The Murderer Within

The Murderer Within

Our busyness can’t disguise the suspicion that we are being slowly diminished, not so much LIVING as PASSING TIME in a desert of our own devising.”

Kathleen Norris, “Acedia & Me”

Of all the so-called seven deadly sins, Americans are probably least likely to be accused of sloth. This is one failing we are more likely to attach to the stereotype of a Latin sitting in the sun shaded by his big sombrero and putting off real work until tomorrow or maybe next week.

We are quite willing to admit to greed or pride or lust, but sloth? Heck, the American worker is the most productive in the world. We have shorter vacations, put in overtime more frequently. We work hard and not only on the job. Our fitness centers are open round the clock. We do our Pilates before going to work, work our Blackberry’s and do our instant messaging during our commute, perhaps take a computer class after the job is over, unless we are transporting the kids to soccer practice. Truth is, keeping busy is one of our main occupations. Us slothful? Hell, we are far too busy for that.

Kathleen Norris (bestelling author of “Cloister” and “Dakota”) sees it differently. In her latest book “Acedia and Me,” (acedia is the word used by the ancient church for sloth) she finds in our manic pursuit of busyness the very roots of the sloth we are loath to admit. We are so afraid of commitment to a cause outside ourselves or of taking the time and effort to go deep within ourselves that we have built a wall of busyness around our lives. We spend our time changing our appearance(You’ll like the way you look” says the reassuring voice on the Men’s Warehouse commercial), so we won’t have to live up to the image of God within.

The things we do to avoid coming to grips with our true calling are not bad in themselves. Who can find fault with improving our physical fitness or learning a language? We are, if I may use the term, “devilishly” clever in figuring out ways to feel good about ourselves while avoiding our call to be the man or woman we are called to be.

Wendy Wasserstein, author of “Sloth and How To Get It,” observes, “When you achieve true slothdom you have no desire for the world to change. True sloths are not revolutionaries but the lazy guardians of the status quo.” Wow! Those are strong words, words that strip naked our “feel good about ourselves” culture.

There is a delicate balance between accepting ourselves with all our warts and wallowing in self-satisfaction. Our concentration on protecting everyone’s self esteem (starting with ourselves) should not blind us to our human tendency to accept things as they are rather than get involved in challenging the wrongs that need to be righted.

A lassitude of the spirit is the soul-killer that can wear away even our desire to change ourselves or the world around us. Pretty soon we no longer care, whether it’s about Darfur or about the children at the local homeless shelter. We go on with our lives trying to keep things manageable and under control. The circle of our interests shrinks because we avoid even listening to bad news or facing the suffering of children.

We say we fear we will be overwhelmed by the cry of the poor or the sheer magnitude of poverty. So, we end up by throwing up our hands or swallowing our drug of choice and saying it’s all beyond us. But it isn’t and never has been. We fail, not because evil has become too much for us but because we have allowed our greatness of soul to be eaten up by the slow rot of the murderer within.

The hidden demon in our midst is not the terrorist or the killer but good people who have decided that passing time and keeping busy is all we can expect of ourselves. If left unchecked and unacknowledged this is a sloth that kills, a laziness of the spirit that can lead us not only to be indifferent to the sufferings of others but even to lose the ability to care.

Kids can heal your soul

“The soul is healed by being with children”

Dostoevsky

I suspect that parents, dealing with their kids being home from school over the holidays, might choose to differ on the “soul-healing power of kids.” Words like “frustrated” or “challenged” or “driven berserk” are a few of the more polite descriptive words that might come to mind when big people spend school vacation time with the little people in their lives.

I sprung Dostoevsky’s quote on a young mother of three kids the other day (the devil made me do it) and, she harrumphed “Bet you Dostoevsky didn’t have any kids or, if he did, his wife was doing the child care in that household.”

Still, the presence of children in our lives can bring healing to the soul if we are open to it. Adults are caught up in dealing with future plans and schedules or still nursing wounds incurred in the past. Kids, just because they are kids, live in the present. It’s one of their greatest gifts.

When we find ourselves wrapped up in what we are going to do tomorrow or next week, kids have a way of looking at us bemusedly as though we really don’t get it. Their moment is in the now. “Let’s play basketball,” they’ll say while our adult brains are objecting “It’s time for dinner,” or we stall for time while we haul out that old chestnut, “Maybe later.”

Kids bring other gifts, too, like the soul-healing gift of honesty. I’m not sure how it happens that phoniness becomes such a part of our way of dealing with life, but it does.

The other day I’m walking my dog, Sammy with six-year-old Todd. Checking out my dog’s increased girth, I say to Todd “Wow! Sammy’s getting fat.” The little guy doesn’t miss a beat. “Yea, so are you Grandpa Hank.” Can you imagine another adult being that straightforward? But, for little Todd, he was just being honest.

In my life as a surrogate grandpa to a village of kids I feel indebted to the youngsters in my life. They heal my tired soul with their sense of wonder. Their energy puts a spring in my step. Their playfulness renews my own flagging spirit. Children’s natural optimism and openness to the future makes me dare to dream that evil will be overcome and we will survive.

Please don’t call this grandpa a Pollyanna. The kids I spend my life with can wear horns as well as angel wings. These particular kids have experienced major trauma in their young lives. Their wonderful honesty does not seem nearly as charming when they are telling you to go to hell or to “ f… off.”

But I still feel fortunate to be with them. Children give me a perspective on life I would not have without them. And yes, I have to agree with Dostoevsky, they do help to heal my soul. It is said that no one stands taller than the person who stoops to help a child. I would add that no person is as blessed.