Many people seem to have bought into an idea that if we don’t feel our best, or don’t feel particularly good, then we can’t enjoy any part of life, have any pleasure at all.
A similar idea that seems to abound these days is that if the world isn’t exactly as we would prefer it to be, then we can’t acknowledge anything good about it.
Take a look around, especially at our social media feed, and you’ll see many variations on this theme. You’ll see people furious that their political party isn’t in office or their political philosophy isn’t ascendant. You’ll see people furious because they feel their cultural values are being marginalized and disrespected. You’ll see people who, in addition to sharing their outrage, demand that you be as outraged as they are, in order to be a “good person.”
On an individual level, you’ll see people post, over and over and over again, about the imperfections in their lives. People who seem to be defined by their pain and losses.
It’s truly heartbreaking to see.
There’s no question about the fact that people have real pain in their lives, both on individual and cultural levels. It’s not my job or intention to judge their pain, or how they express it. One of the reasons I do what I do is because one of my core values is, I want to help alleviate suffering when I can, in whatever small ways I can.
That said, it bothers me, the undercurrent I sense in many expressions of pain out there: that because the world is not perfect, because there is very real and very important pain that exists for individuals and groups at the present moment, that we can’t take pleasure or pride in any aspect of our lives or culture.
It’s as if we’ve forgotten that we humans are multifaceted human beings, capable of living nuanced lives. It’s very rarely black and white for us humans when it comes to experiencing pleasure and pain. Most often, our lives are a combination of both— and the presence of one does not negate the presence of the other.
I remember, when I was in grade school, my grandmother died. It was my first experience with the loss of a family member. I remember, at her wake, being hurt and confused by the fact that there were people there, people who had known my grandmother, who, instead of being wracked with the sadness I felt at the moment, were telling stories and laughing. Laughing! It felt somehow like a betrayal. I could not, for the life of me, understand how laughter could coexist with the kind of pain I was feeling at the moment.
But laughter— and pleasure, more broadly— does coexist with pain. Just like pain coexists with laughter.
When it came time, in December 2015, for me to eulogize my father, I more fully understood this. At my dad’s funeral, I was among those telling stories about my dad and laughing— and knowing that this is absolutely what my father, a robust Irish businessman who loved stories and jokes— would have wanted.
Because we’re in pain doesn’t mean we can’t laugh. Because we’re in pain doesn’t mean we have given up the right to feel pleasure. In fact, if we’re in pain, we’re more in need of pleasure and laughter than at any other time.
The world is not perfect. I absolutely understand the strong impulse many people feel to dedicate time and energy to changing the world. I deeply respect the responsibility many people feel to make fundamental changes to the fabric of society, and how passionate many people are about protecting the most vulnerable members of society.
That said, changing the world does not mean we never get to laugh or feel pleasure until the world has changed. Changing society is a long-term project, and if we put off feeling good until that project is accomplished, we’re in the position of putting off pleasure indefinitely. That’s not what we’re designed to do as humans— as humans, we are equipped to take pleasure in little things even as we keep hacking away at our larger objectives.
In fact, I would argue that taking pleasure in little things is essential to maintaining the health and perspective necessary to continue hacking away at our larger objectives.
It is entirely possible to be a happy warrior. It is entirely possible to be fully committed to making positive changes in society, while taking pleasure in things like humor, connection, and accomplishment.
On an individual level, it is entirely possible to, despite physical or emotional pain, also take pleasure in certain things. To laugh at a joke or to enjoy a friendship isn’t to diminish the presence or importance of pain in our lives.
To acknowledge that there is a lot of pain in our lives is not to surrender our ability to laugh and enjoy.
Chronic suffering— or even short-term, situationally driven pain— does not mean you abdicate the ability to take pleasure where you can find it.
Don’t let anyone convince you that the presence of pain, on a cultural or individual level, means you have some sort of obligation to blot out pleasure. Both pleasure and pain are integral parts to being human.
We can laugh at funerals.
We can smile even as we battle to make the world a better place.
We can feel good even if we rarely feel good.
Our magnificent minds have equipped us to do and feel more than one thing at a time.
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