written by Philp Stevens
"Moses appealed to the Eternal, who showed him a tree which he threw into the water, and then the water became fresh." Exodus 15.25
The life course of many a man might be compared to the terrain of these United States as one travels from East to West. One’s childhood and youth have all the sparkling diversity of the Appalachian Mountains. Youth is as intriguing as the rolling hills and the green valleys of the Eastern seaboard. But proceeding westward these all level out into the prairie lands. Here are the middle years of our life span, a time usually of repetition, one has “settled down. In one’s declining years he often encounters the Rockies, the hardships which accompany old age, - chronic illness, the death of friends, family. And at last one comes to the golden gates of the west coast where he sets sail for another shore.
This morning we are to think of those mid-western plains of life, the settled existence of our middle years. We have found a job, we have found a wife, we have started a home. The twisting, undulating path of youth has straightened out and leveled off, like the roads as you travel westward where you turn off the miles with constant measured tread. Now life resembles a prairie; outwardly it is flat and uninteresting. No longer the parties, the different schools, the romances, the limitless variety of choices, - in career, in matrimony, in one’s philosophy of life. Now the long, straight road lies before you and after a while it may become tiresome; life may become tedious. One gets bored, or fed-up; he wants a change, but cannot find it.
I believe we have here one of our central problems, the problem of tedium. It drives one man to carousal and another to adultery; it incites one woman to quarreling with her neighbor and another to gossiping over the bridge table. By the million it sends people to the movies, where they seek excitement in thrillers, or to the racetrack where gambling offers the thrills of running risks and taking chances, or to the pulp magazines where for a dime they can shudder through horror stories or drip through a saccharine romance. Not always, in such palpable ways, do people seek escape from boredom. Comparatively innocent diversions may betray the inner spirt of world weariness, - too much time at the bridge table, or immersed in books, or sleeping, or lazing on a street corner, - in short, anything which simply aims to “kill time.” But despite any appearances the problem of tedium is not a superficial one, It is deeply rooted in human nature; it is a cancer eating away at our spiritual vitals. In a biography of Leonardo da Vinci I found these words quoted from the Italian philosopher, Machiavelli, the founder of modern politics, “The most fearful thing in life is not cars, nor poverty, nor grief, nor disease, nor even death itself, - but tedium.” If life is not boring one can endure almost anything, - cares, poverty, grief, disease, even the prospect of death. But when life has lost its luster; when it no longer sparkles with zest, why then all the word’s wealth cannot make it worthwhile.
I suppose that for all of us there come times at least when life has become drab, when it resembles the gray of a battleship on a foggy fall morning in the North Atlantic. The daily round becomes oppressive. Sameness has led to staleness. If all of life does not seem tawdry and cheap at least it is dull and uninteresting. We are traveling across the mid-western plains; the unending flatness is deadening.
Why does life become tedious? Is it because the externals pursue their unbroken, unchanging cycles? Is it because life seems to offer only minor variations on the leading functions of eating, sleeping, working, and playing? Because one must work at the same job? enjoy the same friends? eat the same kind of food? live in the same house? in the same city? Because one must live with the same wife, husband?
No. Not for these reasons does life bore us. For there are countless people enslaved to a routine for whom life nevertheless holds tremendous zest. George Washington Carver labored week upon week in the same little laboratory and yet within these narrow confines he discovered an ever expanding horizon. No, if we would seek the sources of tedium we must look not to the externals but inward, to the spirit of a man. It is from a man’s heart that his tedium springs.
One of the incidents of that tedious journey of Moses and the Hebrew people through the wilderness to the Promised Land is a parable of this point. After they had crossed the Red Sea they journeyed for three days through the desert of Shur. Water was scarce. Thirsty throats grumbled. At last a watering place, but their sudden hopes were shattered; the water was bitter. Marah, they named the place, because of its bitterness. And the wanderers were bitter. Why had Moses ever persuaded them to leave? “What are we to drink?” they complained.
Moses could do nothing but appeal to the Lord. His prayer was answered. He was told to take a particular tree, and throw it into the water. As a result the water would be made fresh. And this was indeed what happened. You can imagine the sudden satisfaction of those parched mouths as they gulped down the fresh water.
