In The One-Minute Aquinas Dr. Kevin Vost adds a light, comic touch to his lucid, succinct explanation of St. Thomas’s luminous wisdom by interjecting “Dumb Ox” questions like “Is it a sin to be boring?”
It is, however, not a foolish question but one seriously considered by the Angelic Doctor. St. Thomas explains: “In human affairs whatever is against reason is a sin. Now, it is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment.” How do human beings sin by being burdensome to others?
Some people are burdensome because they are difficult or impossible to please. St Francis de Sales jokingly counseled a young wife who found no favor with her mother-in-law with the observation that some mothers-in-law are more difficult to please than God Himself.
Christ said that the Pharisees complained that the disciples of John the Baptist fasted while His disciples ate and drank. They murmured that John the Baptist had “a demon” and that Christ and his disciples belong to the category of “drunkard” and “glutton.”
Nothing pleases those who only complain and find fault with everyone and everything except themselves. Christ noted their unreasonableness with the words “We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep” (Matthew 7: 32).
To be burdensome to others means to be unpleasant, unsociable, impossible company.
Resent the Innocent
Some people make life burdensome by insinuating that innocent pleasures are sinful and implying that guilt should accompany the drinking of wine, playing poker, or enjoying dancing. To them the only virtues are self-denial, rigid self-control, and contempt for pleasure.
Shakespeare’s Malvolio, the pompous, stiff-necked steward in As You Like It with a fastidious sense of order and protocol, provokes the famous comment of Sir Toby Belch: “Dost thou, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
To resent the innocent pastimes of others or to blame them for wasting time and money also spoils social occasions. In Pride and Prejudice the arrogant Darcy would not deign to dance with any of the women at the ball because he found no one “handsome enough” to tempt him.
Nothing is good enough, perfect enough, or moral enough for these boors.
Taking it Personally
Some people make life burdensome by always being argumentative and disputatious, always stirring trouble or resentment over the most minor matters. They imagine insult and injury where no affront was meant or implied.
This touchiness makes it burdensome to say anything or have any conversation without some ominous cloud hovering to stifle the honest exchange of thoughts and feelings.
In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a miller tells a hilarious story about a gullible carpenter who believed the tall tale that a second Noah’s flood was approaching. Prepared for the dreaded day with a tub tied on the roof, he cut the rope and crashed to the ground when he heard someone below cry “Water!” after being burned with a brand.
The carpenter feels insulted that the butt of the joke in the story happens to belong to someone in his profession and begins to instigate an argument and then tell a scatological story to belittle the miller. To take all comments personally and to imagine offense where no offense is intended is to be mirthless and tedious company.
Some people make life burdensome by avoiding social occasions or not joining other family members for festive occasions. They do not attend weddings or parties and ignore invitations even though the time and distance are no problem. They find the company uninteresting, they do not wish to change their clothes and dress for the occasion, they have other favorite pastimes like golfing or televised football games, or they invent excuses because they do not wish to be inconvenienced. Although their spouses or children want to attend an event, they refuse to overcome their inertia and sloth to tend to the enjoyment of others.
Jane Austen especially satirizes these types like Mr. John Knightley in Emma whose constant complaint is the silliness of visiting others: “He anticipated nothing in the visit that could be at all the worth the purchase, and the whole of their drive to the Vicarage was spent by him in expressing his discontent.”
John Knightley regards social obligations and family visits as a nuisance and waste of time: “. . . five dull hours in another man’s house, with nothing to say or to hear that was not said or heard yesterday, and may not be said and heard again tomorrow.”
The epitome of boredom, Knightley oppresses the convivial atmosphere of an extended family’s happy occasions by his ungracious company and neglect of social amenities.
Sucking the Good Will
Other people who make their company burdensome are the unresponsive and the uncommunicative. They receive letters and invitations but never reply; they receive telephone calls that they never answer. Others initiate conversation with them, but they never reciprocate or show any interest in another person or contribute to the conviviality. They are passive, stolid, taciturn, and guilty of insensibility.
They never pay compliments, express gratitude, write thank you notes, mention topics of common interest, or write friendly letters. They receive but never give. They attend festive occasions and enjoy parties, but they never host these events or extend hospitality to others. They receive overtures of friendship, but they take them for granted and never offer to do special favors or acts of thoughtfulness as a token of gratitude.
To be burdensome or boring, then, means to be insensitive and unappreciative of the good will of others.
Too Boring to Talk
In Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” one of the characters is a burden to the other. Two neighbors meet each spring to repair a stone wall that always crumbles during winter. While the sociable neighbor protests, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” he only hears his unfriendly neighbor utter the familiar refrain, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The neighbor who offers friendship asks, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out,” but his unresponsive fellow neighbor prefers privacy to communication. He becomes boring and burdensome because he repels all the gestures of good will and affability that follow if a person stops building unnecessary walls.
St. Thomas is most serious in identifying the sinfulness of boorishness. Though it is not one of the seven deadly sins, it violates the virtue of justice, for all human beings owe to one another the obligation of being pleasant and enjoyable company instead of a burden or problem.
As he explains, “It is against reason to be burdensome to others, showing no amusement and acting as a wet blanket. Those without a sense of fun, who never say anything ridiculous, and are cantankerous with those who do, these are vicious, and are called grumpy and rude.”