Years ago, I was in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Walking across a plaza, I saw a small group of people staring up at a mango tree.
I looked up but saw nothing extraordinary until a man next to me pointed to a limb and said, “Perezoso, perezoso!”
I followed his finger and found a lump hanging upside down on a branch — a sloth nibbling on a piece of fruit.
There is something today called slow eating, but this sloth made slow eaters look like Joey Chestnut at a hot dog-eating contest.
The movement of mouth to mango, the bite, the chew were all done at an incredibly, almost indiscernible, pace.
I was mesmerized, as motionless as the sloth, trying to detect some other minimal signs of life.
I remembered this the other day when I was reading something on the “seven deadly sins.” You know, the big ones: lust, gluttony, greed, envy, wrath, pride, and of course, sloth.
I think of these more as states of being than specific acts; more as deadening than deadly. They are mindsets and addictions that impede our spiritual development, our ability to flourish.
It is unfortunate that one of these cardinal vices shares its name with the adorable and captivating sloth.
The sloth is native to Central and South America, so Europeans didn’t know about the mammal until the 1500s, long after the sin had been christened with the word for laziness.
The earliest name for this impediment to spiritual growth was acedia, a Greek contribution that literally meant “a lack of care.”
Thomas Aquinas wrote about acedia, or sloth, as “sadness about one’s spiritual good.”
Over the years, perhaps influenced by the sloth, the sin has lost this important psychological dimension of depression or hopelessness and taken on a popular understanding of sluggishness or soul-sucking boredom.
We fail to realize that spending hours distracted by our screens can be a sign of sloth, but so can workaholism and constant busyness.
Both are escapes, diversions from the hard work of making sense of our lives and repairing our world.
And what about that seemingly sluggish sloth? Its unhurried movement is not laziness but a conservation of energy on which its life depends.
Watching it, we might even conclude that it is mindful, deliberate, aware of both the dangers and the opportunities of the present.
Ironically, that might well be all we need to rise from our own laxity and sloth.