As I See It: The Ne’er-Do-Well’s Guide to Enlightenment
June 11, 2007 Victor Rozek
The Catholic Church counts it as a grievous sin. Kierkegaard thought it was the only true good. Agatha Christie believed it was the mother of invention. Gandhi found it to be a delightful but distressing state. Granni Nazzano called it the hobby that naturally rules out all others. And Mortimer Caplan thought it was the habit of resting before you get tired. The “it” that inspired so many unique and contradictory assessments has almost as many names as it has descriptions. In more formal times it was known as sloth, idleness, or indolence. But as the world lightened up, so did language and now it’s mainly referred to as just plain laziness.
Ah, laziness, the enviable vice. Is there a concept more reviled, more misunderstood, and at the same time more cultivated? So justifiable when it’s our own; so detestable when displayed by others. Part character flaw, part lifestyle choice, part retreat from the accelerating pace of life; laziness can be viewed as either self indulgent or self-preserving. It can be escapist or rejuvenating, or simply the byproduct of grand indifference. And, when indulged by true practitioners, it can prove to be maddeningly unconcerned with socially imposed burdens like duty and obligation; stubbornly able to defy frustrated pleas, angry threats, and predictions of dire consequences.
Self-perpetuating and immune to criticism, laziness–like virtue itself–becomes its own reward. It is indulgence by inaction, a practice which some extol, others satirize, and still others are quick to condemn. Yet although poets, philosophers, moralists, and certainly parents have all expounded on the subject, there seems to be little consensus. Just why is that?
My search for answers, limited as it is by my industriousness, found me too lazy to get up and find my dictionary, so I checked the source of all semi-accurate wisdom, Wikipedia. There I found that laziness “is the lack of desire to perform work or expend effort.” Simple, concise, yet ultimately unsatisfying, for it offers no causal insight. But then I found this: laziness “could be considered as an exaggeration of the natural instinct to get healthy, rest, and conserve energy.” Ah, grasshopper, understanding laziness as a well-honed natural instinct is certainly more enlightened than seeing it as an inadequacy. To be genetically wired to spend one’s life reclining while others toil, is to human evolution what no fault divorce is to marriage. It sounds good until we remember that we are a species half a chromosome away from chimps.
Perhaps Ronald Reagan got it right. He was purported to say; “It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?” Indeed. I don’t know exactly when he said it, but I hope it was after being awakened from napping through some dull cabinet meeting. It’s a reminder that if you can do your job elegantly while others about you are breaking a sweat, then why not reward yourself? Isn’t inactivity the pot of gold at the end of the employment rainbow? If so, it’s good to know some of us are enjoying the journey, not just the destination.
Then there’s Pema Chödrön, Buddhist nun, director of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and author of When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. With all respect, she seems determined to take the fun out of laziness because she sees it as an on-ramp to a spiritual path and encourages her readers to learn from their aversion to work, which sort of defeats the purpose of the whole enterprise, does it not?
Chödrön identifies three distinct kinds of laziness. First, she says, “there’s the laziness of comfort orientation, we just try to stay comfortable and cozy. Then there’s the laziness of loss of heart, a kind of deep discouragement, a feeling of giving up on ourselves, of hopelessness. There’s also the laziness of couldn’t care less. That’s when we harden into resignation and bitterness and just close down.”
Y’all can locate yourselves on the laziness continuum, but I think I’m more of a comfort and cozy kind of guy. But while I see comfort as the absence of the strenuous, the boring, and the unpleasant, Chödrön believes that this type of laziness, especially in Western society, “frequently manifests as speed. People rush from one thing to another,” she says, “from the gym to the office to the bar to the mountains to the meditation class to the kitchen sink, the backyard, the club. We rush around seeking, seeking, seeking comfort and ease.”
Comfort and ease are the essence of IT, after all. What is the endless search for greater functionality and user friendliness but a search for comfort and ease? Developing the ability to do more work with fewer keystrokes, communicate across continents, and perform other grand tasks with nothing more than light pressure from our fingers, speaks to a devotion to laziness unlike any other. The very idea of labor-saving technology suggests that advances are the products of fruitful imaginations inhabiting lazy bodies.
Being a nun, however, I suspect Chödrön means we are unconsciously seeking a spiritual ease or at least a lack of inner turmoil. “The comfort-orientation brand of laziness is characterized by a profound ignoring,” she says. “We look for oblivion: a life that doesn’t hurt, a refuge from difficulty or self-doubt or edginess. We want a break from being ourselves, a break from the life that happens to be ours. So through laziness we look for spaciousness and relief; but finding what we seek is like drinking salt water, because our thirst for comfort and ease is never satisfied.”
Chödrön seems to be implying that we are working hard at being lazy–on the surface an oxymoronic argument–unless laziness is understood as an outgrowth of having a lack of passion; the result of prolonged, misplaced energy. Perhaps Chödrön is saying that we are lazy if what we do gives us only fractional satisfaction yet we keep doing it anyway. So the laziness comes not from avoiding work, but from avoiding discovering what gives our lives meaning.
So, if I understand this, whether I’m too busy or not busy enough, I’m probably lazy and don’t even know it, which is further proof of my intellectual laziness. Great.
The “loss of heart” variety of laziness is characterized by “vulnerability, woundedness, and not knowing what to do,” says Chödrön. These are the folks who have chased after pleasure, clamored after achievement; drugged, drank, and screwed themselves silly yet in the end are left wondering: is that all there is? They try, fail and come “to a painful and hopeless place,” she says. Ultimately, loss of heart is so painful that “we become paralyzed.”
Laziness as paralysis sounds like no fun at all. Perhaps it’s that Buddhist obsession with the inevitability of suffering. Americans, by and large, don’t believe in that. We think that if we just eat right, get enough exercise, and have full medical coverage, why we can live forever. For us, laziness may be a guilty pleasure, but it’s no less pleasurable for that.
The “couldn’t care less” variety of laziness “is harder, more icy, [and] fatalistic,” Chödrön asserts. “This particular flavor of laziness has an edge of cynicism and bitterness. . . We just don’t give a damn anymore.” (These are the people who don’t vote.) “We feel lazy and mean at the same time.”
Laziness as a get-even-with-the-world strategy seems doomed to failure because mostly the world doesn’t care, unless of course you’re the president. Being lazy is one thing; but mean and lazy could get you voted off the island.
What then is a sluggard to do?
“Built into the human predicament seems to be the assumption that we should eliminate our failings,” says Chödrön, but she has a different idea. The path of awakening, she says, is not a destination. “It’s a process of gradually learning to become intimate with our so-called obstacles. So rather than feeling discouraged by laziness, we could look into our laziness, become curious about laziness. We could get to know laziness profoundly. We can unite with laziness, be our laziness, know its smell and taste, feel it fully in our bodies. The spiritual path is a process of relaxing into this very moment of being. . . We touch it, and then we go forward.”
So rest assured that it is only in the interest of enlightenment that I will now retire to the couch, beer in one hand, remote in the other, prepared to unite with my laziness for the duration of the evening. And as I do, I shall ponder the wisdom of another great spiritual teacher, Oscar Wilde, a British Bodhisattva if ever there was one, who in a moment of profound awakening came to the painful realization that “work is [quite simply] the curse of the drinking class.”
Here’s looking at you, idler.