The Seven Deadly Sins: Whose Idea Was This Anyway?

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There is no experience you have had

that you were not

the absolute center of.

- David Foster Wallace


magine being an eight-year-old kid and wanting to try something exciting like walking to the public library by yourself. When you take this marvelous idea to your parents, however, they sadly inform you that this scheme of yours would likely not work out due to these things they know about you: You have a very poor sense of direction as evidenced by once getting lost at the mall when you were three; you often don’t pay attention in school so crossing the street is problematic; and since you have to be reminded to make your bed in the morning, you probably cannot be trusted to remember to come home. Sounds a bit absurd to our adult ears. But when we seek our own permission to put a meaningful life experiment in place for ourselves, we often encounter just such silly internalized conversations predicting failure. “I think I'd like to try thus and such," a brave part of you ventures. "No,” you whisper back, “I probably can’t do this. I shouldn’t even try.”

These horrible self-limiting impeachments take the existential form of the complete list of awful, the behavioral form of petulance and the cultural form of the seven deadly sins.

The complete list of awful comprises all the untrue and unhelpful labels our caregivers sew onto our vulnerable, little souls as they prepare us to go out into the world. It takes some resolute self-construction to successfully find and remove these misleading tags that have been pinned to our sense of self. I imagine that it would only take a peek inside yourself right now to find some residual sense that you are stupid, childish, boring, cowardly, unlovable and lazy. If you haven't done so, it might be helpful to read the article dedicated to debunking the complete list of awful before you read this one.

Petulant behaviors occur when a small but perhaps wise part of our inner circle of advisors worries that we may be in over our heads. Despite it's well-meaning intentions, this juvenile internal spokesperson too easily and too frequently hijacks our ambition. The article on petulance demonstrates how to listen to its concerns and yet control its power. That might also be a good article to read before proceeding forward with this one.

This article is all about sin.

While the concept of sin is culturally rather dated and frumpy, and few rational adults believe that babies are born to be bad, if we replace the word “sin” with the word “shame”, we will find within ourselves an ongoing vulnerability to the damnation of these seven deadlies.

It can be said that shame is the new sin.

Whose idea was this anyway?

The concept of sin is probably as old as the first terrified humans who tried to figure out why the gods were pelting them with hail. They must have done something awful to deserve this battering, right? The Greeks, as they did with everything, curated the prevailing ideas about human transgressions into a tidy list of poor thinking. In the fourth century, the Christian Church started its inventory of evil thoughts with the writings of the monk Evagrius Ponticus. Pope Gregory I codified the final list for the Catholic Church in the sixth century and the branding began. Each sin was assigned its own color, penance, punishment in hell and fee scale for absolution. The brand caught on and spread to the secular world along with its underlying message – shame on you.

Now, repackaged for the twenty-first century, the notion of "human nature" continues to be conjoined with the accusation that we have an innate tendency toward despicable behavior. This supercharged source of self-loathing goes in young, often and subtly, meaning we all come into adulthood adept at accusing ourselves of crimes of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth.

Even if you have read enough of this website to accept that shame is not ever helpful in any form, you may still not know what to do about this particular list of inner demons.

Are they manifestation of evil within each of us, there from birth? I don’t think so.

This article is designed to help you see these seven aspects of human nature in quite a different way – as tools. What is true about them is true of all tools – their elegant, surgical use creates tremendous triumph while their clumsy misuse can cause awful damage and despair.

Tools and intention

A tool is neutral until it is put into the hands of someone with intent. Is a hammer being held by someone whose objective it is to murder a neighbor or to frame a house? The seven words that we are discussing here are also neutral until they are joined with human intention, which we can signify by attaching an adjective to each noun. In other words, how we modify pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth indicates whether we should send them to the triumphant or the despairing end of the tool-use continuum.

In order to take the shame out of these raw human qualities, we need to first identify the underlying factor that defines the potential power of each noun and then determine the modifiers that establish either triumph or despair. My goal is to rehabilitate this list of human appetites by providing an existentially accurate understanding of how they can be tools in a well-handled life.

Okay sins, batter up!

Pride

One way to conceive of pride is to see it as the quantification of our self-esteem. As such, our level of pride will tell us how much confidence we can have in ourselves as we face the next existential moment. The assessment of our self-esteem, however, must be based on an honest accounting of the overall competency we are demonstrating in our day-to-day lives. (Not, it should be noted, on how far we’ve gotten in life, which is most often a function of how far along on the road to success fate chose to drop us off.) If we believe ourselves to be routinely both effortful and effective, our level of self-esteem will be high, meaning we feel proud of ourselves. When we are proud of ourselves, our souls are light, our energy consolidated and our focus clear, meaning we can be better participants in the world. We benefit because our life feels significant and the world benefits because we are very likely to continue to add our signature strengths to our community resources. And when we are citizens fully and routinely contributing our very best, our self-esteem remains high.

