THE DEADLY SINS
did sloth ever come to be considered one of the seven deadly
sins? It just doesn’t seem to measure up to the six other
offences. Yet it still retains potent force as a guilt-inducing
term. This is not as true for greed, anger and other sins. Accusing
someone of being greedy or money-obsessed is regarded as a compliment
in some quarters. As for lust, even the most baroque kink is
regarded as no more eccentric than, say, alpine yodeling or
carving driftwood. Pride is regularly confused with self-esteem.
Envy is the mainstay of the fashion industry and the advertising
world as a whole. Anger is not cool, but hey, we all have to
blow off a little steam sometimes. But sloth? Watch it. Accuse
your neighbour in the next cubicle of congress with the pooch,
and you better be ready with documented evidence. For sheer
insult, only an accusation of gluttony comes close -- “fat
pig” beats out “lazy slob,” but the distance
seems like most of us hardly have time for sloth. As a culture,
we’ve never been busier. Many workers are holding down
more than one job, putting in 60-plus hours of work a week.
We live in a time that celebrates high-speed action and boundless
physicality. Yet ironically, there has never been greater indolence
and isolation in the North American population, fed by television,
the Internet and video games.
combining sloth with that other so-called sin, gluttony, our
health has hugely declined as a population. It’s estimated
that obesity and physical inactivity costs Canada $3.1 billion
annually and leads to the death of about 21,000 Canadians a
year. Over the next decade, at least 3 million Canadians are
expected to develop Type 2 diabetes, a lifestyle disease preventable
by good nutrition and physical exercise.
sloth is more than laziness and idleness. In the original sense
meant by the early Christians, it is a surrender to despair.
Sloth annihilates the will. In this sense, the condition is
akin to clinical depression, which is characterized by a retreat
from most activities, social or otherwise. Yet few of us think
of sloth as a sin in any real sense. At most we see it as a
character flaw, and with the rise of the reporting and treatment
of clinical depression, as an illness.
monk named John Cassian, who lived in the Egyptian desert more
than 1,000 years ago, knew the condition intimately.
is a torpor, a sluggishness of the heart; consequently is closely
akin to dejection; it attacks those monks who wander from place
to place and those who live in isolation. It is the most dangerous
and the most persistent enemy of the solitaries.”
before the rise of Christianity, Greeks and Romans understood
what would later be known in the Middle Ages as “melancholy.”
The Latin poet Virgil’s phrase, lacrimae rerum,
the tears of things,” describes sadness implicit in life
itself. Today John Cassian would be put on a regimen of Paxil,
Effexor, or any one of the many antidepressants that have been
prescribed to 25 percent of the US population. (As for Virgil,
he might be writing ad copy for the Pfizer account.) Never before
have we seen sloth -- in Cassian’s depressive sense --
grip the North American population as it has in the past decade,
and never before has it been more profitable to treat.
a complicated topic, to say the least. How much of the current
discontent out there is due to the pharmaceutical industry “pathologizing”
an inevitable human condition? And how much of it stems from
a heightened reaction to modernity, where every trend has a
half-life of a week, and certainty (job-wise or otherwise),
is a thing of the past? And in any case, who would begrudge
sufferers access to medication that often delivers them from
the worst aspects of this existential scourge? Yet when antidepressants
are routinely distributed by teaching staff to students in some
US high schools, we have cause to wonder how much of a mood-manipulated
society we are becoming. Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave
New World, with everyone going to the “feelies”
high on “soma,” is looking less like fiction and
more like fact.
appears to have been spun into a “deadly spin,”
a condition that is both reinforced and “remedied”
interesting analogy comes from animal behaviour studies, as
described in Andrew Solomon’s seminal work on depression,
The Noonday Demon. “Learned helplessness occurs
when an animal is subjected to a painful stimulus in a situation
in which neither fight nor flight is possible. The animal will
enter a docile state that greatly resembles human depression.”
In experiments on learned helplessness, changes occur in rats’
brains that resemble the neurochemical fingerprint of depression
in human brains.
much of today’s explosion of sloth, in the sense of a
loss of vitality and purpose, is the psychocultural manifestation
of learned helplessness?
a great many urban dwellers, the demanding pace of daily life
makes a certain kind of stillness - a zenlike capacity to be
peacefully in the moment - all but impossible. This stillness
is not sloth, but its psychological mirror reflection. It’s
the sense of deep peace long promised us by organized religion,
psychoanalysis, or other belief systems. Today the pharmaceutical
companies, along with the global travel industry, are the ones
to pitch this promise of peace. If we can just get out of Dodge
and into some tropical retreat, we are told in travel ads, nirvana
is ours. These ads regularly display scenes of office or rush-hour
agony, followed by shots of some far-off beach retreat with
palm trees. The camera focuses on some mid-management meatpuppet
on holiday, reclining in an Adirondack chair, with a goblet
the size of a fishbowl. Lulled by the crash of surf instead
of white noise from the office, she glories in the free two
weeks she has been working towards the other 50. Yet as the
camera pans away, we see her tapping away at her laptop.
