Who hasn’t experienced exhaustion, at some time, in some form? If you know someone, please introduce me; he or she is bound to have habits I would like to adopt. The lack of uniqueness of exhaustion seems to detract from its viability as an excuse, though, and I fear that I am inclined toward the laziness of excuse-making just as much as my students are at St. Louis University High School (St. Louis, MO). Dogs aren’t eating homework much anymore, but students are forgetting or neglecting work because they are staying up later and later the evenings to fit in sporting practices, extra-curricular activities, and several difficult course loads. Even I can confess that my blog post is late because “Finals were too busy,” or “There was too much to do over the short holiday,” or “I really don’t have enough time or energy once I am finished with my various school commitments.”
Millennials and younger generations “suffer” from what could be considered a weak constitution, but St. Ignatius may encourage us to dig deeper and to reflect on those feelings to root out their source. Could it be that young people—our students, in particular—may not be entirely at fault? After all, it seems entirely counter intuitive to suggest that people are becoming lazier when it seems that they are involved in an ever-growing number of things. How can they be “lazy” when they are always busy?
Some of my personal reading—nudged along by a couple close friends and one insightful confessor—led me to investigate more thoroughly the traditional “deadly sin” of sloth. In her book Glittering Vices: A Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung criticizes our contemporary society for enabling and grossly misunderstanding these vices by returning to their more traditional understanding. Sloth was first examined by the Desert Fathers and characterized not by “laziness,” but instead as a sort of hyperactivity, a restlessness, which can lead someone to search out too many things to really put his or her heart into any one of them. In short, a sense of “decision paralysis” ensues, and one might imagine that the constant stress of trying to make decisions—the right decisions, amidst myriad options, can be exhausting.
One of the ancient remedies to this vice was rest. Sloth has a funny way of perpetuating itself: one becomes too distracted by too many options and then worn out from an inability to choose. That indecisiveness leads to a lack of productivity which spurns a person to take on more things to compensate for the temporary lapse, and so on. Taking time to rest can help serve to clear away the excess and renew a sense of purpose. The Desert Fathers and other thinkers who came after them also prescribed a different disposition towards work: accepting that one cannot always finish the task at hand, but recognizing that the work—even if incomplete—is worth focusing on and doing well provides a sense of liberation. The regular practice of good, holy work allows one to focus in on doing fewer things, but doing them well, which is a skill we as a culture seem to be losing.
In reflecting on these feelings of loss of direction and exhaustion, I try to take the time to reflect on what God might be telling me through them. Certainly, I have become grateful that I seem to commiserate with my students. Of course, it is a delicate balance between empathizing with them—and subsequently enabling their excuse-making behavior—and finding a way to be patient with them and consider how best to foster their learning and success by working alongside them rather than dragging them along.