The Journey series
Last week, in Cause and Effect, I claimed that we anticipate various effects our actions might cause and then act to cause the effects we desire most.
Ultimately, there is only one effect we desire: happiness. Everything we do aims to maximize our happiness. We attempt to reduce that which displeases us and increase that which pleases us.
We are created body, mind, heart, and soul, and there lie corresponding levels of happiness.
With the body, happiness is relatively immediate but short-lived. The pleasures and pains we experience through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell don’t endure much beyond the time our organs remain stimulated.
When we encounter a stimulus we rank it somewhere between I must have more of that to I’d rather die. We learn to seek things we like and avoid those we find offensive. The pleasure or pain we experience from any particular stimulus changes, however, both with exposure and with iteration. We may enjoy Mozart or Beethoven immensely but, at some point, it’s time for the concert to end. The Nutcracker Suite is wonderful to hear every Christmas season but would eventually lose its appeal if heard every day.
Our senses do not act in isolation, they compete. We feel pain when hungry, but balance that discomfort against the pleasure anticipated from available food. If we expect better food to be available in the near future we forego the stale crust of bread at hand. As our hunger grows we become less particular about taste, smell, and texture. Mothers take advantage of this when convincing little Johnny to eat his vegetables.
Sensual pleasure is often counter-productive to longer-term happiness. Our appetites are poor judges of our needs. Johnny’s sweet tooth is a good guide neither for what nor for how much he eats. Many worthwhile goals are only achievable through sensory suffering. We don’t take our medicine because it tastes good. Pleasure, it turns out, is a poor candidate to hold veto over decisions.
Unlike hedonists, who view pleasure as life’s ultimate pursuit, I consider it to be God's consolation, His encouragement and our respite along life’s journey. Sensual treats are better sign posts than goals post. These sweet encounters with our environment are a gift for which we should be grateful as we pass by, but, in my experience, they more readily distract us from our true purpose than propel us towards it. There is much happiness beyond mere bodily pleasure. I don’t want to revisit my years of chronic pain, nor would I wish them on others, but, when I look back honestly, I must admit I learned to appreciate far more through my pain than through my times of joy. I wouldn’t even recognize much of my current happiness without having been through my sufferings. It would still be there, but without me knowing it.
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Peter T Elliott