Society has a charicature-like notion of laziness. We picture someone lounging with a teevee remote in one hand and junk food in the other, wasting away the hours. Sometimes this image includes a self-righteous partner scolding the lazy person.
There is another view that lazy folks disengage from activity because they haven’t discovered what they want to do or that tasks they are required to do are meaningless and dull. They must work just to pay their bills but their day jobs lack obvious meaning or intrinsic rewards. At the end of the day or when the weekend arrives, the “lazy” worker is so mentally exhausted that she no longer has the desire to do anything but relax.
One thing we know, is that society scorns laziness. Religious texts admonish against it; bosses threaten termination of lazy workers; and we express moralistic opinions about it. For most of us, it’s painful to work on long-term goals that provide no immediate rewards. Moralists like to connect poverty with laziness, regardless of how hard impoverished people actually work.
Laziness is much more nuanced than it appears.
Behaviorists note that idleness is a natural part of animal life. Mother Nature is a cruel mistress. Predation and starvation are constant threats. Competition among individuals and swings in weather conditions require prudent expenditure of energy. The human animal has evolved to spend as little energy as possible when we can get away with it.
It’s easy to forget that we live with the advantages of the industrial and post-industrial era. Before the advent of our convenient lifestyles, there were no modern surgical procedures, high-speed transportation, or refrigeration. For most people, it was nonsensical to think of the long term. In most cases, if people needed or wanted something, they had to act; this led to immediate gratification.
The invention of agriculture began to change this primordial way of life. Later, industrialization magnified the effects of agriculture and also provided an explosion of labor saving technology. However, the basic human instinct to conserve personal energy remains. We must use our intellectual powers of reason to motivate ourselves away from this inborn desire for relaxation.
While the picture of the channel-surfing, chip munching couch potato comes to mind, we forget that laziness can also manifest as our addiction to speed. Much of the population hurries from one activity to another. We zoom from work to the gym to home, to clubbing to spiritual seeking. We believe this effort will provide mental comfort. Instead of obvious laziness, there is oblivion from mental discomfort through over activity. We avoid honestly living with our true selves through escape into busyness.
Regardless of the form of laziness, idleness or over-activity, we still find little or no satisfaction in life, so we continue to be lazy in our preferred ways. We escape into entertainment, overwork, religion, saving humanity from itself, or indulging in food, drink, and other drugs. In the end, we still feel an existential void.
Laziness may manifest outwardly as fatalism, cynicism, bitterness, moralism, or rejection of society. Mental laziness can appear as blaming, scapegoating, spiritual dishonesty, and rejection of intellect. We notice that our existential crisis has now become chronic. In the end, we don’t give a hang anymore. We feel a dull meanness and helplessness at the same time. Our disappointment is focused towards the world and all those “other” people. Eventually, we just don’t care.
What’s a person supposed to do? If laziness is inate, can we do anything about it?
My guru once told me to really be honest about my own laziness. He advised that I look closely at my personal opinions and my physical behavior. He said to cultivate curiosity about my laziness. I should become as acquainted with my laziness as I am with a close friend.
He advised me to recognize when laziness goes away and when it arises again in cycles. This can be done through just paying close attention to oneself or by using formal meditation. At those times we slip into moralism, bitterness, or the urge to escape into indulgent behavior, we can pay attention to our thoughts. Instead of rejecting, we can lean into the urge and contemplate it. In this way, our laziness can teach us profound lessons about ourselves.
We will authentically realize that everyone else deals with some form of laziness. From this realization comes empathy and compassion. We can use this realization as the seed for real personal growth.