“Beer doesn’t contain many vitamins,” an internet meme says. “So you have to drink lots of it.”
It’s clever, and it raised a smile, but later I started to think about it. It’s such an apt description of the way so many of us live, where we devote time and energy to pursuits we know all along will fail to satisfy us, and the less they satisfy us the more desperately we chase them. Why do we spend so much time on pursuits that leave us unfulfilled?
At a time of unparalleled material prosperity, it seems never have so many suffered from such discontentment.
The three great monotheistic faiths have long had an answer to this existential question: God. It was perfectly expressed by the fourth century church father Augustine of Hippo, who wrote that “our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you”.
He was not writing of organic almond milk, or indeed of literal food at all, but of humankind’s universal yearning for purpose and completion, which he teaches are found in relationship with God.
Isaiah warns the Israelites that “ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save”. In the 21st century our idols usually inhabit our screens or take the form of material possessions. Not that there’s anything wrong with possessions as such, but they become a problem if we idolise them, if they preoccupy our time and thoughts.
Most of us dislike looking deep within; it’s confronting and uncomfortable, and we have become expert at avoiding it. We prefer to spend our time, as T.S. Eliot poignantly put it, “Distracted from distraction by distraction / Filled with fancies and empty of meaning / Tumid apathy with no concentration”.
But Melbourne’s extended lockdowns made it harder to escape ourselves all the time. In an unexpected benefit, COVID-19 gave people an opportunity to re-examine their lives and aspirations, and many found these lacking and resolved to change. It might be jobs, relationships, life-work balance, or spiritual questions.
All spiritual traditions know that a full life is not a life full of distractions. Rather, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.”
Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.