Erik Davis, in his book Techgnosis, “The message
of those Arcadian TV spots, showing folks hanging out on tropical
beaches with their laptops and cell phones, is simple and tyrannical:
we are only free and fulfilled when we remain on the grid, on
schedule, on call.”
the telemarketer working two shifts, to the Hollywood North
cyberprole stuck in a chair 12 hours a day rendering fast-edit
mayhem, many of us seem to combine frantic busyness with the
physical equivalent of sloth. When some do manage to escape
the grip of work, they often find we have no energy at all to
do much more than channel-surf. They crash - and ironically,
it’s in their most inert moments with the couch commander
they are most receptive to television’s marketing machinery.
the pattern of increasingly sedentary lifestyles in North America
has been accompanied by less sleep. According to stats, North
Americans are sleeping one to two hours less per night than
the generation living at the turn of the 19th century. In fact,
a good night’s sleep has become something of an oddity.
At the height of the tech boom in The Wall Street Journal, an
article entitled Sleep, the New Status Symbol, detailed the
newest perk among CEOs like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: eight
or more hours sleep. “Once derided as a wimpish failing
- the same 1980s overachievers who cried, ‘lunch is for
losers’ - also believed ‘sleep is for suckers’
- slumber now is being touted as the restorative companion.”
a full night of sleep can be reconfigured as a status-related
perk demonstrates just how deep the dislocations have been to
the culture over the past two decades. The sum of these changes
is undoubtedly contributing to the increasing incidence of clinical
FROM THE NOONDAY DEMON
the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark
wood, having lost the straight path.” This is the opening
line from The Inferno, a description of Dante’s state
of mind when he came upon a hole in the world that led down
into the infernal realms. When I came across my own hole in
the world several years ago, these words had special relevance
for me. They prefaced a song by Marianne Faithful that I often
played at the time. Listening to her ravaged voice read out
Dante’s journey through the woods, I took some small but
precious solace in the capacity of art to turn pain into beauty.
first -- and hopefully last-- experience of clinical depression
was preceded by a mix of personal and professional disappointments.
Yet my experience, in retrospect, was all out of proportion
with what I suspect were its triggers. There were days were
I would sit for hours in a chair, staring at the floor. For
the space of a year, I fell into sloth as it was meant in its
original form as one of the “deadly sins”: a state
of complete and utter despair, devoid of joy, hope, or faith.
destruction that wasteth at noonday,” a line from the
Psalms, gave the church fathers their most memorable character,
one who could strike out at the believer anytime, under the
full glare of the sun. They called the evil spirit of acedia
-- Latin for sloth -- The “Noonday Demon”.
Andrew Sullivan in his book of the same name: “The image
serves to conjure the terrible feeling of invasion that attends
the depressive’s plight. There is something brazen about
depression. Most demons -- most forms of anguish -- rely on
the cover of night; to see them clearly is to defeat them. Depression
stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition.
You can know the entire why and the wherefore and suffer just
as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance. There is almost
no other mental state of which the same can be said.”
today’s culture, the vector for depression has been reversed.
Purported negative influences from without have been internalized:
the depressive’s own brain has become the demon, and the
corrective is not a hairshirt but a prescription.
I was in the grip of my particular dark tea-time of the soul,
I couldn’t imagine suffering worse than mine. Yet the
many personal cases Sullivan cites in his book demonstrates
there are many rooms in the house of pain. There are catatonic
depressives who literally cannot rise from their beds, terrified
even by the thought of having to shower, who only improve through
electroconvulsive treatment. (When Sullivan’s own depressive
periods struck, he could not venture out of his apartment, and
his accompanying anxiety would fix on strange things —
even on mundane, non-threatening items on the dinner table.
“I can’t join you,” he’d say to friends
who’d call in what became his signal that he was in bad
shape, “I’m afraid of a pork chop again.”)
my case, I eventually went to a doctor and requested antidepressants.
The doctor prescribed Paxil, one of the class of so-called “selective
serotonin reuptake inhibitors.” I didn’t care for
the side effects, and went off the Paxil after a few weeks,
before the positive effects -- if any, for me -- could kick
to the soul-eating experience of sloth, I eventually crawled
out of my little corner of hell on my hands and knees, without
therapy, without the aid of a drug. I may well have benefited
by turning to the medical establishment earlier, so I have no
idea how smart or dumb my latecomer’s, aborted approach
myself out of sloth by socializing with friends and family.
But more specifically, I exercised, and with a rising level
of fitness, my depression slowly leached away. Self-confidence
and peace of mind returned to fill the space the Noonday Demon
had hollowed out inside me. It’s been four years since
my return to inner peace.
the depressive state of sloth doesn’t occur in a social
or psychological vacuum, and it’s undoubtedly more multidimensional
than just a glitch in people’s heads, a Neural-drain Demon
that strikes for some obscure biochemical reasons.
