On Being A Sloth
Recently, a serious student mired in stressful study for a professional certification exam expressed anxiety about her current situation and concern about her work ethic, wondering how her study progress, judged by Time, would look any better than the movement of a sloth. This description got me thinking about our common use of the sloth as a standard metaphor for inefficient or unproductive slowness. I suggest that the comparison is entirely inapt, unfair to the sloth, generous to a fault to our own species, and revealing of our normal but false perception of speed and slowness.
The main difference between humans and sloths, contrary to the implications of our standard metaphor, is that sloths are very economical in their movements. They proceed from Point A to Point B quite slowly, or so we imagine; but they waste no energy in the process, doing only the minimum that they must do to reach their destination. Humans, by contrast, usually travel from Point A to Point B at least as slowly as do sloths – much more slowly, in most cases – but they have a genius for occupying themselves with a lot of pointless or self-defeating movements, and hence wasting considerable energy, on their way from A to B. This causes them to appear (at least to themselves and other humans) to be fast, when in reality most of them are extraordinarily, almost infinitely, slow, if we judge speed in the only way that matters, namely by the amount of time it takes to get anywhere worthwhile. Humans have a tendency to judge their speed by how frenetically they are shaking and dancing, rather than how efficiently they are getting where they want to be.
The difference between the slowness of the sloth and that of the human is that the sloth’s is essential slowness, whereas the human’s is accidental slowness. By that I mean that the sloth takes his sweet time getting where he needs to go, resting luxuriously on his journey, but this rest is always either a form of energy preservation for the journey or a subtler, less visible manifestation of the journey itself, and therefore beneficial, whereas the typical human’s slow progress is no function of any natural strategy, but rather an unintended result of his feverish expenditure of unproductive energy, and therefore detrimental. The difference between these two types of slowness is fundamental, analogous to the different senses of the word “good” implied in the phrases “a good way of life” and “a good way to start a forest fire.”
Genuine, which is to say essential, slowness, is a glorious thing in many ways, because it is the soul’s natural method of detaching itself from the “hurry up” obsessions and demanding irrelevancies of ordinary physical life, all that shaking and dancing we do to fill up our time without actually getting any closer to meaning and truth. In the practical world, speed seems important. In the theoretical (spiritual) world, speed is relative or insignificant; all that matters is finding the right direction, and then walking as steadily as possible along that path, stopping calmly to observe and examine anything interesting that you notice on the way, without fear of the clock or calendar. This path has its own time, separate from earthly time. Earthly time is made up of minutes, hours, and years. Theoretical time is made up of intuitions, reflections, analyses, deep conversations, and moments of blissful spiritual freedom.