Dopamine is not a friend.

Homily 506 – 4 APE
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
July 10, 2022
Epistle:  (93) Romans 6:18-23 and (213) Galatians 5:22-6:2
Gospel:  (25) Matthew 8:5-13 and (10) Matthew 4:25-5:12

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

St. Paul is pretty blunt in his instructions to the Romans – and, to us.

Offer yourselves to righteousness, just as you offered yourself to sin before Christ.

He speaks about us being slaves – you know, we don’t like that language.  We are not slaves.  We just made bad choices, right?  We didn’t know what we were doing, right?

Obviously.  But what motivated those choices?  We may not have known what we were doing, but what were we after?  That much we knew.

We were seeking pleasure.  We were seeking the pleasure of the flesh – enjoyment of our environment.  In scientific terms, we were seeking the release of dopamine that creates a pleasure reaction in our brains.

We wanted to feel good – isn’t that the old saying?  If it feels good, do it.  That was, and is, the criteria by which the world evaluates pretty much everything.  Even the delayed reaction we sometimes allow – we push through, we endure, because we are certain of the feelings we will have when we are done.

Did you know that we’re not wired that way?  Biologically?

We are wired to seek balance between pleasure and pain.  And by seeking pleasure, our brains automatically seek to increase pain to balance us out.  Thus, we find ourselves with the highest rates of depression, anxiety, and all the other “negative” emotional states ever experienced in human history.

Why is it that the conventional wisdom is that the poor live happier lives in general than the rich?  It may be because they can’t pursue the dopamine highs that the more wealthy seek.

The poor can’t find comfort and luxury, so the balance is tipped to pain and suffering.  And their brains, in trying to balance, create pleasure in places that the rest of us might find unusual or difficult.

The so-called “simple pleasures”.

When Candy and I went to Albania in 2000, there wasn’t much in the way of luxury there.  Nobody had much of anything.  Even electricity and water were only available certain times of the day.

They had some television – mostly from across the Adriatic in Italy – and it was mostly soccer.  Very few had cars.  In the evening, people would get out of their homes and walk around the neighborhoods.

There were exactly three places in the capital city of Tirana that had air conditioning – a grocery store, a theater, and a restaurant where expats hung out and drank cold Coca-colas and ate burgers and fries.

And it was hot – they were having a heat wave that hadn’t been seen in a while.  Nearly 100 degrees every afternoon.

But one afternoon, after living in this inescapable heat, a thunderstorm came through.  And the temperature cooled off.  It was in the mid-70s.

The people, including us, went to the city park.  Brothers and sisters, it was glorious.  People, including us, literally reveled in the cooler, drier air.  The beauty of the breeze.

But even before, when it was hot – people gathered together, and spent time together.  Conversation – remember conversation? – became the norm.  Everyone visited everyone.  And that was where joy was.

There wasn’t anything else to pursue!  No cars, no real entertainment other than one another.  Not even a good cup of coffee – everything was Nescafe instant.  Yet, there was happiness.  People enjoyed each other’s company.  People were kind to each other.

Yes, there were arguments, yes, there were disagreements, yes, there was political and societal turmoil.  But on the whole, nobody had more than anybody else, which is to say not much.

On the return trip we had a layover for a couple of days in Zurich.  I thought it might be nice to “reward” ourselves with Switzerland after being in Albania, the poorest country in Europe.

Candy thought I was crazy because in Zurich, I found myself much more afraid, much more stressed, much more on edge than in Albania.  Everybody in Zurich was pursuing those “good things” in life – things that provide that dopamine charge.

Fancy watches, jewelry, chocolates, coffee, fine dining – all standard fare in Zurich.  But I felt safer, and happier, in Tirana.

That is what St. Paul reminds the Romans, and us.  That all the things we pursue in the world – the luxury, the comfort, the ease – will not make us content.  Will not make us happy.

Just the opposite – the path of those pursuits is, as St. Paul tells us, is death.

But – what we experience when we don’t pursue those things – when we pursue relationships over belongings and togetherness over comfort and nature over something contrived – then we experience eternal life.

That is life that we experience here, and in the world to come.  That is where we find the fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, and joy, and peace, and gentleness and self-control and all the rest.

We find all those things by pursuing Christ – attaching ourselves to the True Vine, and drawing our sustenance from the Vine instead of the environment.

Am I saying we need to avoid the entertainment and diversion and distraction of the world?  Yes.  I am saying that.  Because unless we avoid those things, we will continue to find pain and death.

Instead of everlasting life.  Pursue Christ.  Pursue each other.  When you fast, fast from the things that force your dopamine levels higher (food is one, by the way!)

And in so doing, gain true happiness, as God intended for us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.