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David Bouchier: International Sloth Day

Minke Wink

Do I detect the beginning of a rebellion against work? The extraordinary period we have just passed through had the effect of liberating millions of people from the daily work discipline that we previously accepted without question.

Some lost their jobs but were buoyed up temporarily by the government subsidy. Pandemic relief benefits also encouraged a lot of young people in arduous, low-paid jobs to walk away from them, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many found not working a great relief, and even a liberation. Employees who were able to stay at home and keep up with their jobs online escaped from long, tedious commutes and sometimes stressful office politics, and they enjoyed that, too. It seemed like a good deal all around, a revolution in our work lives that was long overdue.

Obviously, it was too good to last. Employers are calling back their work-at-home employees to office discipline, teachers have been recalled to schools, the subsidies are running out and it seems that the long time out will soon be over.

Work has a special status in America. Most of those idle foreigners consider work to be a curse and a nuisance. But here it is generally considered to be a good and even a noble thing. Where did that idea come from? Work is often tedious and exhausting — try driving a school bus or washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen or working on a phone bank and getting yelled at all day.

Idleness, on the other hand, is usually quite pleasant. which is why it is so popular in other parts of the world. If the statistics are to be believed, Americans work harder and take shorter vacations than almost anyone else in what we humorously call the developed world. It’s a source of astonishment to Europeans that Americans take so little vacation time. The average worker here gets a grudging 10 days of vacation after a year in the job if she’s lucky, and some get none at all. It’s not surprising that discontented workers, pressured to return to business as usual, are beginning to say: “I am never going back to that.”

You may not know that this coming Wednesday, October 20, is International Sloth Day. It’s not about laziness but about protecting that quiet and agreeable animal the sloth (or slothe, if you prefer) whose habitat is endangered by reckless and pointless human activity. He sleeps a lot, eats very little, moves slowly, and causes nobody any trouble. Nevertheless, he and his kind have survived for 60 million years, thanks to their relaxed habits and gift for co-operation. We humans have been around for only 2 or 3 million years, and we could learn a lot from the sloth. If competition and relentless work were the keys to survival the poor old Sloth would have been extinct long ago. But he goes one better than working at home, he does nothing at home, or anywhere else.

I met a sloth once in an animal park in Florida, and was allowed to stroke his rough fur while offering a few admiring remarks about his lifestyle. He was hanging upside down from a branch and didn’t bother to wake up, but I like to think that he sensed a sympathetic touch. We shouldn’t be afraid of sloth, which after all is the least harmful of the Seven Deadly Sins. We can wear ourselves out worrying about work and productivity, but the sloth doesn’t know, the sloth doesn’t care. The sloth, as always, is on vacation.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.