Updated: Nov 10, 2021
ZEST is great Scrabble word.
It’s also one of those feel good words that sounds like what it means; a pick me up, a spark, a little something extra. Although “zest” might not be in everyone’s daily vocabulary, my dad used it often. I was a fun-loving and active kid with boundless energy. My dad would often describe me as “having a zest for life” which for him meant curious, outspoken, fun-loving and lively. Of course it also probably made meant exhausting and sometimes a bit much!
I loved hearing him talk about my zest for life and I’ve always tried to maintain that heightened appreciation for things and people around me, an openness, spontaneity and an ability to find something special about any situation. If my dad thought it was a positive trait, I wanted more of it!
So why does it sometimes feel like I’ve lost my zest, my aliveness, my connection to newness and that which can thrill? One answer could be age, that increasing years can put a crimp in our style, slow us down and begin to extinguish that light that once shined so bright. But truthfully it’s a lame excuse. What does age have to do with finding the zest in life, that something extra that deepens us, expands us and offers meaning to life?
William James, the brilliant, provocative and inspiring philosopher and psychologist struggled to find the meaning in life in his early adulthood wondering: “do my actions have the feeling of the real me or am I just half asleep, only play acting at the only life I have?” Most of us find ourselves asking these questions often. According to John Kaag the author of Sick Souls, Healthy Minds, How William James Can Save Your Life, this inquiry is what plagued James throughout his life. In an essay to his students, James wrote “meaning is found wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it. There the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality and there is importance in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be.” For James, zest or the feeling of a “keen passion” is where the meaning of life lies.
How do we find the zest, the tingle, the eagerness when it eludes us?
Although James assures us that it can be found everywhere, in activity, perception, imagination and reflection, it doesn’t mean it’s always easy to uncover.
There are a number of ways to go about “finding” the zest in life.
Some people might start by looking at what is zest-less in their lives and begin to move away from those activities and/or situations.
Others may go back in time and recall moments and things in their past that brought them closer to that zest in life and re-institute those activities into their lives.
We should also stay open to finding zest in unexpected places. In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron instructs us to regularly go off by ourselves on a "date", with no purpose other than to allow our creativity to find us. When we are not focused on anything specific and are just out in the world with our eyes and ears open, our creativity will be sparked. That might elicit the zest James’ describes.
Or perhaps what might work best is to sit in silence, connect to that still small voice inside of you and perhaps you will be guided to a place where that zest resides.
When I find myself out of reach from the zest in life, I think about my Grandma Harriet, who lived through two World Wars and the Great Depression, lost two husbands and lived alone in an unremarkable small apartment in NYC till the end of her life. She never once seemed to suffer from a lack of zest. Everywhere she went and with everyone she connected, Grandma seemed to have that eagerness, curiosity, awe and appreciation that James referred to as “keen passion.” Her eyes would sparkle when she talked with someone in the grocery store; she would hum a favorite tune while cleaning the kitchen; she would sit quietly and hold my hand when I told her about some problem I was having, connecting with me deeply and personally, completely attuned with what was happening with me. Her senses were always heightened as she would describe with glee something she saw or heard or smelled or tasted. Each flower, cup of coffee, rugelah or butterfly filled her with delight. I was always in awe of her ability to find the zest in everything and everyone around her.
But perhaps she didn’t have some unnatural ability to connect with or find the zest in life.
Rather, she was the zest.
It was as if she brought that zest everywhere, and sprinkled it on whatever situation was happening. Maybe that’s another way to discover zest. Be it.
The finding, exploring and embodying that zest, eagerness or keen passion, is, according to William James, the work of our lives. We don’t just find it once. Since we are always growing, changing and evolving, we need to continue to examine and re-examine where we are, whether we are sleep walking or play acting or in touch with our real selves. That which calls us forward and thrills us changes so we need to stay awake, alert and in the inquiry of who we are and who we are becoming.
Most of us associate the word zest with the orange or lemon peel that we cook with. What is magical about zest is that it only takes a tiny bit to transform a dish.
So, if it feels like finding the zest can be daunting, notice what makes you feel more you, less like you are “play acting” and gravitate towards that and embrace whatever that is, even for a moment. Truthfully, connecting with the zest in life is really about being who you really are.
E.E. Cummings, who was a student of William James and has much to say about being authentically oneself wrote:
“to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
Don’t search too hard; instead connect within and get in touch with what makes you feel at home with yourself. When you do, you will know the sensation James’ talks about and which my Grandma exuded.
“Be nobody but yourself” and you won’t have to struggle as hard to discover your keen passion. Stay open, explore, notice what’s around you and allow thoughts, activities, imagination and perceptions to give you that eagerness, that tingle.
That is where the importance in life resides.
We all know that everything tastes better with a little zest sprinkled on top.
I wish you all calm, compassion, and clarity.