Mis-using “Lazy”

Once upon a time there was a smug graduate student in psychology who decided to rid himself of the word “lazy”.

Not by refraining from being lazy mind you, just by getting rid of the word. If it was 1985 and we still were using paper dictionaries, I would have cut that page out.

At the time I thought is was too easy to explain away people’s behaviour by calling them lazy. Maybe it was because there was plenty of work I didn’t ever seem to get around to, but I couldn’t quite accept that the reason for it was that I had some pervasive character flaw. There were lots of accomplishments in my life that suggested I wasn’t a lazy person. I did like to sleep in till the late hours of the morning, but often I’d be up in the wee hours of the night pursuing answers to some burning question I had about the world.

I also contemplated dropping the word “smart” after one of my fellow doctoral students told me she’d seized not one, but two engines because she failed to change the oil in her car. How could a supposedly intelligent person make such a ridiculous mistake twice in a row? And how could an overachiever like I was, be so terrible at washing dishes or cleaning my apartment? “Lazy” just didn’t cut it. There had to be explanations that captured the complex and contradictory pattern of human motivation to do some things but not others.

For a time I decided to stop using the world “lazy” whether describing myself or other people. This made me realize just how often I’d been using it. (You should try it some time – pick a word and try not to say it at all for a week – it’s harder than you’d think. And I don’t mean “boysenberry” or “magician”. Pick a word that has lots of judgement tied up in it like “good” or “awful” and see what happens. But I digress.)

So I tried not using the “L” word, but I also tried not think of people (including myself) as being l- – – .

Over the years (see even if I’m lazy, I’m also persistent, or some might say, stubborn) my efforts to abandon the “L” word completely became more and more difficult. Just as the word “smart” does seem to capture a general pattern of capabilities and behaviour for some people, the “L” word still does have some isn’t completely divorced from reality.

photo-1465571673235-9eb44feba3b2Lazy, indolent, slothful: these words do seem to capture the behaviour of people who generally take the path of least resistance. If you’ve ever seen a sloth you’ll know exactly what I mean. But some of us are more like lions: intense periods of activity during hunting and procreation, followed by long periods of inactivity. Even if you’re more frenetic like a puppy dog, there’s a good chance you have some down time when doing what comes easiest is still your M.O.

Perhaps if I’d paid better attention in high school English classes I would have remembered (before today) that the word “lazy” is an adjective, and as such is meant to describe something. But description is not explanation.

So my minor epiphany (which occurred in the bathroom as usual) is this:

Lazy is a description not an explanation. 

Lazy tells us about a pattern of behaviour – one in which people are typically taking the path of least resistance.

But describing behaviour is not the same as explaining.

“So what?”,  you might ask, “I’m glad you’ve finally figured out what an adjective does and doesn’t do, is this really worth a blog post?”

The problem as I see it, is that we often confuse our descriptions for explanations, and it makes the world a much more confused, misunderstood, and even violent place.

We all figured that we grew out of name calling sometime around the 4th grade but maybe we just got more sophisticated about it. We replaced “four-eyes” or “browner” or “geek” with words like “conservative”, or “shy” or “soccer-mom”, or “schizophrenic”. Sure, we may not explicitly use them as put-downs, but we use labels, even fancy-pantsy educated ones to explain away people with a behavioural characteristic, rather than fully engaging who they are as human beings.

Think about the term “alcoholic”. It’s a description. It conjures up lots of images and feelings for many of us, but essentially it’s used to describe a pattern of alcohol use in which addiction and related negative consequences are present. But labeling someone an alcoholic doesn’t tell us much about why that person drinks the way that they do. The reasons are actually plentiful and varied. Often it has something to do with escaping negative feelings. But labelling a person as “an alcoholic” only tells us about how a person uses alcohol, it really doesn’t do much to explain or help to create any understanding about what to do about it. Perhaps it tells us that person should stay away from bars and booze, but it still comes short in providing any type of “why”.

The danger of labels, is that think we know more about a person than we really do. When we paint each other with broad strokes like “liberal” or “bigot” we deceive ourselves into thinking we understand a person and their motives. It helps us bridge that gap between someone’s bad actions and seeing them as a bad person altogether. They go from being the person who let their dog poop on our lawn without cleaning it up; to idiot, moron, or sociopath. We skip the rich and nuanced story of their actions and motivations and head straight a label that substitutes for true understanding.

As someone who’s listened to a many people’s pain over the years, I’ve noticed that we do this same injustice to ourselves on a regular basis. We call ourselves names. We substitute descriptions for explanations but wonder why we can’t seem to do anything about our particular set of problem labels.

Is it any wonder why so many of us despair about our lives and feel defeated by our problems? We label ourselves. Others label us based something saw on Dr. Phil. Even experts like doctors label us. Worse still, we may start to become our labels – fusing our identities with the names we’ve been called.

Yet the label really gives us no help to change because it lacks the “whys”. It is absent of any explanation or story that might help us figure out what to do differently. I have a big book of labels in my office that’s 700 pages long. Still it tells me very little about what people can do, even if in the end we decided that “lazy” was a good way to describe their behaviour.

When we confuse descriptions with explanations we often end up frustrated or in despair about our problems. Lacking the information about what we can do to change we assume it really must be ourselves that are the source of the problem. So then we move into labels for ourselves like “failure” and “chronic” and “hopeless cause”, while the reasons for our struggles remain hidden from us.

Many of us go through life with our labels about our selves, and our labels about other people, and about groups of other people. But without a genuine understanding of people and their motivations, we often end up entangled in hatred and violence against all of the above. We call somebody lazy without appreciating that most often humans choose the path of least resistance because they either lack sufficient motivation or have factors motivating them against the actions they need to take.

Maybe Joe’s been putting off that homework because he doesn’t like feeling like an idiot every time he tries to make sense of the assignment that he lacks the knowledge or skills to complete.

Maybe Luigi hasn’t cleaned his house because he can’t seem to find any point to working at something that doesn’t seem to make any difference in his lonely existence.

Maybe Maria hasn’t bothered trying for that promotion at work because all she can see is more stress and responsibility, and she doesn’t feel like there’s much reward for pouring her life into her job as it is already.

Maybe Sarah hasn’t followed her doctors orders about getting more exercise because it doesn’t feel like it makes much of a difference in helping her sooth the emotional pain of a tragic loss.

People do and don’t do things for a lot of good reasons, and while we might want to characterize them and their behaviour in a single tidy word, it’s rarely so simple, and never helpful to do so. Most of us, when we’re being “lazy” are actually suffering from some kind of motivational deficit or imbalance. If we delve into the reasons why we’re choosing paths of least resistance, there’s often some important and potentially helpful data to be found there. It’s information we can use to make changes. Rather than blaming ourselves for being what our labels tell us we are, we can approach ourselves with compassion and understanding.

So I’m pasting “lazy” back into my vocabulary. It’s a good word to describe what happens when you’re picking what seems easier over what seems harder. But I’m not bringing it back so I can engage in grown-up name calling and labeling. I think that using the word “lazy” runs the risk of being a lazy way to approach people and their struggles. And rather than put all the effort into erasing certain words from my vocabulary, I’m going to watch how I use adjectives and labels.  I’m going pay attention to my own tendency to mistaken descriptions for explanations with the hope that at least inside myself I can create a fairer and kinder world.


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