“But wait,” I can hear you say with rising squeamishness. “What about hubris? Ick. Those people who are too full of themselves. I don’t want to be like that!”

 

Gluttony

- Francine Prose

Greed

- Phyllis A. Tickle

The Dance of Anger

- Harriet Goldhor Lerner

Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion

- Carol Tavris

 

 

Do you have a question for me?

 

Here’s where the modifiers come into play. Left unmodified, the word “pride” floats unanchored and unable to distinguish between a genuinely proud individual and a squeam-inducing one. The adjective “justified” and its opposite “unjustified” provide us with the clarification we need. Justified pride is a level of self-esteem that has been established with good reason. The genuinely proud woman has carefully judged her current state of success using the following thought lens: What do I want to be true about me – what actually is true or what I can pretend is true? Unless we are willing to choose the former, our sense of pride will fall on the unjustified end of the continuum. Or, said another way, the woman with unjustified pride has inadvertently evaluated the degree to which she has managed to convince herself (and probably others) that she has been successful. Squeamy.

The power of pride, therefore, is the agency we access when our self-esteem levels are ample. When we can trust that we will likely do okay, it is easier to get going on the next important endeavor. The triumph-despair continuum runs between justified pride and unjustified pride, depending on how honestly we gather the data that describe how well we are accomplishing the parts of our lives that truly matter to us. If we are becoming the person we secretly want to be, even if it’s only slow but steady progress, our lives will be powered by ample and justified pride.

Greed

Of all the sins – or, more accurately, “sins” – greed is the most sociopolitical in that we are told by our culture what we should and should not want and to what degree. Implied by those rules is the line that determines greed. It is most often our context, therefore, rather than our intentions that determines if we are “wanting far too much” of a “good thing.”

Once we have been accused of crossing that line, we will also be accused of the two socially off-putting consequences of the conventional version of greed: an insatiable yearning in us that is unseemly and a frenzy to acquire things even when that acquisition comes at the expense of others.

But I believe that what we are greedy for should be determined by each of us for ourselves and that those two unimpressive consequences only occur when our greed is determined for us by others.

The perversion of greed that drops us off in an unimpressive place reflects cultural gaslighting of epic proportions. Let me walk you through this foul societal manipulation. (Let me also quickly remind you here that, while this gaslighting is a foul deed, indeed, it is not a deliberate evil plan, but is unavoidable when cultures elevate the male bias and disdain the female bias.)

As we’ve come to understand, tools need intentions to determine whether they are creating something lovely or something ugly. But, when it comes to greed, how do we tease apart our authentic intentions from the sociopolitical input? It is not at all easy. It may be easy to pop off answers to the question: What do you want? But most often we are automatically selecting from the forced choices prepared for us by our society because our minds have been well trained to go to a menu of acceptable routes to power and success.

Now, if this menu fails to connect us to our particular dreams (which is quite likely), we will be forced to choose a life designed by someone else for someone other than us. Why? Because true wanting, known by the existential term will to power, is the pathfinder to our true selves. Only a scant few humans are trained to want well, to utilize the highly successful route to their passion. Instead, as I've been hammering on about, most of us are given an extremely limited menu handed down to us through the generations of adults poorly trained in existential skills. When our wanting is inherited and misfitting, we will get lost in a life designed for another person. There is nothing less satisfying than living someone else’s life. Dissatisfaction leads to an emptiness that is unyielding. What a person typically does at that point is try to fill his or her life with compensatory satisfactions, again from a culturally approved list of acquisitions – those sunglasses, that car, this neighborhood. This type of person looks very greedy because, while social proof of worth may come from acquiring, nothing truly satisfying does. People in this situation remain existentially empty as they continue to acquire and will be dumbfounded if you suggest to them that they have too much.

If, on the other hand, we are lucky, we start with the question: Why?

Why does anything matter? It is the why that gives each life it’s unique purpose. If we can respond to that basic question with our own constellation of truths rather than making a forced choice from the cultural menu, then seeking out the how and the what will feel like an interesting quest rather than a desperate game of musical chairs. Nietzsche put it better: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Our job is to fill up our lives with our most excellent dreams, which will automatically allow our healthy curiosity and unique talents to drive us toward our personal potency, innovation and creativity. And when we are thus living on purpose, our lives feel replete.

