‘Zest’ versus ‘Excitement’

Lately I’ve been reading Baron Friedrich von Hügel’s “Letters to a Niece,” which are a series of letters of spiritual direction that the Baron wrote to his niece, Gwendolen Greene, early in the 20th century.  These letters are something of a classic in spiritual direction for their wisdom and perspicacity, and so far I have found them highly enriching.  In one letter B. von Hügel writes the following:

Zest is the pleasure which comes from thoughts, occupation, etc., that fit into, that are continuous, applications, etc., of extant habits and  interests of a good kind—duties and joys that steady us and give us balance and centrality.  Excitement is the pleasure which comes from breaking loose, from fragmentariness, from losing our balance and centrality.  Zest is natural warmth—excitement is fever heat. For zest—to be relished—requires much self-discipline and recollection—much spaciousness of mind: whereas the more distracted we are, the more racketed and impulse-led, the more we third for excitement and the more its sirocco [def: a hot, dry, and dusty wind from North Africa] air dries up our spiritual sap and makes us long for more excitement.” From a letter of 31 August 1920.

There is a brilliant and critical simplicity in this distinction.  Where Excitement is the pleasure of the new, Zest is the pleasure of excellence—the pleasure brought about by faithfulness, commitment, and the accomplishment of a goal.  The pleasure of Zest takes longer to attain, but is purer and lasts longer.  The pleasure of Excitement is easily attained at first, but becomes more elusive as our senses are dulled (in much the same way that more and more salt added to food renders the taste buds incapable of taste).  Excitement, bluntly, is the pleasure of adultery; Zest is the pleasure of marriage.

The essential but oft ignored truth embedded in this comment is that every worthwhile undertaking demands a period of disenchantment.  The excitement of ‘the new’ fades, and we are left with the mundane plodding, the fog, the cloud of obscurity which tempts us strongly to abandon our goal and pursue something which brings us excitement again.  We become addicts for the rush of the new and never truly attain to excellence, let alone proficiency, in any matter of consequence in our spiritual lives.  And against this von Hügel calls us to a daily faithfulness, to an attention to and rejection of the distractions which keep us from right service in our lives.

C.S. Lewis wrote something similar in an essay titled, “Talking about Bicycles” (it can be found in the collection Present Concerns).  There he speaks of four stages—a first where we are unaware of the bicycle, a second where we are introduced to it and it becomes the most wonderful thing in our lives, a third where it becomes a plodding boredom, and a fourth where we rediscover a hint of our original pleasure and, with wisdom, are enabled to see that it pointed to something significant beyond itself.  This fourth stage (which he terms ‘re-enchantment’) is a stage of maturity.  There we are enabled to take the good with the bad, the plodding alongside the original joy, and move toward something more fully realized and satisfying.  Maturity in matters of faith and life comes as a product of our journey through these four stages—we have stepped beyond excitement and plodded into zest.  In zest lies true joy and enjoyment.

Interestingly, there is a physiological component to Von Hügel’s comment as well.  Dr. Archibald D. Hart in his book Adrenaline and Stress writes in one chapter about the interplay of adrenaline and creativity.  He there addresses the commonly held myth that creativity increases with stress—quite the opposite, he observes that in moments of stress the mind is most likely to fall back on old habits of thinking, and never stretch into new, truly creative areas.  Our most creative moments occur, physiologically, when we are at rest, and this is in part because “High arousal is the stage of efficient action, but of inefficient creativity for the obvious reason that the brain is focused on engagement”—in other words, it is focused on accomplishing the task, rather than being creative (191).  The rush of excitement is a rush of adrenaline—we enjoy the way it makes us feel and we can become dependent upon it.  The irony is that when we depend upon excitement to trigger creativity we end up sabotaging the very rest we need to be truly creative.  True creativity, then, is a product not of excitement but of zest—it is not the byproduct of frenetic energy and constant new experiences, but of slow and plodding perseverance.

There is a great and insipid tyranny of the new that runs throughout our spirituality.  We grow weary of faithfulness and chase novelty; we tire of obedience and seek thrills.  Our wandering hearts betray our adulterous idolatry—or perhaps I should say our idolatrous adultery—against God.  A flash of this chronic confusion appears in our frequent misreadings of John’s Revelation.  We peruse its pages searching for the new—for the future—searching for excitement.  When what John desired to create in our hearts was zest—not novelty, but faithfulness.  Eugene Peterson wisely remarks about John’s book that “Everything in the Revelation can be found in the previous sixty-five books of the Bible.  The Revelation adds nothing of substance to what we already know… There is nothing new to say on the subject.  But there is a new way to say it” (Reversed Thunder, xi).  John’s purpose is to create in us a renewed passion (zest, re-enchanted, truly creative) for God by offering us a reframing of well-known truths.

This delineation between excitement and zest runs down the centre of all our spiritual activities.  And so we must query ourselves: if we were to look for zest, rather than excitement in the Church, how would that change our commitment to matters ecclesial? Of worship? Of attendance? If we were searching for zest, rather than excitement, in our private devotions, how would that change the standards by which we evaluate our daily walk with God? Our scripture reading? Our prayers? If I, as a preacher, am striving to create zest, rather than excitement, in my hearers when I preach, how will that change the planning and execution of my sermons? If our goal in these matters is to be zest, re-enchantment, and true creativity, then attaining that goal will demand a profound reevaluation of many of our motives and methods.

2 comments on “‘Zest’ versus ‘Excitement’

  1. Andrew says:

    Superb blog entry.

    May I have permission to pilfer parts of this for an upcoming sermon?


  2. jmichaelrios says:

    Haha – of course, Andrew.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.