If you’ve explored this blog before, you know I’m more than a little fascinated by words– what words mean in different contexts, why we choose certain words over others, etc.–, and one word that continually fascinates me is “sloth.”
One of the seven deadly sins (and a tree-dwelling mammal), sloth is often used interchangeably with “laziness,” but that’s not its original meaning. The seven deadly sins originated as a set of negative emotions early Christian monastics found themselves unable to shake: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. No one consciously chooses to be these things; rather, they’re emotional traps all of us stumble into. These seven pulled early Christians out of their prayers, and much of Christian discipline today still involves studying these seven and rooting them out in ourselves. By comparison to wrath and lust and the others, sloth might seem fairly benign, but a closer look at the word’s etymology reveals more.
Our modern “sloth” started out as the Latin concept acedia, literally meaning “lack of care.” The term doesn’t so much mean laziness as it does an inability to feel, and more accurate translations might include numbness, depression, or despair. By this definition, sloth isn’t willful laziness; it’s a snare where the pressure to act is equally matched by the inability to do so, and what might look like inactivity from outside feels more like paralysis inside. That’s what makes sloth “deadly,” and early Christians understood that overcoming sloth was a tremendous personal battle. In our modern culture, where 6.8% of the population struggles with major depressive disorders and 18.1% with anxiety disorders, sloth’s older definition might be more helpful than its modern one. I know I’ve felt that emotional numbness or paralysis during difficult times, but there are many more people who feel it chronically.
Last Tuesday, our Brew Theology group gathered at Aardwolf Brewing Co to discuss a prescient topic: Mental Health for the Holidays. While the winter holidays may have come into existence to provide a dose of cheer and camaraderie against the cold winter months, they have brought about their own stressors: competitive shopping, increased family tension, the pressure of appearing merry, etc. At the hospitals where I work, this season brings an uptick in suicides because of the stress and loneliness made all the more difficult by the bombardment of holly jolly advertisements and activities. With all these anxiety inducers swirling around, it’s easy to lose track of our own mental health, and that’s where this week’s Advent theme, joy, becomes all the more crucial.
While often used interchangeably with “happiness,” joy is really something deeper. It connotes not only celebration and exuberance, but fulfillment. Joy cannot be worn as a costume over despair. It cannot be bought at a store. It must be realized and felt and often fought for, and that makes it one of the more intimidating Advent themes.
Growing up, I remember fighting for joy around Christmas and Advent.
You see, when I was very young, my family experienced a devastating loss that put us into acedia mode around this time of year. The tree and the stockings and the lights filled us with conflicted emotions, and I was in my late teens before the holiday started to reclaim some sense of normalcy. There are still aspects of this season that generate some melancholy, and we still give ourselves space to grieve around this time of year, but my family has also incorporated new traditions to honor the old while finding joy in the new:
my dad’s annual stack of books,
hiding a fake squirrel in the Christmas tree,
the scented candle,
the private Muppet Christmas Carol viewing,
Jessi’s steadily growing nativity collection,
the Mom-and-Dad stockings–
they’re little things that help us inject some humor and fun, not so that we can put on an artificial happiness or overwrite our mixed history with Christmas, but so we can be reminded of the good in our lives and claim a little joy.
This time of year can be difficult for myriad reasons. Whether you’re experiencing grief for those absent, frustration at the commercialism, or a general numbness that feels all the more uncomfortable amid the lights and music and presents, there are ways to push back.
If you know your acedia is something within your control, reach out. Let’s talk through ways to make this season more joyful for you, and maybe you should plan to join us at Aardwolf the day after Christmas.
If what you’re feeling is deeper though, if it feels out of control and overwhelming, know that you’re still not alone. Almost a fifth of the U.S. population is struggling with some form of mental illness, and the holidays can exacerbate this. Reach out, and if I can connect you with helpful resources, I’d be happy to do so.
Joy is something we have to fight for, and sometimes we need help in that fight.
And so, we light the candles, lean on one another, and look toward the coming of Christ.