Now it is interesting to note that God did not send rain to satisfy their thirst. Nor did He lead Moses to the babbling brook, nor did He cause a spring of fresh water to well up through the ground at their feet. In other words the Lord introduced nothing essentially new into the scene. He merely helped Moses to transform what was already there. He made the well of bitter water fresh.
So in life it is not through some radical external change that freshness enters the well made bitter by boredom. Not through travel, not through divorce and remarriage, not through a new job, not through another home, not through exciting adventures, but through an inner, spiritual transformation of what already exists, - thus does zest reenter life. That face should give us hope for it signifies that we can do something about our situation. We are not inescapably doomed to boredom just because we cannot travel to South America this winter. We can find the answer right in our own personal lives.
Let us plumb the well of life to seek out the sources of its bitterness, that is of tedium. The first source is the failure to create. You and I have, believe it, been made in the image of God. As His children we bear the lineaments of His Personality. And the Personality of God is that of Creator. Hence, made in God’s image we are commissioned in turn to be creators. God’s world is an unfinished symphony calling upon man for its completion and its fulfilment. Your destiny as a person, as a child of God, is to create. If you fail in that then your life is a thwarted, truncated affair. It is, to use a different figure a treadmill, endlessly repeating itself, and leading nowhere. It does not march on toward novelty, adventure, spiritual romance.
In his Memoirs Paderewski testifies that “there is only one thing that is truly and continuously satisfying in life and that is; creative work. Creative work, take it as you will, is the only thing in life that gives supreme satisfaction. Ideas are eternal. In presenting them one reaches the loftiest heights. The form of presentation makes no difference. By creative work one gives oneself new life. Creative work kills death." And one might add, “Creative work kills tedium.”
Too many people, on the other hand, are interested solely in consuming. Their ultimate aim is to amass sufficient funds so that they may retire and consume without creating. In the meantime they produce at a minimal level instead of giving their best. For this they pay a price. As Dean Inge says, “God punishes the useless by giving them pleasure without joy.” Nothing in the world quickly becomes more tedious than that. Pleasure without joy, - more pleasure, merely having a good time, merely consuming without creating. Mere pleasure is a sweet whose taste lingers on in your mouth until it becomes bitter.
There are various levels of creativeness. If he is really interested in his work the man who collects your rubbish on Saturday morning is creating but on a minimal level. At the other pole is a composer of symphonic music, a Beethoven, or a philosopher, a Spinoza. The precise level at which you are working is not of primary importance. The important thing is to be not merely a consumer, but a creator. Merely working is not creating. Creating is working better. Creating is working in terms of some vision, some God-given insight concerning His Kingdom.
The story has often been told, but it bears telling again, of some workmen on the construction of the Church of St. John the Devine in New York City. One day a minster was watching with interest the process of building. He wondered what attitude the laborers took towards their work. So he asked one man, “What are you doing?” Rather sullenly he replied, “I’m working for a living.” Then he asked another, “What are you doing?” “I’m hauling bricks.” came back the answer. And of a third he asked the same question. The last man raised his eyes to the growing walls of the building, and replied proudly, “I’m building a cathedral.”
Outwardly all three men were doing the same work. But only the third man was creating. He was “building a cathedral.” Are you “building a cathedral?” Are you participating in the ongoing work of creation, the eight day of creations as Nicolas Berdyaev calls it? If you are, then you will never find life becoming tedious.
The second source of tedium is lack of purpose. Three laborers were told to dig a hole at a designated spot. They did. The boss came and looked in the hole and then told them to fill it in, which they also did. He set them digging at another spot and again when they had finished he told them to fill it in. After a third time at this apparently senseless game the workmen complained. “Say, boss, we know we’re getting paid for this, but we’re not idiots. What’s the point of this digging?” When the boss replied that he was looking for an old well the men were satisfied and went on with their work. The fact that they now had a purpose in their labor transformed it. Had they been getting double or even triple pay merely for digging holes and filling them in they would soon have quit their jobs. But once they could discern a purpose they were content to do the same work at ordinary pay. Human life is built around purposes. Apart from them it falls apart like a house of cards. I venture to say that if you offered a man five dollars an hour simple for digging holes and filling them in, with no purpose in his activity, he would before long either go insane or quit. Then he’d be glad of a dollar an hour job which meant something. He couldn’t stand the tedium of purposeless work.
