January 13, 2014

borrowed thoughts on joy

[excerpted from Endangered Pleasures by Barbara Holland]

"Subtly, in little ways, joy has been leaking out of our lives. Almost without a struggle, we have let the New Puritans take over, spreading a layer of foreboding across the land until even ignorant small children rarely laugh anymore. Pain has become nobler than pleasure; work, however foolish or futile, nobler than play; and denying ourselves even the most harmless delights marks the suitably somber outlook on life.

"It's an easy trap to fall into. Somehow bad news is easier to believe, more important, than good. Joyful people singing of blue skies always sound slightly simple-minded; the prophets of doom sound so much better educated, so much more likely to be right, and when they threaten us with cancer, global warming, gridlock, AIDS, war, famine, and pestilence, we listen closely and believe. The small pleasures of the ordinary day come to seem almost contemptible, and glance off us lightly. By bedtime they've vanished, lost among the ominous headlines, rude taxi drivers, and tight shoes looming in memory.

"Part of this is genetic programming. Back in the dawn of things, those who dawdled on the path smelling the flowers and smiling at the sunshine didn't last long enough to hand down their genes. The genes that traveled farthest were those of the most pessimistic, the most resistant to pleasures, the most alert to flies in their soup, tigers on the trail. They invented the angriest gods and prepared for the most menacing neighbors. Gloomy and suspicious, they slept with one eye open.

"We are their heirs. Scientific tests are proving that we notice and remember dark words more sharply than bright ones. They weigh more in our minds, as tigers weighed more than flowers.

"We may be overdoing it. Certainly we suffer more from stress, high blood pressure, insomnia, indigestion, and dark premonitions than other animals whose lives are more perilous than ours. It may not even be a sign of high intelligence; the clever dolphin, in spite of tuna nets, seems to celebrate all day long.


"Now we're left to wring joy from the absence of joy, from denial, from counting grams of fat, jogging, drinking only bottled water and eating only broccoli. The rest of the time we work. A recent study informs us that Americans in 1994 worked 158 hours (roughly a month) longer than we did in 1974.

"Our only permissible enjoyments now are public, official, and commercially regulated, as in Disney World, casinos, shopping, television, organized sport, and rock concerts. As long as somebody somewhere is making money out of us, we're useful to the economy, even patriotic: we're allowed to pay admission and play in the theme park.

"To make sure we aren't having any casual, private fun, the contemporary wisdom has withdrawn a lot of our older pleasures – chicken gravy, long summer vacations, sleeping late – and has replaced them with fitness and gloom.

"Perhaps it's a good time to reconsider pleasure at its roots. Changing out of wet shoes and socks, for instance. Bathrobes. Yawning and stretching. Real tomatoes. The magic day in January when it's clearly, plainly, joyfully no longer quite dark at five in the afternoon. Waking up in the morning and then going back to sleep again. The cold and limey rattle of a vodka-tonic being walked across the lawn. Finishing our tax returns. The smells of the morning paper, cut grass, and old leather jackets. Finding a taxi in a downpour; clean sheets; singing to ourselves in the car. Sitting by the fire picking sticktights off the dog. All the available gentle nourishments of the ordinary day. Properly respected, maybe they can lighten our anxious load.

"Indeed, pleasure may be almost as good for our health as broccoli; chemists tell us that happy people produce endorphins and enkephalins, brain chemicals that improve T-cell production and thus enhance immunity to cancer, heart disease, and infections.

"Let us then strive to be merry. Gloom we always have with us, a rank and sturdy weed, but joy requires tending. Pleasure itself is endangered."

[excerpted from Endangered Pleasures by Barbara Holland]

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