As the annual promise of sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and autumnal afternoon naps approach, I thought a meditation on lethargy would be appropriate. I had the occasion to be waiting for a guest at the local Amtrak station and a man, captivated by my habit and rosary, spontaneously struck up a conversation about the temptations he thought Jesus underwent: lust, vengeful anger, drinking to excess and sleeping in late. It’s this last one that gave me a chuckle and the idea struck me that of course Jesus wasn’t lazy but what if Jesus in his humanity would have suffered temptations to be lazy?
What defines a truly lazy person? St. Thomas Aquinas says that “whatever performs the operations proper to a thing, is that thing.” (ST Ia Q75.A4) Being lazy however is not an operation. For our purposes, the operation in question which is proper to human beings is choice. The essence of laziness then in humans involves what we choose to do and not merely what we feel.
As human beings, St. Thomas describes the powers of the soul as the intellect and the will which function collaboratively. Choice ultimately is an act of the will and we make good choices and poor choices. Some of our actions are beyond the reach of our wills. For example our hearts beat, unsought ideas pop into our heads, on a crowded subway train we sneeze on someone next to us.
Laziness, we might agree, involves neglecting to do those actions or make those good choices which we ought to. More inclined to avoid expending energy for needful responsibilities we redirect our efforts towards a less important distraction or to nothing at all. A marvelous opportunity presents itself however. If you thought taking out the trash or doing the dishes of itself deserved a pat on the back, just wait!
St. Thomas tells us (ST Ia-IIae Q21.A3) that an action “deserves praise or blame, in so far as it is
1) in the power of the will,
2) ordained to a proper end, and
3) renders justice towards the recipient.
Even if we think we’re just acting for ourselves, the fact that we have an unbreakable connection to a larger community (i.e. society) means for St. Thomas that no action is without its wider repercussions. The implication is that the benefit or harm done to oneself has repercussions in the community and therefore has corresponding merit or demerit. (Q21.A3, Replies to Obj. 1-3) If the roof is covered in ice, it will not be within your power of will to safely put Christmas lights on the house—therefore staying inside and drinking hot apple cider would not be blameworthy.
Lazy inclinations don’t seem to fit into any of these first three categories. Only actions do. St. Thomas addresses inclinations separately. Three characteristics involving inclinations increase or decrease the number of pats on the back you deserve:
1) “number” : you do a “double” good if while inclined to be lazy, you still choose to do the good. You accomplish the task itself but you also overcome your lazy inclinations!
Think of Matthew 21:28-32. In this parable, a father asks his two sons to do some work in his vineyard. One says ‘yes’ but then doesn’t come through. The other says ‘no’ but then steps up to the plate. Needless to say the latter is praised for his good action in spite of his initial disinclination.
2) “intensity” : faced with the irksomeness of doing good or in spite of the (often more immediate) pleasure present in doing evil, a person chooses to do the former rather than the latter. Some who presses through a morbid fear of needles and their sting in order to receive life-saving antibiotics has the notable additional virtue of courage.
3) “extension” : what Aquinas means here is perseverance in the face of obstacles. A sports competition between two well-matched champions is far more glorious than an effortless defeat of an out-matched opponent.
The point I’m trying to make is that it is precisely when you have these lazy inclinations, these interior obstacles, that you have the opportunity to perform a “double good” and to exercise heroic virtue in what might otherwise be routine daily tasks. This is not to say that it wouldn’t be better to do the good and be inclined to it but this is a state of grace toward which we all must grow. In the meantime, C.S. Lewis paints a poignant contrast:
The bad psychological material is not a sin but a disease. It does not need to be repented of, but to be cured. And by the way, that is very important. Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God's eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the V.C. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing, does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God's eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend.
It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, book III, c. 4)
This is also why Jesus thus concludes his parable of the Lost Sheep: “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:1-7)
So now that you’ve had your pie, surfed this blog for the last five minutes and are slipping into an interminable food coma, don’t worry about whether your lethargy means you’re a lazy couch potato. Be a Champion!!! Get up and do the dishes!