The positive power of greed is created by a near constant striving to bind the what-do-I-want and the why questions forever together. Because we humans are absolutely designed to work our way toward answers to those two particular questions, just the effort to do so brings us genuine satisfaction.

The triumph-despair continuum relative to greed is anchored by the adjectives authentic and inauthentic. Greed that is modified by the word authentic reflects voracity for life that is a function of a passionate, unique being-in-the-world. As such, it directs that specific life toward ever more personally fulfilling activities so that, as one matures, one feels simultaneously satisfied and driven. Yoked together, satisfaction and yearning create an internal stability that prevents either state from dominating. Yes, we still want even more, but because we are well-fed by the subtle but deeply nourishing state of serenity, our hunger doesn't drive us into unseemly acquiring. The other end of the continuum, inauthentic greed, can be characterized by the Sartrean term, “bad faith.” When we are living in bad faith we are living a generic life dictated by societal forces and not by our individual passions. Folks doomed to this type of existence will acquire only for acquisition’s sake, resulting in the unsatisfying, noncumulative and relentless pursuit of ever more.

Lust

In our continuing theme of looking at the “sins” from an existential, feminist standpoint, let’s look at the potential power underlying the concept of lust. At its most basic, lust is the drive to meet another entity in order to generate a passionate encounter. Sex is only one such type of encounter. There are many ways humans can partner up to fuse two passions, two sets of skills, two perspectives and two separate personalities. When it works well, merging into a partnership creates something both novel and, thrillingly, greater than the sum of its parts. Who wouldn’t see a Rogers-and-Hammerstein experience as enviable?

But lust can be treacherous to the person experiencing it. What we risk when we lust is rejection, and, further, rejection by someone we perceive as very important to our happiness. Rejection is an extremely painful human event, telling us that we are not enough for someone else. We will not be chosen. Therefore, the payoff to seeking a merger has to be great enough to support our taking that risk. Nature provides us with abundant biochemical rewards for risking an intense encounter…from serenity to ecstasy. These lovely states of internal bliss allow us to adopt willful abandonment, risking wrenching rejection because the possibility of a peak experience is absolutely worth it. Without this courage, we might as well place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on our lives, indicating to others that we are not open to creating any dynamic partnerships at this time.

But, because of the potential for addiction to the biochemistry of ecstasy, the temperance mentality of the dominant culture would have us believe that lust is simply bad and must be avoided (even if it is just in our thoughts). In other words, many cultures believe that people just cannot be trusted to keep their appetites in line, so must be shamed into trying to eliminate those appetites. For example, if you tell people that you run to keep in shape, you will probably be met with admiration. If you tell people that you have to run, their looks may be a bit more askance.

We are also frequently told that the target of our lust is inappropriate. What does it mean if you are lusting after something the culture has determined is shameful? Actually, the chances are very good that if the culture is trying to shame you, it is not because the will of the species has been activated (as in the incest taboo or disgust with those who attempt a Ponzi scheme), but rather it is because a rigid few in power are protecting a status quo that benefits them at the expense of others. So, check in with your guilt system when you go looking for encounter to ensure that the thrust of your lust is something you feel positive about. And then, as they say, go for it.

Just as it is unlikely that the target of your lust is shameful, it would also not be likely that a normal person would force an encounter on anyone, because, in the truest sense of the word “lust”, what one is seeking in a synergistic relationship is a partnership between equals. Lust requires two powerful appetites that both yearn for the same thing.

You can see, then, that the continuum at play with respect to lust concerns the person’s attitude about dominance. At the positive, triumphant end of the continuum is an egalitarian attitude that signals to the recipient of our lust that we are interested in a true partnership. We want to make something magical together, be it a baby or an opera. At the negative, despairing end of the continuum is an attitude seeking hierarchy, where one is being interviewed as a potential underling, perhaps a sidekick or even a slave. We’re looking for someone willing to simply take orders. (There is nothing wrong with being a leader ready to give instructions, but lust represents a quest for a level of intimacy that cannot morally exist in a power-based relationship.) A distinction needs to be made, therefore, when we use the word “lust” by modifying it with either the adjective egalitarian or the adjective hierarchical.

When we have learned to lust well, our yearning for joining with another will reflect an insatiable wish for a peak experience created in partnership through loving, open communication. Because in each encounter we are involved with a partner who is vital to us, our lust is held in check by empathy and respect for the other. And because our own participation is vital to these peak experiences, we will protect ourselves from exploitation, ensuring our on-going synergy and well being. A well-intentioned lust will drive us to risk approaching another for the purpose of ethically merging two equal and passionate sets of dreams. We flourish when we have enormous desire for our specific type of partner.

