For the next 18 minutes or so I’m going to talk to myself. You’re welcome to listen, of course. You don’t have to leave or anything. I may use second and third person some -- you, they, them -- but I’m really just talking to myself. When I preach I try to do what Emerson suggested good ministers do -- present “life passed through the fire of thought” or in my case, “anxiety and insecurity passed through the fire of thought plus a little Ativan.” Anyway, enough meta, let’s dig in.
Some months ago, Dana and I agreed on a date for me to preach. She then told me the theme for the month was zest---and some part of me groaned. I don't really like the word zest. I'm not sure I trust it. It seems a little false, a little saccharine, a little _much_. You see, I like reserved. I like measured. I like sang froid. Zest strikes me as being entirely too energetic. Zest feels exposed -- I'm sorry, is my zest showing? I'm happy enough to zest a lemon -- but anything else and I draw the line.
Zest comes from the the almost identical French word. They just add an "e" at the end because they're, well, y'know, French. No offense, Maryse. Though that said, they do have this weird thing where the person who gets the most votes becomes president, so make of all that what you will. Anyway, the word derives from cooking---that little bit of lemon or orange peel that we add for flavor. Zest adds flavor to cakes, scones, and, it turns out, lives.
What do we mean when we say someone is living with zest, doing something with zest?
Zest connotes engagement. Zest conveys enjoyment. Zest speaks of enthusiasm.
And isn’t that how many of would say we wish to live. The blessed Saint Henry of the Pond summarized it when he said, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” We want to live authentically, intentionally, consciously and with a deep passionate engagement. We want a life full of rich, poignant flavors. Who wants a bland life? We want to live, in short, with zest. And yet many of us don’t.
My wife Julia will be the first to say that enthusiasm is not my strong suit. It's something that causes stress in our relationship because Julia is a very enthusiastic person. She does many things with an admirable amount of zest. If she's going to do something she really digs in and gets the dirt under her nails. Julia makes little happy noises and gets messy when she eats. Me, I am quiet and my fingers are pretty much always clean after a meal. Julia will get up and dance even if no one else is dancing. She’ll sing out whenever the spirit moves her. I admire that...and also cringe a bit.
Enthusiasm, zest, takes engagement. It takes commitment. It takes trust. It takes letting go. And I have trouble with all of that. I grew up in a family where there wasn't a lot of room for my feelings or needs. Pretty much all of the emotional energy in the house went into yelling and arguing. Anything left over mostly fueled an impressive amount of seething resentment, anger, and fear. I didn’t grow up in some Dickensian hell, but there wasn't a lot of space for healthy emotion. There was way too much drama between my parents for my feelings to get acknowledged or validated.
And so I learned not to express much. I learned restraint and disengagement. I didn't practice zest because the only thing my family did with zest was hurt each other. I explored Buddhism and even, if I’m honest, misused its teachings to convince myself that lack of feelings was some kind of spiritual progress.
Ultimately zest is hard for me because it implies vulnerability -- you can't fully engage anything worthwhile without putting yourself out there. You can't dance with zest if you're worried that everyone's looking at you. You can't sing with zest if you are worried about being off-key. You can't make love with zest if you're mostly worried about how your thighs jiggle or if your belly's too big. You simply cannot live with zest if you're routinely splitting your mental and emotional energy between doing what you're doing ...and... worrying about what you're doing.
Sometimes we don't live with zest because we've bought into the culture of celebrity and expertise which says if you’re not really good at something, you shouldn’t do it. Kids don’t usually have this problem. Ask a kid to sing or draw a picture and they’ll usually dig in whether they do it “well” or not. My guess is that there are a number of folks in the room who enjoy singing but don't do it with zest because they fear they don't sing well -- and sometimes that fear is justified. But we too often buy into this idea that we have to sound like Beyonce or Lin-Manuel Miranda. If we're going to dance we better look like John Travolta or Ginger Rogers. I frequently hear people say things like, "Oh, I love to paint, but I'm not very good at it." "I want to dance, but I'll just look silly." Well thank the gods you didn’t do what you enjoy, but at least sort of kept your dignity. How many times do we not do things, not for lack of enjoyment, but because we fear we’re not good enough? Simply put, we think too much and experience too little.
