When I was a boy, one of my parents most frequent complaints about me was that I was lazy. As an adult, most people think of me as very hard working, often to a fault. It’s pretty clear to me now that my parents had it wrong. I think what they called lazy actually was that I didn’t show a lot of enthusiasm for the things they thought I should be doing. I’m old enough now to understand that was their issue, but as a child I took that into my core and thought of myself as a lazy person. No surprise that I have overcompensated for their judgement most of my life by making sure no one can think I’m lazy!
As a psychotherapist, I am often surprised and sometimes even amazed by the variety of ways people come up with to be critical of themselves; I’m not smart enough, it’s all my fault, I’m just not good at that, etc. Perhaps the most common judgement I hear people make about themselves is that they are lazy. Lazy is a particularly shaming label in our culture. America is the land of opportunity. We are a country founded by Europeans fleeing an aristocracy in which one’s station in life was limited by one’s birth, in order to found a meritocracy in which hard work could overcome any obstacle, where anyone can become a millionaire or even president. Americans see hard work as the great equalizer, and we admire industry over ability. If you are not succeeding in something, it must be because you are not trying hard enough, i.e., lazy.
We generally judge others, or ourselves, as lazy when they are not doing what we think they should be doing, like paying their taxes on time, or cutting the grass, doing the dishes, or taking out the garbage. It’s understandable that people might judge you as lazy if you don’t do these things, after all, they want you to do them. We are tribal creatures who still live in some semblance of community and things go better in any community if people are willing to do things they don’t really want to do that benefit others. There aren’t a lot of people who enjoy dealing with the community’s garbage or sewage, but it’s a job the community needs to be done, and so we have to find some form of compensation to make it sufficiently desirable for someone to be willing to do it.
When the compensation we provide for doing undesirable tasks doesn’t work, then we up the ante by collectively shaming people to do what they don’t want to do, just as my parents shamed me into becoming more industrious. In the same way I took in my parents’ judgement of me and made it my own, we shame people into doing things they don’t want to do by making them believe that they are lazy when they are not doing what we would like them to do. The best thing about shame is that it keeps on working even when you’re not there to bug people. You don’t even have to be there for people to label themselves lonely for not doing what you expect of them.
Consider the radical proposition that there is no such thing as laziness. What we call laziness is simply people’s very legitimate objection to being shamed into doing what they don’t want to do. People vote with their feet; they do exactly what they want to do, and don’t do what they don’t want to do. What we call laziness is when somebody says they want to do something but doesn’t do it, which really just means they don’t want to do it. How do we know that? Because they’re not doing it, and if they wanted to do it, they would be. When someone says they want to lose weight and go back for second helpings, they’re not ready to lose weight yet. They have shamed themselves or been shamed into believing that they should want to lose weight, but their behavior makes it clear that they are not ready to do that yet. People judge things as lazy because they think it’s socially unacceptable to not want to do the things they are supposed to do, so they pretend to want to do the right things, then attribute it to laziness.
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