Anger

What a hot potato anger is. People seem to be very eager to offload it rapidly rather than study this "sin" in order to understand its potential uses. Further, we human beings spilt our perspective on anger along gender, religious and cultural lines when we do try to make sense of this ferocious human experience. And we tend to merge the concepts of anger, rage, hate, and revenge all under the rubric of this particular vice. We also confuse anger that is an emotion with anger that is a state of mind driving a chosen behavior.

No wonder we are conflicted about this intense human characteristic as it appears in ourselves and in others.

Let’s start our exploration of this “sin” by clarifying all these terms from a psychological standpoint.

Anger starts as a message sent from your mammal brain to your human brain telling you something that matters to you is being threatened. As such, anger is information about potential danger. It also sends a message out to your physiological systems to prepare your entire body for action. All this, of course, happens at something over 250 miles per hour. There are many, many fine books and websites that explain in great detail with lots of colorful illustrations what happens when the limbic system is activated by anger. Just Google limbic system and anger. Let me briefly say here that the instantaneous effect the feeling of anger has on our physiology can be life-saving as it readies us to react as powerfully as we are able. Do I need to describe how this is a good thing? How it is probably helpful to have both some warning and also a revved up engine when there might be danger?

Rage is distinct from anger in that it is an emergency broadcast message sent out by our two amygdalae recommending that we instantly over-react because we are about to be trapped. Consequences be dammed, the need to over-react, or panic, is meant to precipitate escape-enhancing flailing, flinging and bolting behavior. (Picture sprinting through flames to safety or lifting a fallen log off your child’s leg.) Rage, like panic, is always precipitated by a terrifying sense of the psychological claustrophobia of doom. You can see that rage is a more hefty and treacherous tool than anger and needs even more care in its use.

Hate and revenge are interpersonal scenarios that people choose to either visualize or enact because they feel the need to punish those who have hurt and thus angered them. These are moral, ethical concerns reflecting cognitive processes rather than emotional ones.

Now we need to explore the emotional versus behavioral aspects of anger.

Anger as an emotion, as I said above, is a warning signal. As with all emotions, it will be both instantaneous and highly individualized. We will be immediately affected by our anger (whether we are aware of it or not) in both psychological and physiological ways. And what angers us individually will vary greatly from person to person due to the specificity of our concerns. Almost everyone gets angry when they see someone kick a golden retriever puppy but not everyone gets mad when they see aluminum cans sitting in a garbage can.

Anger as a mood, on the other hand, is a state of mind that occurs when we cognitively hold on to the emotion of anger by constantly reintroducing the narrative of the injury (or potential injury) into our present thinking, thereby reactivating the amygdalae. (Note: If done with enough verve and constancy, this re-exposure process can actually create a sense of rage as the brain starts to fear that it is being cornered.) When in an intentional mood state, both anger and rage can be very effective motivating strategies. (Picture here a long campaign to redress a social wrong.) These two states can also precipitate both poor health and poor behavior. Their usefulness is, of course, dependent on our intentions.

Now we need to concern ourselves with our intentions which brings us to our continuing continuum conundrum. (I just can’t help myself.)

Anger, in all its forms, can be a life-saving tool by either biochemically empowering us to act in an emergency or cognitively motivating us to act in the cold light of day.

It can also destroy.

How do we distinguish the former from the latter?

What is needed is a brain that has a well-rehearsed rubric to evaluate two dangers: the danger represented by the original threat and the danger of destroying something with a thoughtless reaction to that threat. Sounds easy enough. Unfortunately, as I've mentioned, many folks simply try to eliminate anger rather than learn how to use it. Hopefully this article will help disavow folks of the idea that anger should be eliminated and will set out a strategy to tame this potent human experience.

Anger as a good thing: The power the emotion of anger provides us is protection like one finds in a well-guarded castle. When your periphery is patrolled for danger by well-trained sentinels, you can rest assured that you will get an early and pertinent warning of threat that should allow you to prepare, ponder and thus react appropriately. This requires a well-designed defense system. A simple example would be learning how to spot early signs of dysfunction in a relationship by attending to your disgruntled feelings. The power of enacting anger provides us with a range of behaviors that can repel dangers once they have been identified. This requires a well-designed assertiveness skill, e.g. it probably makes sense to assert early and often in a relationship if disgruntled feelings start to accumulate.

Taming anger: People have a great range of choice for their behavior after receiving the warning message anger is trying to convey. The successful use of anger requires the same thing that the successful use of all these human tools requires – healthy intentions. With anger, however, there is a slightly greater need to train the brain to react both well and quickly due to the survival-mechanism speed of this particular “sinful” human characteristic. In other words, we need to learn how to get ahead of our anger. We do this by focusing on our ability to be thoughtful and consistent in our decision making when we are angry. What I'm leading up to is this: the triumphant or despairing use of this tool is a function of our coherence.

