Oliver Sacks

lazy and wasteful

“Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God,
For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.”

“I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at eighty as I was at twenty; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done. I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever ‘completing a life’ means.”

image from 25.media.tumblr.com

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in which we are prompted to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I began with two quotes.

First are some lines from the hymn “Open the Doors.” (It’s performed online by the Holy Cross choir at Holy Cross Orthodox Church in High Point, NC.) What gripped my attention was the bit about wasting my life in laziness. My old pal, the deadly sin of acedia, of sloth, rears its ugly head—but takes its time in doing so! It remains a major struggle. I need help, both divine and human, to be shaken from complacency. (That help includes intercession from Mary, the mother of God, as strange as my non-Catholic past would have it.)

The second quote comes from Oliver Sacks’ book Gratitude, a wonderful little book published last year, which consists of four essays that he wrote in the time leading to his death. As the title suggests, he sums up his life with gratitude, of being “a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

But likely due to that sense of gratefulness, the time he has wasted troubles him all the more. Still, posed with expectations of completing his life, he injects levity by wondering what that’s all about anyway!

A few weeks ago, while Banu and I were still in Tennessee, we took my mom to the eye clinic. As we were in the waiting room, a cockroach came walking across the floor. I was requested to step on it, but I refused. I noted that when our civilization has turned to dust, this fellow will still be around. (That is, his or her distant descendants!) Dust to dust; ashes to ashes.

We are reminded of our mortality. We wear the ashes because there is no time like the present. Laziness and wastefulness meet their match in those ashes.

[The inscription on the image is “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust shall return,” Jacques Gamelin, Nouveau receuil d’ostéologie et de myologie dessiné après nature. 1779]