On Our Best Behavior
The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good
A groundbreaking exploration of the ancient rules women unwittingly follow in order to be considered “good,” revealing how the Seven Deadly Sins still control and distort our lives and illuminating a path toward a more balanced, spiritually complete way to live
Why do women equate self-denial with being good?
We congratulate ourselves when we resist the donut in the office breakroom. We celebrate our restraint when we hold back from sending an email in anger. We feel virtuous when we wake up at dawn to get a jump on the day. We put others’ needs ahead of our own and believe this makes us exemplary. In On Our Best Behavior, journalist Elise Loehnen explains that these impulses—often lauded as unselfish, distinctly feminine instincts—are actually ingrained in us by a culture that reaps the benefits, via an extraordinarily effective collection of mores known as the Seven Deadly Sins.
Since being codified by the Christian church in the fourth century, the Seven Deadly Sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth—have exerted insidious power. Even today, in our largely secular, patriarchal society, they continue to circumscribe women’s behavior. For example, seeing sloth as sinful leads women to deny themselves rest; a fear of gluttony drives them to ignore their appetites; and an aversion to greed prevents them from negotiating for themselves and contributes to the 55 percent gender wealth gap.
In On Our Best Behavior, Loehnen reveals how we’ve been programmed to obey the rules represented by these sins and how doing so qualifies us as “good.” This probing analysis of contemporary culture and thoroughly researched history explains how women have internalized the patriarchy, and how they unwittingly reinforce it. By sharing her own story and the spiritual wisdom of other traditions, Loehnen shows how we can break free and discover the integrity and wholeness we seek.
Pulling the Thread podcaster Loehnen debuts with a searching study of how the seven deadly sins (sloth, envy, pride, gluttony, greed, lust, and anger) developed into a web of "cultural programming" that deems women "to be inferior in every way." She traces the roots of the seven deadly sins back to fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus, whose list of eight "passionate thoughts" also included sadness, and notes that when Pope Gregory first preached about the "Capital Vices," he "assigned to Mary Magdalene and branded her a whore." Restoring sadness to the list and devoting a chapter to each concept, Loehnen unpacks the ways in which women contort themselves to "be good" within a system that is designed to oppress them. The section on sloth, for example, discusses the guilt felt by working mothers "that by shirking parenthood as our sole objective, we're not doing our real jobs." Associating the "energy of the feminine" with "creativity, nurturance, and care," Loehnen calls for its resurgence to "bring our culture's toxic masculinity into balance." Though Loehnen's argument can be difficult to follow, she incisively draws from the work of thinkers including Kate Manne and Gerda Lerner and weaves in poignant autobiographical reflections. It's a laudable effort to pull up the roots of patriarchy.