Boredom and Sin
On Monday, a number of videos of Archbishop Sheen were posted. In three of those, he spoke on “Wasting Your Life” (Parts One, Two, and Three). This talk, perhaps more than any of the others posted, unquestionably warrants half an hour of one’s time. In the prescient manner typical of wise men, Sheen illustrates what was a problem in his time and is hundreds of times worse in our own. The average man, he says, lives well below his energy level. In other words, he does not do as much as he ought; and yet, Sheen points out, man complains of boredom, of triviality in his life. Why is that? Why is it that men so often do nothing and yet complain of nothing being done? Were Aristophanes to write a satire on the slothful expectancy of men today, it would be comic and laughable, and hopefully shameful to those of whom it is not too exaggerated a caricature. But from where does this perennial boredom come? How is it brought about? The Archbishop accords it to a lack of love; and indeed it is, but a lack of love usually results also in a similarly consumptive but contrarily un-inspiring substitute; that is, if someone does not love something, he fills up the time in which he would be spent expending energy on that which he loves doing something about which he does not really care.
Forty, fifty, sixty years ago, no doubt there were many things with which one could occupy himself in an uninspired, passive manner. Television existed. Bad books (those that do nothing for the intellect) were on the market. Gossip has always been around. Members of the opposite sex have always been possibly portrayed as attractive in less-than-healthy ways. Unfortunately for the uneducated, unformed, uninspired generation of today, it is hundreds if not thousands of times easier to distract oneself with the thoroughly unlovable busyness of the world. Television has expanded from a few channels to hundreds; it is available by satellite, cable, internet, even the cell phone – an abominable little device that insists upon following its owners everywhere, like the world’s worst dog, demanding attention every few minutes with the most irritating cacophony of sounds. Wireless technology (of all kinds) may be the most useful thing every created; and simultaneously one of the most easily abused. How is it that man may always be doing something different, can always keep himself entertained, and yet almost never be engaged? The modern Western world is so inundated with noise, with nonsense, with things of almost no importance whatsoever, that everyone is now bored almost all of the time; the daily experience, which ought to be a continual re-encountering of the goodness of the world, has been saturated with the cheap experiences of a quantity-over-quality culture.
Sometimes, there is a misperception that sloth is simply a lack of activity, a sort of laziness. How ironically slothful of man, to reduce the manner of any of the seven deadly sins to but one mode of execution. Gluttony is not mere over-eating, but over-indulgence: it comes also in a sort of snobbishness of quality or richness (which is not to say that one ought to go out and deliberately drink and eat poorly [mendicancy is another issue altogether] but that one ought not hold his nose in the air when offered something that is not of the highest preferred quality). Lust is not mere sexual rapacity, but also shows itself in obsession with particular feminine figures, with the evaluation of the female on the basis of her figure, her look, her physical composition. Likewise too is sloth more than simple laziness; it also comes, and perhaps more strongly now, in the self-inundation with the unimportant, the crowding out of that which is truly fruitful.
Imagine the typical man who comes home from work, eats dinner, plops himself in front of the television for four hours, and goes to sleep, almost every day of the week. He might have a hard job. It could be manual labor. Yet if a man may remain conscious to watch television, he may remain conscious to read a book; the only reason he cannot is because he does not, like a man who cannot lift heavy weights because he does not lift light weights first. Truly virtuous men, it should be noted, are never bored. That is not to say that they do not feel the temptation to it, that there is not a (perhaps demonic) voice occasionally whispering in their ears telling them to give up, to just entertain themselves a little bit longer, to watch a little more television (for the occasional entertainment is by no means wrong – but it needs to be catharsis, not a hobby), to take another break, to check that website one more time; but they do not, they overcome.
There is something similar and telling about the sins of greed and sloth: both become worse by a hoarding up, by a failure to expend. Greed is a compulsion to possess that for which one has an inordinate love, and sloth is a compulsion to avoid having an ordinate love for anything; greed is a hoarding up of possessions, and sloth is a hoarding up of energies, of genuine passions. Yet both, the more they are hoarded, the more deeply they are buried, the more they rankle and fester, the more they rot a man from the inside out.
Perhaps the best exemplar amongst all the saints (who are the best exemplars amongst all men) of the virtues contrary to both greed and sloth was St. Francis of Assisi. Was Brother Ass ever bored? Of course not; just as he gave up all of his earthly possessions, so too did he give up his passion, his love; he spent it all on others, on God. St. Thomas Aquinas did likewise with the intellect; he took his yearning for knowledge, his desire to develop his mind, and poured himself wholly into it so that he might teach others through his works. Indeed, while the rest of the Church gained greatly by the work of these men, they gained eternity in bliss; all because they refused to be bored.