty-five, figured I could indulge in a few more worry-free years. I went back to being busy and ended up in the hospital. If you don't heed the lotus-eaters, and you are lucky, eventually they kidnap you.

Western society is built on the notion of permanence. Human beings may have an intellectual knowledge of impermanence, but the fact of mortality and change comes as an unpleasant surprise to all but a few. Money is saved for an anticipated old age, long-lasting structures are constantly erected, and emotions are invested in people expected to stay near. But friends leave, family members die, banks go under, taking a community's savings, earthquakes claim entire cities. It takes a grotesque amount of energy to sustain a system through which reality constantly punches holes. Still, many lives are dominated by the fear of losing the ability to act. It is the most insidious addiction and one that carries with it the approval of an entire culture. Scaling back activity goes against the grain of a society conditioned to see absorption in productivity not only as an honorable duty but also as the basis for identity. Yet an identity that relies on variables such as actions, possessions, work, friends, is not one that can always be controlled. The more lack of control there is, the more activity, often surfacing as anger, is required to cover it up. There is evidence that true identity is fluid, spontaneous, and free from the impositions of the ego. Thomas Merton said in No Man Is an Island, "The fact that our being necessarily demands to be expressed in action should not lead us to believe that as soon as we stop acting we cease to exist."

There is a certain kind of idleness, a certain inactivity, out of which clear thought can emerge and lay a smoother course, create a more amiable world. If activity conceals laziness, then perhaps real productivity is wrapped in the stillness of apparent sloth.