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*Not* pursuing pleasure

Updated: Apr 20

When I say I’ve recently come home from a week in Spain, a typical response is, ‘Nice, I hope you had a lovely holiday!’. Well, it wasn’t exactly a vacation. I was visiting an old friend who is recovering after a serious car accident. I’d gone out with another mutual friend to help out while her partner took some time away. They live off-grid, in an area where water is more and more scarce and there are lots of things that need doing. Seeing to the chickens, walking the dogs, recycling water, keeping the stoves going. Plus the usual – shopping, cooking, cleaning.

Still, I did have some holiday-style expectations. I’d imagined settling into a book on the balcony. I would bathe in warm sunlight as I gazed over the olive terraces. A welcome thought, off the back of a wet UK winter. I’d imagined sipping coffee in a village square and some gentle sight-seeing. But my expectations didn’t go to plan. We were way out in the hills at the end of a bumpy track and it was cold, windy and unusually wet. I borrowed thick jumpers and hunted for extra blankets. I hadn’t brought a raincoat. At times the practicalities left me tired. The solar energy was low and sometimes we couldn’t use the water pump that worked the taps. The part of me that wanted a pleasant holiday began to protest.

One day, midway through my stay, it occurred to me that seeking pleasure had not been the point of my trip. I had wanted to visit a dear friend and make a contribution at a demanding time in her life. Letting go of an idea that ‘this should be pleasurable!’ was a good move. The inner protest subsided. Rather than yearning for other things, I became more absorbed in the everyday tasks. The chickens bursting out of their coop when I opened up in the morning. Enjoying their titbits and cosying up when I closed the door at night. I loved getting a blazing fire going, starting with tiny twigs and building up to lumps of tree trunk. The roaring heat was a tonic. I had heart-to-hearts with both friends. I checked my phone less. I felt quieter, more peaceful and alive. I had an inkling that I may be more content than if I had been on a comfortable, sun-baked holiday.

A life based around seeking pleasure we know as hedonism. There is a fundamental flaw to this approach: life includes both pleasure and pain. It is never going to be comfortable all the time. We cannot meet an expectation of sustained enjoyment. It sets us up for disappointment. Accepting the challenging parts of life allows us to be more at peace. And some things may not be pleasurable, yet they are satisfying. They may give a sense of meaning, which is also necessary for wellbeing. Hedonism alone can produce a shallow sense of emptiness. It is harder to take one’s place as a wise adult.

To whatever extent I am focused on my own enjoyment, I can only be a good-time friend. Which is not much of a friend at all. And real friendship – through good times and tough times alike – has its own joys.

Wanting enjoyment is a natural and healthy part of being human. Life can be fun! But the irony is that pursuing pleasure as an end in itself can lead to dissatisfaction. It may provoke unhappiness. In the words of William Blake, one of our greatest poets:

Man was made for Joy & Woe 

And when this we rightly know 

Through the World we safely go 

Joy & Woe are woven fine 

A Clothing for the soul divine 

Under every grief & pine

Runs a joy with silken twine

Blake reminds us that both pleasure and pain are a part of life. He is saying that to understand this is to become confident in our path through life. And we could say that meeting life in its fullness with confidence is our deepest need of all.

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