In order be coherent with respect to anger, we have to decide deliberately what we wish our relationship with anger to be and we need to put in place a protocol for carefully considering anger-inducing events.

Our relationship with anger: Have you ever thought about what kind of angry person you want to be? I recommend thinking about that. Again, rather than put energy into trying not to ever be angry, maybe think instead about how you could be angry well. If you are confused about the role of anger in your life, I would refer you to some of the books in the FAWBOT box and encourage you to study what I consider to be an extremely helpful human characteristic. I think there is much to be said for anger infused with stillness and thought.

Our anger protocol: If you choose to include anger in your psychological toolbox, you will need that protocol mentioned above in order to create a coherent relationship with it.

If anger is an alarm that is telling us that something that matters to us is being threatened, the protocol needs to concern itself with evaluating that threat as quickly as possible. What is actually being threatened and what does that something actually mean to us? If a human has a coherent relationship with anger, the emotional signal of danger will precipitate a cascade of efficient and wise thinking. To wit: Is there actually a danger here? If not, move to self-correcting and self-soothing thoughts. If so, is it a true fight or flight situation? If there is imminent danger, react! If not, assess the nature of the danger. The assessment will sound like this: What, exactly is being threatened? (This, BTW, is a huge and critical question, needing to be deeply considered.) Why has this type of threat mattered to me in the past? Does it still matter? If not, move to self-correcting and self-soothing thoughts. If so, what is the best strategy to use to neutralize the threat? What kinds of behaviors have worked (and have not worked) in the past?

The brain is designed to accept our personalized assessment of How The World Works and use that assessment to determine if and when something we actually, currently value is being threatened. If we practice, as an example, needing to always be the best at everything, feelings of anger will fire off when our brains detect a trailing situation in a competitive environment. “You’re about to lose!! Do something!!” warns our mammal brain. If we practice appreciating friendly games of challenge instead, our brains will not find competition a threat and we will not get angry if we start falling behind.

To get ahead of anger, we need to practice like an emergency response team does so that when the alarm sounds, we don’t lose our heads, but proceed quickly and carefully through well-thought-out protocols. With some concerted practice, you will be primed to protect yourself using impressive, measured strategies.

If, on the other hand, you indulge in an incoherent relationship with feelings of anger, your reactions will be juvenile and less likely to be effectively guided by experience. An incoherent relationship with the feelings of anger would be one that is characterized by instant reaction absent thought. This is the behavior that gets labeled “losing your temper” or “being swept away by rage” and is an immature and self-indulgent way of responding to an anger alarm. It may feel good in the short run to blow our top, but it rarely takes us up the self-actualization mountain.

In sum, when well practiced, our defense systems can be trusted to give us lots of warning. And, with practice, our neo-cortex will respond quickly with an efficient protocol to assess the danger and possible reactions to that danger. Finally, when our values are kept thoughtfully up to date, our neo-cortex will consistently make wise choices, resulting in our having a coherent relationship with the tool of anger.

Note: If you find that you still believe anger is problematic, I urge you again to read a couple of the books listed in the FAWBOT section. I believe very strongly in the power of coherent anger – especially for women – and encourage you to try to see anger as brilliant tool.

Gluttony

The contemporary term for gluttony is “binge.” We binge eat our way through half a batch of mac and cheese, binge drink a bottle of pinot during dinner, binge read a trilogy over a long weekend, or binge watch Season Three of Downton Abbey until one in the morning. What each of these incidents has in common is a sense of abandonment. What we get to abandon when we binge is the near-constant pressure to live a reasoned and restrained life.

A good binge is, in essence, a vacation. We get a brief respite from the relentless discipline required of us in our ongoing efforts to be ever better, ever stronger and ever wiser. If it is a well-designed episode, after we indulge we return to our daily regimens refreshed. Additionally, if we allow ourselves an occasional binge, we can relax a bit day to day trusting that there will be breaks ahead where we can rest up with excesses of comfort. Most cultures acknowledge this legitimate need and build into their calendars celebrations that allow the citizenry to indulge in over eating, drinking and dancing ’til dawn.

Most of us don’t indulge in excess very often. Why not? Because we know two things: there’s a price to be paid for indulging, and if we do something too often, we will lose the ability to use it as a vacation.

