With all due respect, I think Pope Gregory the Great got it wrong. Gregory is commonly given credit for devising the list of the Seven Deadly Sins—anger, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.
Gregory was right that these actions (or attitudes) are harmful and damaging. But he failed to recognize that each of them is a virtue taken to an extreme.
Without anger, struggles for justice would fade away. Without sloth, humans would never have developed technologies that reduce physical labour and enhance health. Without avarice, no one would have had the ambition to achieve more.
But the same virtues can also be taken to the opposite extreme.
Pride, for example, exaggerates healthy self-esteem until it becomes destructive of the self and of others. But those with no self-esteem are equally handicapped. They will be depressed and depressing, perhaps suicidal.
The opposite extreme to sloth is not a willingness to work hard but a frenetic busy-ness that accomplishes nothing—uncontrolled hyperactivity.
Pope Gregory did not define these opposite extremes as also being sins. That doesn’t make them “good.” Is starvation or anorexia preferable to gluttony? Apathy to anger? Loathing to lust?
Indeed, the pattern applies to almost every aspect of life. Everyone knows child abuse is wrong—but so is child neglect. Healthy child care lies somewhere in the middle.
Too little water results in death from dehydration. Too much water causes death from drowning.
Too little warmth and we freeze; too much warmth and we burn.
No one ever knows exactly where the perfect middle lies, but we all know that it is not at either extreme.
I can think of only one “sin” which does not—at least, to my mind—derive from taking a virtue to an extreme, and for which there is no similarly harmful opposite. That’s vandalism.
Recently, people in the Kelowna area read news headlines about a “chainsaw massacre.” Someone sneaked into an area where an adventure park was being developed, and cut halfway through three large trees that supported a network of rope bridges, platforms and zip lines high overhead.
The trees can’t be saved. Had no one noticed the cuts, had the park opened on schedule, that part of the overhead network might have come crashing down, killing and maiming its users.
No one claimed responsibility. No one offered an explanation. Presumably, therefore, the cutting was not done to protest an injustice, real or imagined. It was not done to protect children or the environment. It was not even done to cut firewood or to gain an advantage for some competing enterprise.
Vandalism’s sole purpose, it seems to me, is to destroy.
Unless I’m missing something, I can see no redeeming virtue at the core of vandalism. What beneficial attitude or behaviour, taken to an extreme, leads to killing trees, smashing windshields, mugging old ladies, overturning garbage cans, and hacking into medical records to alter them?
Vandalism is damage done for its own sake. It is its own justification—harming for the sake of harming, hurting for the sake of hurting.
It has no saving grace, no redeeming virtue. Which makes it, I think, a particularly deadly sin.