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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Diminishing Returns

Once more I found myself having thoughts while listening to music and doing the dishes. I'm starting to think there's a connection. If the show The Big Bang Theory is anything to go by (and it is, personally, as so many people have told me I remind them of Sheldon), then sometimes doing mundane tasks frees up the brain to work during repetitive, meaningless action. This time the song at hand was "Better Than Drugs," by Skillet. This song, despite its genre and my tradition's general aversion to rock music, has made it into my Worship playlist on iTunes. Take a few minutes and listen to it on the link above.

As this song is playing, I begin to think on what I know about drug use. The first (and only) thing that comes up is the Law of Diminishing Returns (hence LDR; click through for Wikipedia article). This concept essentially states that the addition of an element to a system will produce an effect, but the more it is used, the greater the quantities of that element must be present to produce the same effect. However, there is eventually a point when the effect becomes negative, that is, it takes away from the desired result instead of helping. This term came up the other night on Grey's Anatomy when a patient with severe blood loss had been given copious amounts of blood for the surgery, but it was doing less and less good as the surgeons labored onward.

Concerning addictions, LDR is the reason why a person requires more and more of the substance in order to receive the high he or she got the first time the substance was absorbed. This is true of the commonly known drugs like marijuana and meth, as well as of alcohol.[1] The same holds for porn, and this one hits home with me, as I have the experience to substantiate the claim.[2] This is why the types of substance can change over time, moving toward more intense drugs, harder liquors, and more hardcore porn. It's because the same stuff isn't doing what it used to.

Given the reference to the Song of Songs in the chorus of "Better Than Drugs" ("your love is like wine"), among other hints in their music, I am inclined to interpret Skillet's work as being Christian. Therefore, I hear the person to whom the song is being sung as God. But the idea that God is better than drugs got me thinking. I couldn't help but wonder whether there is an addictive aspect to religion, or whether LDR applies to religious experience. LDR appears to be true most everywhere else, so why not here?

My religious experience has constantly reinforced the idea that only God will ever be enough for me. I have heard things like, "There's a God-shaped hole in your heart, and only he can fill it." And it appears there are roughly three outcomes of believing this and seeking God: (1) one does not find God,  and so moves onto another substance; (2) one finds God and becomes satisfied with a fixed amount, and is not changed by it; (3) one finds God, LDR kicks in, and one is never satisfied with the current state of things, and continues to seek more, go deeper, take in greater quantities of the God substance. I'm sure there are more possibilities than this, but it's a start.

The first outcome is common enough, where God is never found and so the seeker chooses to look for something else. The second is greatest among religious folk who have become satisfied and, therefore, stagnant. This outcome might be more dangerous than the first. The third, however, is the most intriguing to me. There are those who continually seek God and are never satisfied with "knowing God well enough." These are the people who deal with God relationally, that treat their relationship with God like they would a new lover. When I was getting to know the girl I eventually married, I couldn't get to know her well enough! There wasn't a point when I would think, "Well, I've spent enough time with her this week. That gives me a couple days off!"

This is where a possible branch-off occurs, with several possibilities presented. What would LDR dictate? That even if I remain unsatisfied with pursuing my wife or God and take things higher and higher, eventually the element in question will produce negative returns. At what point does a relationship with a person or God result in negative returns? Can we know God too much? My instinct says no.

There is an inherent problem with applying LDR to a relationship with God. LDR assumes that the substance or element being used or interacted with to produce a result is the only element that changes. The example in the Wikipedia article, for those who haven't read it, was that of workers in a factory. You can add more workers so that more work gets done, but eventually, there will be too many of them, which will ultimately reduce productivity. This does not account for changes in the factory. More machines can be built; greater space can allow those workers to move about; more work may become available. This problem, therefore, is assuming that everything around the additional element remains static.

When other pieces of the system do remain static, the additional component will eventually damage the system. If I attempt to consume God without any change to myself aside from some kind of high, then I will be damaged eventually. If I pursue my wife now without any kind of self-sacrifice, without any personal change for the benefit of the system, the system will crumble. This is the beauty of relationships: they can change.

For those who seek God and find themselves wanting more, that's okay, because God wants more, too. God is not static in his pursuit of his beloved ones, and we shouldn't be static either.

[1] The thing about alcohol is that it can be consumed without pursuit of a high. There are those who regularly drink yet are not addicted, because they are not attempting to reach a certain feeling through the drink. There are people who legitimately simply enjoy a cold one at dinner.

[2] It is, I can concede, theoretically possible that one can view porn passively or without seeking a particular sensation, but I know of no such situations where that is the case. If you come across research where this is true, leave me a link in the comments. I'm always eager to learn more about this topic.

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