I spend my days thinking about the sins of others but rarely my own. Before you find me guilty of pride or envy, the others I think about lived in the Middle Ages, and many of their offenses seem obscure now.
However, every once in a while, my reading resonates with the modern university experience. For example, a passage written in the twelfth-century by the Anglo-Scottish monk Adam of Dryburgh notes how scholars can be “ready and quick to jokes, funny stories and idle talk, but quite slow and lazy to be silent and to take up something useful or some spiritual exercise.”
What Adam describes here, more than pride or envy, is arguably the most common academic vice: procrastination.
Procrastination, or delay of what is often necessary and important, is understood as a type of sloth or sadness in the Christian tradition: wherever time is understood as finite and sacred, as it is in most religious and secular conceptions, to waste it is to sin.
Yet procrastination and writing have been faithful companions for centuries, and academics have all sorts of writing deadlines -- for articles, books, course outlines, grant proposals. Faced with my own deadlines, I follow the American critic and poet Dorothy Parker’s method: “I can’t but write five words but that I change seven.”
Parker describes procrastination due to perfectionism while Scot speaks to a deeper insecurity about the academic pursuit: “a dullness of the mind and disgust of the heart” resulting in “an enormous loathing” within. Although many procrastinators are racked by perfectionism, guilt or insecurity, some also take pleasure in their procrastination.
My favorite procrastinator, well-loved by fellow modern and medieval sinners, is St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430.) Although Augustine became one of the most productive and influential moralists of the Middle Ages, he delays reforming the lustful behavior of his youth. As he begs God in the Confessions: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”