Part I: From worshippers to wageslaves

How 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 is closing.

It 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.

By 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.

Yet 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.

A Christian monk named John Cassian, who lived in the Egyptian desert more than 1,000 years ago, knew the condition intimately:

“It 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.”

Long 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.

It’s 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.

Sloth appears to have been spun into a “deadly spin,” a condition that is both reinforced and “remedied” by hypercapitalism.

An 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.
How much of today’s explosion of sloth, in the sense of a loss of vitality and purpose, is the psychocultural manifestation of learned helplessness?

For 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 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.

Writes 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.”

From 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.

Ironically, 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.”

That 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 depression.

Part II: A VISIT FROM THE NOONDAY DEMON


“In 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.

My 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.

“The 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”.

Writes 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.”

In 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.

While 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.”)

In 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 in.

New 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 was.

I forced 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.

Obviously, 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.

James 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.

The 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.

Drug 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.

Even 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 modern fiction.”

The 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.

In 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.

A few 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.
In 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 in attendance:

“When 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 Feud.”

The 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.

Your 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 is 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 at 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.

Sloth 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.

Geoff Olson