Monday, 14 August 2017

Landlord Sins - Sloth

Landlords have existed for centuries, and there are many stories of bad landlords, who harm their tenants, their investments, and ultimately themselves. When I have been thus guilty, it's often been through ignoring the Seven Deadly Sins' wise messages of moderation.

Sometimes you just couldn't be f****d.

Bills due. Repairs required. Tenants' demands (if you're lucky to have them.) Frustrations can build to the point where you ask yourself if any effort is worthwhile.

Sometimes the reluctance to act comes without any precipitating event. You just wake up in a funk, thinking only of writing the day off and staying in bed.

What makes things worse is that you know this is sloth. Or is it?

What is the difference between an 'off day' and an averseness so strong that it jeopardises your connection to God?

Sloth (historically, 'acedia') is the only one of the seven deadly sins with a manifestation - depression - so abhorrent to modern society that it is attacked with the full weight of medical science. You don't hear of drug trials for chronic pride, or research grants for terminal lust. Even the consequences of greed and gluttony attract more treatment than the causes.

Perhaps it is verses like this:
"So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:16)
"TLDR: Hang in there."
… And:
"Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be cut down and shall be cast into the fire." (Matt. 7:19).
… which perpetuate the message that anything less than hyperactive sycophancy calls for alarm, and possibly medication.

However, sloth is not so clearly the absence of enthusiasm. Its warning against idleness benefits from qualification. 'Sloth', itself a translation of acedia (latin: 'care-lessness'), was cobbled together from a bunch of historical sins with two themes:
  • Aversion to work, whether physical or spiritual … to an extent that risks disrupting the natural order.
  • Numbness, or lack of sensation ... severe enough to alienate the sufferer from creation.
So, good news: the degree of laziness required for sloth/acedia is far greater than the general antipathy that afflicts landlords from time to time. Paying bills or arranging maintenance a couple of days late is slovenly but not sloth, while derogating those duties to the point of being taken to court or causing greater structural damage is.

In the modern environment, time taken to formulate a considered response is often mistaken for sloth. Shooting from the hip, laying down full-auto suppressing fire at a hair-trigger when issues arise attracts praise for responsiveness, but may be a form of gluttony in the waste arising from such haste.

Furthermore, there may be good reason behind disenfranchisement. If so, then it is perfectly acceptable to abandon behaviours that just don't work any more. Such reflection should form part of discerning whether sloth really is an issue. Dis-illusionment can mean the discarding of harmful illusions as well as beneficial ones.

But let's say you want to cure or inoculate yourself against sloth. Well, I would say that if you're worried about sloth, then you aren't really suffering from it (see definition above).


Wake Me Up Inside

Traditional remedies include guilting yourself out of sloth:
"First call to mind the extraordinary labors which Our Lord endured for you;" Louis of Granada
And simply sucking it up and resisting (Cassian).

Frankly, these are - on the face of it - inapplicable. Guilt doesn't magically create concern, and curing an immobilising lethargy with labour is like healing a broken arm with movement.

They aren't wholly useless, however. They serve to reflect how scared people are of sloth, and how strong the motivation is to avoid it. Unfortunately, this doesn't help those already suffering sloth's debilitating despondency. It's all well and good to fear falling into a black hole so much that you steer your spaceship prudently, but what to do if you actually become one?

One clue is that the source of sloth may be one of the other vices. (Henry Edward Manning). Despair may arise from a frustrated desire to be wrathful, prideful, or lustful, compounded by the knowledge that such desire is sinful. Not being able to get away with treating a tenant vindictively, or treating process with contempt is made more painful with the guilt that I was wrong from the beginning.

If so, then try forgiving or absolving yourself, through confession or otherwise. Rejuvenation and gratitude can be found in the realisation that second chances abound despite even willful mistakes.

I know that I will on occasion mistreat tenants and the property no matter how much I try to do the right thing. That thought is demoralising in isolation. However, the story doesn't end there and I will almost always have an opportunity to do better.

Just like your spiritual life, a rental property is larger than your individual agency. Neither are wholly up to you. Both have a movement of their own, with a large element of grace involved. Our properties long preceded us and will most likely outlast us. Which is why I favour re-framing it as something you steward, rather than as something you own, an aspect of yourself, or part of your portfolio.

Can't Wake Up

It's fair to assume that we're heading towards fatalism right now. But if the cure for acedia is supposed to be 'work', then we need to remember that some work can look like idleness. St Thomas observes that the work to cure a spiritual malady is spiritual.
"The more we think about spiritual goods, the more pleasing they become to us, and forthwith sloth dies away."
So it's OK if sloth makes you immobile because it won't be cured by busy-work or smashing out gains at the gym. Reminding yourself regularly of the basic goodness of your endeavours is more likely to sustain you until the situation changes. For landlords, this means regularly reconnecting with the big picture. You're earning passive income (or writing off your loss on tax) and providing shelter at the same time. Go you! Look at your cash-flow, your capital appreciation, the fact that things miraculously seem to run themselves, whatever you need to do to resist the urge to declare everything a waste, which would alienate you from the inherent good in letting out your property.

In fact we must be discerning in the work we do to combat sloth, as we may carelessly take up material distractions instead of anything with spiritual benefit. Aristotle said, "No one can remain in sadness without any joy." The urge to escape sloth may, according to St. Gregory and St. Thomas, lead to other sins.

As uncomfortable as this may be to modern sensibilities then, it may be better to live with acedia, riding it out, fighting as best a spiritual battle as one can, even though appearing to do nothing.

Confronting that vulnerability is in fact a recommended treatment. Dashing our fears, doubts, and frustrations against Jesus, so to speak. If all I can do is holler and cry about my impotence, then I'd better get right down to it.

Do we then expect some Deus Ex Machina to rescue us from sloth?


Save Me

It's been a long time now since I delegated operations to property managers so that no one suffers from my inability to act. Sometimes I will feel like being a landlord is less than useless, when I receive unexpected good news from them which poetically allows my faith to be rejuvenated by the object of my faith.

Pride provides the illusion that we are in control. Sloth accompanies the illusion that no one is. Both ideas are pernicious in that there is a grain of truth in them. But if we are not wholly in control of our pride, and that grace is required to save us from it, then perhaps the same goes with sloth. At the same time, we need to fight the tendency of both pride and sloth to close us to that grace.

The ultimate cure to sloth lies without, not within. Our struggle is to remain open to salvation until the day the cavalry arrives and airdrops us more f**ks to give.

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