Yet how many millions of people were working and living with little more purpose than these workmen. Our modern society lacks any abiding and transcendent purpose. There is much vague talk about “the good life,” but when you dissect this it proves to be nothing more than a “full dinner pail” standard of life. Plenty and prosperity for all. Well, that’s thin diet for a spiritual being. A dog is contented with enough food and a place to eat, but not man. Even an abundance of more things cannot for long satisfy him. So modern man has, by comparison with former ages, everything, yet he has nothing. He has everything for no purpose, so it amounts to nothing. The sweetness of comfort soon turns to bitterness, the bitterness of boredom.
A leading psychologist, Carl Jung, declares that all his patients over thirty-five years of age which means most of them, are suffering, at bottom, from one cause. Their life has no meaning for them. They cannot answer that probing, embarrassing question, Why? Why should a man do what is right? Why should I go on living? Why should society continue? What purpose in all this mad, bustling, booming confusion? Well, why?
If a man cannot answer that question to his own deepest satisfaction then he will commit suicide or more probably he will continue to drag along through a tedious existence, “killing time” until his time comes.
Our age has lost something which the Middle Ages possessed, a transcendent purpose, the conviction that history was a thread whose end was in Heaven, in the Hand of Almighty God. Believing in that, they could endure squalor, poverty, suffering, oppression. In and beyond that chaos were the purposes of God.
A third source of tedium is lack of fellowship, Christian fellowship. For there are lower levels. There is the fellowship of the tavern. Friends around a table drinking beer, playing cards, discussing politics and the war. Friends fishing, playing tennis, boating, dancing. Conviviality is the essence of this tavern type of friendship. Then there is star fellowship in which several are bound together by their common concerns. They have hitched their wagons to a particular start, - social service, the same business or profession, the Church. It is ideas and common convictions which bind people together on this level. But Christian fellowship has a stronger bond either than conviviality or conviction. Christian fellowship is grounded in God. Spiritual, like physical, brotherhood is achieved through a primary relationship to God. Your brothers and sisters are such because and only because you all have common parents. Beginning and fulfilled in God, Christian fellowship is of the very nature of the universe.
In a classic little philosophical work, “I and Thou”, Martin Buber ways that, “All real living is meeting.” The only really real thing is life is fellowship. Nothing which does not contribute to fellowship is worth the bombing to blow it up. Art, science, and religion have a reason for being only in so far as they contribute to his ultimate of fellowship. Apart from that they are shades and shadows. This Church is a heap of useless brick except as it contributes to fellowship. Your home is a wood pile unless it houses the fellowship which is centered in God.
These are not my judgments upon the Church or upon your home. They are not even the arbitrary judgements of God. They are your own. You yourself know that apart from fellowship home becomes a hell and the Church a curse. And apart from fellowship our own personal lives degenerate into a swamp of tedium. For the person who does not like people, who lives unto himself, life is indeed a most tedious affair. But he who discovers the spiritual secrets of fellowship, shares the glorious things of God, has opened the way to adventure in everyday living. For “all real living is meeting.”
These three are not utterly diverse ways of finding life interesting. You will note that in pleading for creativeness, and for purpose, and for fellowship we have continually referred these to God. They are all bound up in Him. Their meaning and their dynamic comes from him. Through these various channels He Himself is the source of life’s freshness and zest. In the last analysis life only goes stale because, having lost God or never having found Him, one is only half alive. He is living in the tomb of his own miserable petty self. That is boredom, ennui, tedium. It discovers an answer only in the praise of God, or, to use the title of that centuries old chant of the Church, in Te Deum. The full name is, of course, Te Deum Laudamus, We praise thee, O God. If in things great and small one seeks ever to praise God then life will never lack lustre; it will never bog down into boredom; but it will be renewed day by day from an unfailing spring of the spirit, the very life of God Himself. The answer to tedium is Te Deum.