Zest implies getting lost in the moment, getting lost in the joy. And here's where I see in myself the need to get on-board with zest. As I get older I see more and more how useless it is trying to manage other people's expectations and experience of me. Being up here, even as used to public speaking as I am, feels a little scary, a little threatening. Am I doing a good job? Will I say anything useful? Is this just all really obvious and trite? Am I going to offend anyone?
But I can't manage your experience of me. I can't tell you how to feel or what to think or determine if you'll get anything out of my words. The only thing I can manage is myself. I can't manage you or Julia and certainly not my eight-year-old Ben. I can't manage other people's attitudes or experiences. I can just manage myself.
But I'd be dishonest if I suggested that it’s easy to let go of everything that holds you back. Those chains aren't so easily broken. And so zest requires not only vulnerability but courage. Anyone who's overcome any fear knows how difficult it can be. So what do we do? One thing is to embrace life's brokenness. Nothing was perfect to begin with: not you, not me, not America, not Sweden, not anything or anyone. Once I remember that everyone feels some kind of crack in their soul -- that everyone is afraid of something, insecure about something, worried about something -- then I can be more gentle with myself and others. I get doctors and nurses bringing cases to the hospital ethics committee complaining how irrational a patient or family is acting. When I talk with the purported crazies, I see people who are fighting for the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy -- just trying to stay alive. We’re asking them to make incredibly high-stakes complex decisions and we’re surprised when they act out. Any animal will lash out when cornered. And I do with these poor people what I’m learning to do with myself -- slow down, really acknowledge how difficult this is, and, above all, be gentle. It’s amazing how far gentleness can go with others and with ourselves.
Our internal voices can be so harsh. My experience as a chaplain and as a person with a trauma background is that we often talk to ourselves in ways we would never tolerate from other people. If I make a mistake, it’s not uncommon for the voice inside to go on a rant about how stupid or lazy I am. I wouldn’t put up with that from someone else. I see this need in the people I counsel, but I often forget to be a bit gentler with myself. Self-compassion is critical. We need to be forgiving of ourselves and lower the stakes a bit.
And the stakes are usually pretty low especially if we remember how little interest anyone else really has in how we live. I think this is one of those lessons we need most when we’re younger, but I still need to recall it. Most people are as self-absorbed as we are. Ask yourself how much you actually pay attention to or remember the foibles and quirks of others and you’ll have a good guide to how little anyone is paying attention to you.
I’ll be 48 this week and I now have the privilege of looking back and seeing how dumb I was for most of the preceding decades. How much I worried what other people thought. How much I tried to fit in. And I have absolutely no doubt that it simply wasn’t worth it. What do we lose by acting with zest? Maybe we protect a few pounds of dignity, but lose of ton of fun.
Because part of living and enjoying life with zest is acknowledging the finite nature of it. We all die -- some way too soon, many unexpectedly, and a few having accomplished everything they wanted to. Some allow awareness of death to inspire them to live more fully. Some, however, let that specter hover over their shoulder for much of their lives.
And that unknown endpoint requires us to live an examined life. And we can start with something most of us have with us right now in our pockets or purses. What is the item in your life which most accurately represents your life priorities? What do you think? It's not your house, or your books, or even your browser history. It's your calendar. Show me your calendar and I will show you what is most important to you.
The simple fact is, any hack minister can get up here and spout platitudes exhorting you to live with more zest. And if the only effect is to create a slight stirring in your soul and a transient feeling of commitment then we've both wasted our time. But when we get down to the proverbial brass tacks, you are the only one who can make these changes. If you look at your calendar, look at your life and don't like what you see, then schedule your life differently. Ideas are great, intentions are lovely, but I am challenging you to actually make a date with zest. What is something you want to do that fills you, that gives your life more flavor? It doesn't have to be a trip around the world or volunteering to do relief work in Syria. It can be taking an art class or scheduling 30 minutes to do some coloring. It can be a walk in the woods or reading a book you never thought you’d enjoy. If you feel like you've been spending your time wrong, take an hour or a day to mourn those choices and then reorient yourself to the present and future and make different choices. Everyone says, "I need to make time for X." I do it too. It's one of the dumbest things we say. No one makes time for anything. You have every drop of time you're ever going to have. The only choice you have is how you spend your time.
