Sermon: Epiphany 3 RCL B – “Hedonic Treadmill”

Thomas Merton

After a long dry sermon, the minister announced that there would be a brief meeting of the board immediately after the benediction. Following the services, a stranger was the first to meet the minister up front. “You must have misunderstood the announcement,” said the minister. “I announced a meeting of the board.” 

“So I heard,” replied the stranger, “and if there was anyone here more bored than I was, I’d like to meet him.”

To be bored or boredom. A scientist, Winifred Gallagher, says, “[In the English language] boredom has no derivation: That is, it doesn’t come from any other word but was specially created. Moreover, the word didn’t appear in English until the later eighteenth century.” Someone was so bored that they sat around and created a word to express their boredom, and it began with them thinking about a “bore.” Not as a person but as a tool: an augur.  A tool that goes round and round, drilling a hole. 

Lord Byron, in Don Juan, made use of the new meaning:

“Society is now one polished horde,

Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.”

What’s interesting is that westerners are really the only societies that have this idea of boredom. For the rest of the world, tedium/boredom is just a part of life, so they don’t run around saying, “I’m so bored.” They accept that there are times when nothing is happening—and we think we’re the smart ones. Regardless, we get bored. 

We get bored with our work, our hobbies, and our lives. We can even get bored in the relationships we are in. Why is that?

There are many studies on the topic, but much of it leads back to or rewords what is known as hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill. Hedonic relates to those things experienced as pleasurable or unpleasant. 

Think about falling in love. When you first fall in love, you’re always thinking about the person, you stay up late talking, you can’t wait to see them again, you worry over things like keeping them happy, how you look—is the hair nicely coiffed, the beer belly hidden, makeup perfect, and so forth. You pour all your energy into it. You are not bored, but the body and the mind cannot maintain this level of tension and enthusiasm. At some point, you will need sleep. You understand that she will eventually recognize that you don’t have a Jason Momoa body. You have other things that you must do, so the mind and the body work to bring all these emotions back down to a more manageable level, the status quo. When this happens… Liza Minnelli. Love Liza. She has a song, You’ve Let Yourself Go. A few of the stanzas:

And where’s that slender youth I knew
I fear he’s grown an inch or two
Not up and down my joy and pride
But more precisely side to side

You never care the way you dress
You stay unshaven, you look a mess
The smallest thing is too much to do
I even hold the door for you

You see the point. There’s all this excitement, but over time, you return to who you really are. 

The hedonic treadmill demonstrates how this happens with those things that are pleasant and unpleasant. There are highs and lows, but our minds and bodies work to bring about more of an equilibrium between the two. When we hit that equilibrium, we say, “I’m so bored.” I’m bored with my job, my hobbies, my life, my relationship, etc., etc., etc. Put another way, you’ve lost your passion. 

The boredom we experience in our relationships is not limited to our relationships with other people; we can also experience boredom in our relationship with God. It’s not that you no longer love God, but it can be like the Liza Minnelli song, you’ve let yourself go. 

I wondered about this as I studied the calling of the Apostles. Jesus called Peter and Andrew, and we are told, “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” It was similar to the calling of James and John, “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” There it is, the new relationship—places to go. People to see. Excitement. Things to learn. Miracles to witness. The curve on the hedonic treadmill leaps, yet, after being with him for three years, things become boring. “Do we really have to go to Jerusalem again? We were just there.” “I mean, seriously, hasn’t he already healed one leper? Now ten more.” “Hey, Jesus, are we there yet? My feet hurt.” “Do you think you could make a nice Cabernet next time? I’m tired of this Chardonnay.” 

That is not what happened. In fact, it would seem that it was just the opposite. The disciples became more intense and passionate as time passed, to the point of giving up their own lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel.

Andrew – crucified

Bartholomew – flayed

James – beheaded

Peter – crucified upside down

Philip – crucified

The list goes on, but living for the Gospel to such an extent that you are martyred in such a way is not the action of someone who is bored. These individuals were so passionately in love and relationship with God that they cared nothing for their own lives. It is this sense of passion that we need to kindle in our hearts—a passion for Jesus, God, and His Church.

Today we have our Annual Meeting. It is a bit like a stockholders’ meeting for a corporation. Those who own stock, the investors, gather with the board members and other executives. Then there are a series of presentations on what the corporation accomplished in the past twelve months, where they are financially, and what they expect for the future. However, at the end of it, no one at a stockholders’ meeting ever walks away, pumping their fists in the air and shouting, “Let’s do this! This is gonna be great!” Maybe they’re not to the point of being bored, but no one ever leaves those meetings feeling passionate about what’s ahead. Based on my twenty-plus years of Annual Meetings, I can assure you that no one walks away from them feeling passionate either. More likely, it’s, “Thank God that’s done for another year.” But… 

For the last few years, my daily meditation (the first thing I read in the morning) has been from Bishop Robert Barron; however, this year, I switched to Thomas Merton (A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals). The meditations are less than a page long, yet, almost every day has provided some excellent spiritual food for thought. At the top is January 12th. It has held my attention the longest. Merton writes: “I am obscurely convinced that there is a need in the world for something I can provide, and there is a need for me to provide it. True, someone else can do it, God does not need me. But I feel He is asking me to provide it…. The wonder of being brought, by God, around a corner and to realize a new road is opening up, perhaps—which He alone knows. And that there is no way of traveling it but in Christ and with Him. This is joy and peace—whatever happens.” (p.12)

“The wonder of being brought, by God, around a corner and to realize a new road is opening up….” It was that wonder and that realization that gave the Apostles the passion that never wained in their lives. It was never about, “We’ve done this before.” It was always, “What is God going to do next?” And not only that but also, “I get to be a part of it.” 

God could have chosen anyone and any church to accomplish the work that He has called you as an individual to and us as a church, but He chose you, and He chose us. He doesn’t need us, but He wants us, and because God wants us, we should be deeply passionate about Him and this work. 

The hedonic treadmill trundles on in many areas of our lives, but we must step off of it regarding our relationship with God. Restore your passion for God and let it burn as bright as the Holy Spirit will allow. The road that God is opening up before us is calling.

Let us pray:
Heavenly Father,
look upon our community of faith
which is the Church of your Son, Jesus Christ.
Help us to witness to his love
by loving all our fellow creatures without exception.
Under the leadership of our Bishop
keep us faithful to Christ’s mission
of calling all people
to your service so that there may be
one fold and one shepherd.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord.

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