Similar to a kid with a freshly harvested bag of Halloween candy, a good binge needs to be closely supervised by the adult in us who wants us to have a favorable result from the indulgence. Good parental voices monitor the timing, frequency and duration of our breaks from mature living. Poor internal parenting, in contrast, either pays no attention to the way the little kid in us is gobbling up comfort or moves in quickly to shame us for any small intemperance.

So what does our internal supervisor need to know? The continuum that anchors the human intentions around gluttonous consumption runs from scheduled to unscheduled. Here are the salient distinctions between the two:

A scheduled binge utilizes the wise parental voices inside our heads that want us to be both challenged and supported. These two perspectives will automatically consider our intentions relative to the need to relax our vigilance with a binge. Are we truly due for a mental vacation from whatever type of restraint is starting to chafe, and do we currently have a positive balance within our “sin” budget for this particular type of comfort? If so, we book it. If not, we delay the binge with a firm yet gentle explanation to ourselves.

When it’s about time for a well-earned break and we have enough vice currency to afford the binge (e.g. high levels of health, time, money, calorie flexibility and so on), then it makes sense to think about the timing of the episode. Optimally, we schedule a lovely binge at a time in the near future that is free from distractions, the need to rush and any harsh judgment from others. When these three requirements are met, we are better able to appreciate every moment of the experience and return refreshed to our daily lives.

If we schedule gluttony too frequently, we will deplete our abandonment budget and will be borrowing from future gluttonous episodes. Too frequent binges create a debt that sends us back into our daily lives with a heavier burden and the need to be ever more restrictive with ourselves. These heavier restrictions will ironically drive us more quickly back into the need for relief. If we schedule gluttony too infrequently, on the other hand, we may find it quite difficult to stop a gluttonous episode and return to our reasoned and restrained life. An out-of-control binge is a terrifying and extremely unrestful endeavor!

The optimum duration of a binge is determined through experience. Binge hangovers are what teach us we have over-overindulged and they can take many forms. I can personally attest to the extremely unpleasant lethargy and loss of perspective caused by binge reading, the physical nausea of too many cookies and a day lost to fatigue from one-too-many-late-night episodes of The Wire. On the other hand, I can also attest to the disgruntled and unsatisfied feelings that occur when a vacation from restraint is either denied or cut short. As is always the existential case, when we bravely and honestly monitor our past, we gather information that will help us better guide our future. There are many astute insights to be had by studying our gluttonous behavior in the absence of shame. As mentioned, we will gain competence in scheduling our comforts as we come to recognize our patterns of needs and the effectiveness of our binges. We will learn to recognize that satiation always is achieved in the near future and we carefully watch for the clues of its imminent presence. Like a schooner coming into the dock, we drop our consumption sails short of over-overindulgence and coast into the feelings of satisfaction. When we stop in time, we dock gently back into life, prepared to face the future refreshed rather than hung-over. And, after those times when we miscalculate, we gently provide a hangover cure from our personal bag of remedies along with a bit of a talking-to.

An unscheduled binge is an unsupervised indulgence that the child in us sneaks when it thinks we’re not looking. Ad hoc and purloined binges tend to be rushed, numb and embarrassing. The aftermath of such an episode involves residual feelings of guilt for sure, but even worse, disconnection from our better, wiser sides. It is a recipe for disaster when there are two factions within our brain (the child and the adult) who neither trust nor respect each other.

The power of gluttony, then, is the way it can enhance our ability to stay disciplined in our daily lives because we know that we can look forward to a well-earned mental vacation in the near future. A well-supervised binge puts a personal holiday on our calendar beckoning us with its promise of ease. A poorly administered binge leaves us with a ghastly sense of having stolen something unearned and having done something unhealthy.

Of course we are tempted by the joy and relief of partaking in the indulgences of life. If we understand this need for a break from the strain of restraint, we can replace the feelings of self-pity or disdain around a binge with curiosity about how to manage comfort well.

A final plug for gluttony. When we manage a well-scheduled vacation from self-discipline and then return a little happier to our difficult lives, we maximize our chances of making steady progress toward a life kept in balance by existential fullness. In other words, a well-rested self-discipline enhances our willpower which increases both our will and our will to power. As a result, our lives continue to include an abundance of healthy, regular joys and our desire for mass consumption as comfort will naturally diminish.

Envy

Envy isn’t like the other vices on the list. It is not something any of us eagerly seek out, nor is it something we can avoid. I would say envy is like a rock with a cipher attached that fate throws through the window of our life. Sometimes the window is open and the message easy to decipher. (I envy her that sleek, classic bob. Is it time for me to brave getting a short haircut?) And sometimes a boulder crashes through the glass and threatens to utterly destroy our peace of mind. (I wish I had gotten biopsy results like she did. I’m relieved for her, but it’s going to be very hard to be around her for a while.)