Now if you’re a single parent or struggling with serious issues then there may be a period where you’re focusing on survival more than zest--and that is completely understandable. But I encourage you, even in the midst of those incredible demands to find bits of time for a little zest. If for no other reason than to remind yourself of why you’re trying to survive. Everything passes eventually: ulcers and cancer and infidelity and even adolescence I’m told--and as long as you’re living, it’s worth seizing moments here and there to help sustain you.
People know the musical Fiddler on the Roof? It's the story of a Jewish family in 1905 dealing with the anti-Semitic dictates of the Russian government and the huge challenges of a changing culture. One of the more popular songs from the musical is "L'Chaim, To Life." A raucous song that speaks to the need to celebrate even in the midst of challenges and pain -- indeed, this is one of the main themes of the movie. How does one balance the constant "slings and arrows" of life while not succumbing to exhausted sadness? Life is as precarious as a fiddler on the roof. Zest does not imply obliviousness. Ignorance is not zest. It's easy to feel overwhelmed. Many of us feel over-scheduled, under-slept, and being propelled forward at a disturbing rate. And the news these days can simply be exhausting. The vulnerability and courage of zest calls us to stay thoughtfully engaged.
I struggle with this. My job involves bearing witness to an entire catalog of human suffering. And I am one of the many who feel a background level of stress that I never anticipated and that can be directly traced to a Tuesday evening last November. I am living with an existential dread of where my country and planet are going. And I know this congregation is no more politically homogenous than we are spiritually homogenous, and so I am speaking for myself. How do I live with enthusiasm and zest when I fear for my safety, the safety of innocents caught up in a freshly uncovered and seemingly endless supply of hate, and a political system that seems horribly disfigured by money and made dysfunctional by an appeal to the lowest common denominator of our most selfish instincts? I've found myself rather closer to tears these days and more afraid for the future.And here I come back to Jewish culture. Victor Frankl was a Jewish physician and well-known author. He and his family were captured by the Nazis and most of them killed. Viktor survived and went on to live a life of joy, purpose, and meaning even having endured some of the most hellish dehumanizing environments people have ever endured. And he did so, in part, by recognizing that one cannot control the external world. Ultimately we have little control over what happens to us. You can eat vegan, run marathons, and still get cancer or Alzheimer's or be killed by Nazis or terrorists. Tragedy takes no account of love or desire. Frankl saw this and came to understand that the only thing he could control was his response to events, his attitude in any given set of circumstances.
And I am trying to follow his lead and understand that the only thing I can manage is my own attitude, my own response to the events in my life. And ultimately, what is my choice? I can succumb to the worry and stress or I can acknowledge the horror and injustice of a universe that has precious little concern for my own world and still choose life, choose zest. Because I lose much more in the worrying than I gain from preemptive dread and pessimism.
Zest in life is a choice just as it with food. You can choose a lifetime a bland meals and experiences or choose spice. And yeah, you’ll get indigestion every once in a while. There’s a saying about how “I don’t regret the things I have done, I regret the things I haven’t done.” It’s true enough that it’s attributed to a number of people. And generally speaking, I think it is true. I regret more the times I said no, the times I didn’t dance, didn’t sing, didn’t let myself sink into the experience of the moment. It can be hard to add more zest. It’s just like a kid -- they tend to dislike new flavors. But if you can get them to keep trying, just a few bites at a time, they will eventually develop a taste for whatever it is. And we can do the same. We can say yes a bit more. Sing a little louder. Learn a few dance steps. And eventually develop a broader palate, develop a real taste for zest. I hope you’ll open life’s menu and look for some spice.
Thanks, namaste, blessed be, l’chaim.