Zap and Zest

Zap and Zest - part 1

I’m going to start with a somewhat different subject today. Ice hockey. No, I have never played ice hockey. Not once. I’m not even a fan. But I do have a point here, so please bear with me. 

Ice hockey is not incredibly popular here, but it is in one former colony – Canada. And so, we begin today with Canadian ice hockey. 

Throughout today’s sermon, I’m going to tell you some information and stories that come from a book by Malcolm Gladwell. It is entitled “Outliers.” 

If you haven’t read any of Gladwell’s books, I heartily recommend them. You may know Gladwell from his earlier books, The Tipping Point and Blink. Gladwell is a very special kind of writer and thinker. He has a unique way of identifying some not at all intuitively obvious feature about how the world works and extending those observations to help us understand things that otherwise seem rather mysterious. 

Ice hockey. 

In Canada, ice hockey is not so much a sport as a religion. To identify the best of the best of the best ice hockey players, children are taught to play very early – when they are barely old enough to balance on skates and hold a stick. 

As soon as they can make their way across the ice and whack away at a puck, these miniature players are watched very carefully. Very early on, they are sorted by skill and ability. The best players go into groups that get more attention and more help. Remember that hockey ice rinks are a limited commodity, so time on the ice is precious. The best players get more ice time. The worst get much less. 

And so it goes through the years of growing up in Canada as the system attempts to sort out the best of the best players – ultimately to be candidates for professional teams – to become candidates for the secular sainthood that is the hockey star. 

So, let me bring you to a national match the best of the best of the nation’s teen players. The programme distributed to the fans includes a list of all the players along with their birth dates. It happens that one parent – perhaps he was not as intent on the game as others, or perhaps this was just how his mind works – this parent happened to look carefully at the birth dates of the players and he noticed something odd – something so odd that it was amazing no one had remarked on it before. Nearly all of the players were born in one of three months – January, February, or March. 

Was it just a fluke of that one match? No. As he inspected other rosters, amateur and professional, the same exact pattern emerged. Most of the players in the best groupings are born in the beginning of the year! The players born later in the year are concentrated in the lower skill teams. 

What’s going on? Is it that astrology is really right and somehow those born under Aquarius and Pisces somehow do better on the ice – hey – it’s frozen water after all and both of those signs have something to do with water… Oh, and most Capricorns too and a bunch of Aries folks as well? 

No. It turns out that what we’re looking at is simply related to the fact that the cut-off for hockey age groups is the 1st of January. Children born in the beginning of the year are the oldest in their hockey cohorts. As little children, a few months makes a huge difference in size, agility, and maturity. At those early stages, the oldest kids are naturally selected as the most promising! 

Well surely that advantage of a few months of age equals out later, doesn’t it. Well, it would, but the enrichment comes into play. The so-called best players become the best players because they get more and better coaching, better team-mates, and much more ice time than the others. In other words, the selection is a self-fulfilling prophesy. The enriched environment of the chosen players – the older kids – ends up making them better. 

Now, this is not to suggest that everyone has exactly the same innate skills. A basketball player of my height would never be a super-star, no matter how much practice and coaching he or she got, but given two Canadians with equal inborn ability, the one born earlier in the year is much more likely to be selected and become a top quality player. 

Canada has missed out on half of its potential great hockey players because only half of the potential stars had the chance at the nurture and practice that would have made them exceptional. 

Another example about as far from Canadian hockey players as you can imagine… German violinists. 

Elite young violinists were categorized by their professors into three groups: Group A were considered truly outstanding and were expected to become top performers – the stars. Group B was for the merely good players – they could play in local professional bodies but would never be world-class. And group C – they were not expected to amount to anything more glamorous than teaching violin to children. If you’ve ever heard a beginner child practicing violin, you know that this is not a desirable fate. When I tried to learn violin as a child, my parents made me practice in the basement. If I hadn’t been so terrified of the basement, who knows how the story would have turned out! 

And then, they asked these violinists about their histories to identify something about how they got to the level they did. You might imagine that the best players had musical parents, heard classical music in the womb, and showed themselves as natural musical geniuses at an early age. What emerged though, was that the difference between the three groups is in how much they had practiced over their lifetimes. Group A had practiced a lot more than group B and group B had practiced a lot more than group C. 

The researchers expected some natural geniuses to appear – people who effortless became world-class – people in group A who had practice relatively little. None. 

And they might have expected others who were constitutionally poor players – who showed up in group C despite enormous practice. None of those either. 

In this large set of capable musicians, the only thing that differentiated them by skill was how much they had practiced. 

The best violinists practice 10,000 hours. Oddly, this same number appears also for the best hockey players. 

I hope you find this as interesting as I do. But, you may well be asking why are we talking about hockey players and violinists? 

I want to argue that there are fundamentally two different sorts of religion. Let’s call them “zap” and “zest”. 

Zap religion says that if you do the right things, think the right thoughts, believe the right beliefs, then ZAP, God or some other force is going to make it right for you. That’s either here or in some future life. It’s not a matter of you making it better, it’s a matter of you beseeching and loving God enough to do it. Zap religion doesn’t consider that we have very much power to change either ourselves or the world around us except through God. 

[Eagleton missed why religion and consumerism do in fact fit together] 

Now “zest” religion, on the other hand, relies on the enthusiasm and dedication we bring to it. Zest religion expects that human beings have power. We may draw power from a divine force or it may be within us already, but whichever way it is, we have the ability to change things. We have the ability to change ourselves and the world – not by praying for a zap, but by drawing from the zestiness within and around us to make it happen. 