So if envy is a vice, it certainly isn’t a fun one. Even a light “case” of envy causes nausea. This begs the question, then, what good is it?

Envy is a prime motivator. It tickles us or tortures us, depending on the depth of our feelings, into facing a void in our life. This is because envy is precipitated by exposure to something someone else has that we can then picture having ourselves. Envy can be a good thing if the increased wanting due to exposure stimulates us to action. If it’s a tiny tickle of envy, with little effort we can collect the enviable result. (I’m talking to my friend on the phone and she expresses satisfaction for having just completed her taxes. I envy her. I take that soupçon of envy and use it to motivate me to get my taxes done because I can picture how soon I could be where she is right now.) Or it may be a big dose of envy that requires more strength of character to pursue. (I am tormented by envy of those folks who can assert themselves with calm, effective skill. Each time I witness such an event I record it in my mind, study it and try to emulate it. This is apparently going to be a life-long effort for me, so I need envy to keep me on my toes.)

But envy also forces us to face the terrible discourtesy of fate. When we are envious of something we cannot ever have but greatly desire, we suffer, on a very, very personal level, from the apparent lack of justice in the universe. We come face-to-face with the existential truth that we can neither understand nor control fate. Crap. How we handle that confrontation tells us something about ourselves. How far and how gracefully do we travel along the path of grief when we have been dealt a tragedy? If we take our coefficient of adversity too personally, we run the risk of stalling somewhere unpleasant along the path of healing. (Which is not to say that every step along the messy process of handling a shit-has-happened episode isn’t valid to take. For example, it isn’t necessarily inappropriate whining to ask “Why me?” or “Why not me?” Nor is it illogical to want to isolate, rant, plot revenge, wander, eat and so on.) The trick with grief is to remember that dealing with a tragedy is a journey best traveled at a steady pace. Envy, ironically, will offer reminders to us to keep moving toward the light.

I’ll bet you’re wondering about the tool-use continuum relative to this vice. To my way of thinking, a triumphant use of this vice occurs when we convert the discomfort of envy to explicit motivation. More specifically, we benefit from envy when we intentionally decipher the message behind the feelings. With the cipher decoded we can then act. If we envy something that we simply cannot have, we remind ourselves to activate our grieving system, support network and willingness to be honest with our intimates. If we envy something that we cannot have in the form we think we want most, we need to imagine other ways to meet the underlying want and make the commitment to work toward that. If we envy something well within our wheelhouse, we need to examine what has been preventing us from obtaining it. Feel envy? Make a plan, Stan.

Envy causes despair when it is encapsulated within a brain unwilling to decipher the existential wanting it has encoded. Encapsulation occurs when we are humiliated by the feelings of envy because we have been taught that these feelings are weak or evil or self-inflicted. We enclose the message in the scar tissue of denial, hate or self-loathing as we try to distance our tender egos from angsty envy. This is when envy becomes poisonous, when it has been cut off from the natural process of growth or healing and, instead, been left to fester. Who hasn’t experienced this toxic response when we are unable to assimilate a life lesson? If this is an occasional lapse, our psyches will manage the toxicity. But if it starts to be our routine behavior, our poor, little egos will start to be poisoned. External sources of healing will probably be the required antidote at that point.

The power in envy, similar to anger, is the power of information. It allows us to see what we secretly want even if we have been trying to hide it from ourselves. It behooves us to realize that if there is no one we envy, we have stopped dreaming and aspiring. It is also, oddly, the last vice to leave our side. It is indeed our deepest, most stable ally. Long after the other sins have ceased to motivate us to make a change in our lives, envy sticks with us, urging us to keep trying.

If we have the courage to tolerate the discomfort of envy as we decipher the message attached to the rock of fate, we will convert the information to a usable form. If not, we encapsulate the information with poorly designed defensive strategies that leave us weakened by the noxious sludge that is always created when we try to ignore valuable personal data.

Sloth

Sloth is the old-fashioned word for lazy, and lazy is the grand poobah of the complete list of awful. We are all exquisitely vulnerable to being humiliated by the terms sloth/lazy, for we each know how much more productive we could be at almost any moment of the day. None of us give 110%. Or probably even 80%.

Life takes so very much energy. We get tired. So, what are we supposed to think about our need to step off the treadmill from time to time?

If sloth is seen as idleness preferred to work, what would make a person choose inactivity?

From a sin perspective, people choose not to work because they are characterologically lazy. As I’ve written here and elsewhere, I simply do not believe in an original flaw model of human design.

