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A Life of Sloth

A Life of Sloth

Monday August 6

Throughout the summer, we are revisiting some of our favourite Ron Ferguson columns. In March 2010, Ron considered the advantages of 'aimless sloth'.

Here’s a tale worth thinking about – especially if you don’t have much time in your busy schedule for thinking. Is it a true story? Make your own mind up.

An American businessman looked at a Mexican fisherman’s catch, and asked how long it had taken. The Mexican indicated it had only taken a short time. The curious businessman asked him why he didn’t spend longer to catch even more fish. The answer was that he had enough to support his family.

Even more curious, the American asked the man what he did with the rest of his time.

“I sleep, I play with my children, I have a siesta with my wife, I go into the village and drink wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full life.”

The businessman was amazed. The fisherman, he said, should spend more time at sea, and from the proceeds he could buy a fleet of boats. Next, he could open his own processing factory, and move to Mexico City. After some years, he could sell his thriving business.

What then? “Well, you could retire and live the kind of life you want.”

“But I do that now,” retorted the confused Mexican.

In my experience with people who are facing terminal illness, no one has expressed regret that they hadn’t spent more time at work. Many have said wistfully that they wished they had invested more time in relationships, or getting to know their kids. There is such sadness in these conversations.

Workaholism is one of the addictions of our time. It is certainly rampant among the clergy. The irony is that many clerics are funning around like burdened approval-seekers, while preaching a gospel of unconditional grace. It would be comic if it weren’t so lethal.

One clergyman’s son wrote a chilling assessment of his father: “The only time I ever saw him was in the pulpit.”

Some of my best friends are ministers.

Some of my best friends are dead.

When Scottish Roman Catholicism meets Scottish Calvinism, the result is a double whammy. “I was brought up a Catholic,” said Billy Connolly. “That means I have A-level guilt.” Catholic guilt plus Protestant work ethic is a combination calculated to keep any human being running perpetually on the Great Hamster Wheel of life.

Now that organised religion is in decline in Britain, the puritan mentality has transferred itself to the secular sphere. The imperatives of the global market are eroding our lives. Long hours and slavering management are causing serious damage to human relationships.

Even leisure time is distorted, as people sweat and pound their way through tortured routines at the gym. No pain, no gain. The message is that you’ve got to ‘go for the burn’. Even if your marriage is going down the tubes.

As a marathon runner, the first seeds of doubt were planted in me when I learned that the running guru, Jim Fixx, had died. His book, The Complete Book of Running, was a favourite among those who put on their trainers in earnest. He assured us that jogging was great for the heart. Mr Fixx died at the age of 52. Of a heart attack. While out running.

Good news is at hand, though. Peter Axt, a zoologist and former champion long-distance runner, has produced research challenging the mania for heavy training. “No top sportsman has lived to a very advanced age,” he asserts. The secret of long life, he says provocatively, is “aimless sloth”.

Aimless sloth? That sound you hear is John Calvin birling in his grave.

In his book On the Joy of Laziness, Dr Axt gives four keys to long life: play less sport, reduce stress, eat less food, and sleep more. He advocates siestas and hibernation.

It was said of President Ronald Reagan that one particular crisis caused him “many a sleepless afternoon”. I must confess that I felt more secure when the leader of the western world was safely tucked up in bed in the White House. Maggie Thatcher, on the other hand, slept for only four hours a night, and she was a complete and utter pest during her waking hours.

The Mexican fisherman: now there’s a role model for a civilised, human life. Maybe even a Christian life. I think I’ll go and lie down now.