In a zap world, great hockey players and violinists are born – created by God or by chance without any opportunity to change it. It seemed that way for both kinds of talents for a while, but look deeper and what you find is that the stars were created by their environments and by their own efforts – they may have drawn strength from their parents, their friends, their schooling, or their God – but they had to put in the 10,000 hours no matter what. 

Those stories, and many more, tell us that we live in a zest world – not a zap world. 

The superb lecture that many of us heard last night from Terry Eagleton also touches on this topic. Eagleton talked about religion in the market economy. He said that a market economy is basically incompatible with religion and he explained the American exception as being an expression of that stark absence: Americans seek religion, he says, because their culture has effectively banished it. 

Whilst I would be very hesitant to disagree with an intellect like Terry Eagleton, I’d suggest a modification of his interpretation. It’s not that religion in general is incompatible with a market economy and society. In fact, a kind of religion is fully compatible with it – and that is the zap religion that is so dominant. Zap religion says the same thing that the market says – if you want it, you can have it now – right now – this minute. Just pay the price – in money, in prayer, in devotion – it – whatever it may be – will be given to you. 

It is zest religion that has a conflict with the instant gratification ethos of the market. 

Zap and Zest - part 2

For better or worse, we live in a zest world – not a zap world – and that has two very important implications for how we live our lives. 

First, a zest world gives us possibilities. If we don’t have to rely on some one-time gift, we have the possibility to take control of our own growth and evolution. But we have to recognize the double edged nature of this vast potential offered by a zest world. Living in a zest world means we can do more than we might have thought we could, but it also means we have to work hard for it. Wouldn’t it be nice to pray for violin virtuosity and have it appear just like that. I’d like to learn skills instantly, like Neo in the Matrix. He has a little jolt from the matrix download, picks up his head, and says “I know Jiu Jitsu.” 

We can’t expect instantaneous skill, instantaneous goodness, instantaneous wisdom, instantaneous justice, or instantaneous spiritual depth. All of these things are journeys – long processes that require a lot of zest - dedication and commitment. Life is a process of choosing where to go, and journeying. And the keys to a happy, satisfying life lie in engaging deeply in the journey and having others to walk by your side who support you and to whom you offer support when our journeys get tough – as they inevitably do. 

The other important implication of a zest world is that it matters – it matters enormously – how much zest we can find around us. 

The hockey kids born in the first months of the year were offered much more zest than the others. No matter how dedicated the November babies might have been, they could not overcome the lack of zest they were offered early on. Their initial handicap was compounded over and over again – building upon itself until they were truly the inferior hockey players determined by the initial faulty judgment of the experts. 

I think about my own life and the places where it was and was not filled with zest. From my very early years, I can remember knowing that I was a smart kid – and that belief in my intelligence gave me confidence. The fact that my teachers believed it caused them to give me extra opportunities – not more ice time, but more intellectual and educational zest. It put be in the advanced programs that let me live out my potential. 

It took reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book to realize something important: I was born 17 days after the date cut-off. That is, I was nearly the oldest in my school year. What that means is that when I was six years old, Mrs. O’Leary was comparing me to children who were five and a half or younger. Is it any wonder that I could best them at the great intellectual feats of mastering the alphabet? How much different would my life have been if I had been born 20 days earlier – the youngest in my classes and seen presumably as – well, just a bit slow. 

My life was zest-filled in many other ways. It helped to have parents who enriched my environment with learning toys, music lessons, and language. It helped to have high expectations surrounding me. There is an easy tendency to see the world in a zap way and to think we are born with certain abilities, but to a great extent, those abilities come to us through the zest we are offered around us. 

Another kind of study described by Malcolm Gladwell shows the more tragic side of living in a zest world. 

In the early 20th century, a psychologist by the name of Lewis Terman made an exhaustive search to identify young geniuses. He worked with teachers, he tested, he interviewed – he did everything possible to identify a set of the absolute brightest kids he could find. And they were brilliant. They talked early, they read early, they had insight for maths… everything. 

Terman, being an optimistic man, expected that these geniuses – who came to be called the ‘Termites’ – would be the leaders of the world of tomorrow. They would be the politicians, business leaders, the greatest scientists and so on. 

He set about to follow their lives, and he did. And many of the Termites did very well, ascending to great heights. To Terman’s surprise and disappointment though, many of them did not go far. Some dropped out of school. Some ended up in jobs that – while useful – demanded far less of them than their potential suggested. 

Why? What happened? 

Terman sorted and analyzed. The successes were no smarter than the others. It wasn’t health – physical or mental. It wasn’t race or ethnicity. In the end, the result became painfully clear. Success came along with the right social class origin. Geniuses from the middle and upper classes went on to do great things. Geniuses from the working classes did not. 

Zest. Study after study tells us that the class in which we are raised determines the richness of our environment, it determines our opportunities, our access to useful networks, the encouragement we receive. Class – to a great extent – determines the zest of our environment. 

As Unitarians, we tend to be zesty religionists rather than zappy ones. We recognize that instant gratification is the opposite of the way we need to be in this life and that our religion needs to be an antidote to the destructive messages of popular society. 

Our faith – at its best - gives us the courage and the support to make of ourselves what we can. It tells us not to hope for miracles other than the ones that come through our own hand, minds, and hearts – whether with or without help from the divine. 

And our faith says something more. We are committed to the potential goodness and satisfaction and joy of every person. This means that we have to be committed to zest – to helping to create a world where there is enough zest for every person to be able to achieve their potential. 

Being Unitarian means that we know the potential of each person is enormous, and it means we must do our part to helping both ourselves and all others to have the circumstances in life that allow that potential to blossom. 

May it be so.