Hillman is a well know Jungian psychotherapist and author. In
his book We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy
and the World’s Getting Worse, he relates an anecdote
from a depressed patient who tells his therapist of the disturbing
sight of a bag lady in the street. He can’t shake the
idea of his mother being in the bag lady’s place. The
therapist concludes that his client has some issues involving
his mother. Hillman points out the therapist’s reading
of the situation may be only partially true, or even irrelevant,
and offers a contrary interpretation: the man may be genuinely
disturbed to live in a society that allows old women the freedom
to sleep under bridges.
problem is that sloth, in its original Noonday Demon sense,
has become endemic in North America -- and while there are those
whose depth of depression undoubtedly requires medical intervention,
we may be witnessing the pathologizing of a condition that has
been with us for hundreds of millennia, inextricably bound to
human consciousness. But how we live in the modern age, out
of equilibrium with the natural world and our own psyches, may
be exacerbating a collective soul-sickness.
industry ads targeting the public regularly ask a set of questions
like, “Have you ever felt sad for a whole day?”
and cite positive responses as indicative of the necessity of
a course of treatment with a mood-enhancing drug.
Sullivan, who is largely sympathetic to the pharmaceutical giants,
expresses some doubts on this count. “The news that depression
is a chemical or biological problem is a public relations stunt;
we could, at least in theory, find the brain chemistry for violence
and monkey around with that if we were so inclined. The notion
that all depression is invasive illness rests either on a vast
expansion of the word illness to include all kinds of qualities
(from sleepiness to obnoxious to stupidity) or on a convenient
record of pharmacological treatment for the clinically depressed
has been ambiguous, to say the least. Physician-approved access
to a new range of antidepressants has literally saved some people’s
lives -- and apparently has also been responsible for children
taking their lives.
a pill-popping culture where no human frailty, from depression
to shyness, goes without its own ‘magical bullet’,
one has to ask: is the marketing tail wagging the cultural dog?
How long before most human suffering -- from poverty, overwork,
the collapse of community, or any number of social scourges
-- is addressed solely by expensive prescriptions, without addressing
possible cultural or psychological foundations that have nothing
to do with neurochemistry?
Sloth is being spun into another one of the Deadly Spins, with
medicine being swallowed up by marketing.
years back, while attending a party for doctors in the Yukon,
I saw the lengths to which drug reps will go to cozy up to their
targets. It was like watching remoras swim alongside sharks.
In the doctor-pharma dynamic, there’s no longer a line
between the personal and the professional, shmoozing and spin,
or science and snakeoil.
his memoir The Noonday Demon, Solomon attends a sales
promotion for a new antidepressant, held in a “hulking
conference centre,” with more than two thousand people
we all were seated, there rose out of the stage, like the cats
in Cats, an entire orchestra, playing “Forget
Your Troubles, C’Mon Get Happy” and then Tears for
Fears “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Against
this backdrop, a Wizard of Oz voice welcomed us to the launch
of a fantastic new product. Gigantic photos of the Grand Canyon
and a sylvan stream were projected onto twenty-foot screens,
and the lights went up to reveal a set built to resemble a construction
site. The orchestra began playing selections from Pink Floyd’s
The Wall. A wall of gigantic bricks slowly rose at
the back of the stage, and on it the names of competitive products
appeared. While a chorus of kick dancers wearing mining helmets
and carrying pickaxes performed athletic contortions on an electronically
controlled scaffold, a rainbow of lasers in the form of the
product logo shot from a stagecraft spaceship at the back of
the room and knocked out the other antidepressants. The dancers
kicked up their workboots and did an incongruous Irish jig as
the bricks, apparently made of stage plaster, crashed down in
thuds of dust. The head of the sales force stepped over the
ruins to crow gleefully as numbers appeared on a screen; he
enthused about future profits as though he had just won on Family
author cites himself as a case of someone saved from a ruinous
lifelong depression by the new class of antidepressants. But
with anecdotes like his, we have every reason to suspect the
sales tail is wagging the research dog. The US Food and Drug
Administration is less a bulwark these days to the pharmacartels
than their proxy. The FDA is the organ grinder, the Canadian
Health Protection Branch is its monkey, and the tune being played
is “Money.” As a result, suspect medicines rocket
through our approval system faster than a bad burrito through
a fat kid.
friendly neighbourhood general practitioner no longer acts as
a firewall to the pharmacartels, not when the latter goes straight
to the people for mindshare. The principal route is through
expensive magazine and television advertisements. We’ve
all seen the television ads of laughing oldsters ambling through
bucolic settings, as the hurried voice-over rhymes off the night-of-the-living-dead
contraindications. The perfunctory legalese doesn’t seem
to put a crimp in sales -- there's still enough viewers out
there who will march off to their doctors demanding the latest
fix for the newest pathology. Not incidentally, the massive
amount of money thrown into adverstising puts broadcasters and
publishers in a less than-curious mindset when it comes to investigating
claims of health complications from designer drugs.
is not new to the human condition, but its profitability surely
is. The question is: in a culture that moves at megahertz speeds,
how deeply will sloth’s many subterranean sources be addressed,
while the marketers of mood-enhancing solutions turn a healthy
profit? The most depressing prospect would be to discover our
highly-medicated Brave New World is the disease for which it
pretends to be the cure.
by Geoff Olson, was published in Vol 5, No. 3, 2006.