From an existential perspective, people struggle to stay engaged with work when they don’t have access to the kind of work that matters to them.

From a feminist perspective, folks will avoid work when the cultures within which they exist under-provision them, leaving them both unstipulated and under-resourced.

If life has proceeded well for you, you should feel like you have the best job in the world whether it is out in the world, on the domestic front or some of each. Not every minute of every day will be fun, for there will be tedious tasks, boring stretches and anxious moments, but your day will be full of enough joy to get you easily out of bed in the morning. In such a life, sloth represents a stolen moment here and there when we indulge in doing absolutely nothing. We aren’t concerned about our relationship with sloth because we feel comforted by the fact that our challenging lives will get us up and going again in a timely manner. For us lucky, lucky folks, our domestic and career worlds leave us physically tired but mentally stimulated. We’re winner rats in the race of life.

If our coefficient of adversity is high, however, our domestic work and/or our out-in-the-world work deplete us of both physical and mental resources. We’re doing a job that isn’t aligned with our gifts, meaning we face tedious tasks, boring stretches and anxious moments our entire day. Life is a big, big drag. In this type of life, sloth is a constant siren song luring us to the place of apathetic stasis. A place where, despite the soul-crushing lethargy, we would like to stay for a long, long time.

Well, does it mean we’re slothful if we pull ourselves away from work? Since sloth involves choosing not to work, the distinction between restful sloth and apathetic sloth is made by looking at our motivation for making the choice to step back. In other words, we need to look at what work means to us.

Everyone is born with their particular array of personality traits and gifts. There are many ways each of us can find work that engages a high percentage of our talents. And who wouldn’t want to do something that they can do well? The best feeling in the world is being on top of your game. And to work well is to grow, meaning that we are bigger versions of ourselves daily when our world of work fits us. So, lethargic sloth is diagnostic rather than shameful. Retreat from work that doesn’t feel restful is an indication that we are misemployed. It isn’t “I don’t want to go to work.” It’s “I don’t want to go to work THERE and do THAT.”

(Although it is important to note here that depression can look an awful lot like sloth from the outside. If you or someone in you life seems immobilized, you must rule out depression before you tackle reorienting to the concept of sloth.)

Sloth is the “sin” of indolence. But synonyms for sloth also include languid, relaxed, dreamy and leisurely. Those states sound pleasant. And beneficial. So the power of sloth is protection from the “hurry sickness” that exhausts so many of us. If you see your work skills as precious, you will administer them well, not be stingy with them nor give them away so freely you risk burnout. The triumph-despair continuum aligns between diagnosed and undiagnosed sloth, meaning we need to assess the flavor of our sloth. If it is restful and easily concluded, we are luckily, happily employed. If we are backing away from doing the work of life and our indolence is unpleasant, what we are seeking is permanent escape from a work life that does not suit us.

I’d write more about the concept of sloth, but it’s time for my nap.

Existential Reframe

You may be thinking that this essay is a “feel good” piece meant to reassure you that humans are basically good creatures by simply reframing pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth as nifty tools. But what I am meaning to accomplish here is to relocate our sense of agency relative to them. Our human mandate, I would argue, is to value the power of the sins sufficiently to motivate us to consciously practice using them.

Unfortunately, we are fed the unmodified and highly shamed version of each sin and told that our mandate is to avoid these behaviors entirely. When we try to do this, however, we tend to fail fairly spectacularly. Avoidance is an effective strategy for poison oak, but not for human tendencies. We are born with this set of tools and we can either learn to use them well or turn our inner life into a blind civil war that feels like the forces of evil are battling a vital part of ourselves.

So this essay is a call to action and an appeal for courage, asking you to learn to face these human characteristics in their raw, juvenile form, and rather than fear that they will lead you into temptation, turn them into psychological plowshares.

Our job as humans is to do these things: Work to improve our self-esteem, overtly, in order to optimize justified pride. Authentically prioritize what we want to greedily gobble up in our day-to-day endeavors. Remember to scan our world to find potential partners for creating lusty new ways of doing things. Practice having a coherent relationship with anger so that, if we judge that a threat has occurred, we are ready with the skills to quickly and thoughtfully react. Gently and consistently schedule binges of comfort for ourselves as rewards for leading a restrained and difficult life. And monitor our sloth. If it isn’t both restful and manageable, we need to recommit to finding a better line of work.

These seven tools are beyond valuable. They energize us, direct our efforts, and sustain us in our struggles. Plus, part of how we get to know ourselves is by uncovering what specifically activates pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth in each of us. I give the last word in this existential reframe to Nietzsche: “The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us.”

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.