Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Joy vs Pleasure

So, the dictionary definition of joy is literally pleasure, and vice versa. Websters considers them interchangeable. So maybe I need to do some other clarification when I attempt to differentiate between the two. In actuality, though, it's the perfect example of what I'm trying to say: in our modern world, we really have no difference between joy and pleasure.

It might be better termed Deep Satisfaction vs Deep Happiness. I think there is a difference. Pleasure is fleeting; it's focused on feelings and emotion, while joy is something deeper; it's more about a state of being. Pleasure is something you feel; joy is something you embody.

Again, the dictionary likely disagrees - then this just becomes a big game of semantics - but lets see through the technicalities to the core concept of these differences. Joy and pleasure are both unique and deeply personal. When it comes to pleasure, we don't call them fetishes for nothing, right?

When I think of joy, the first memory that comes to mind is sitting in our rental Kia at Whitney Portal at 3 in the afternoon. A friend and I had just spent the previous 14 hours hiking to the top of Mt. Whitney and back down - about 21 miles in total. I'd just taken my boots off. My feet were literally throbbing with a dull, consistent pain; every one of my leg muscles was aching. There was nothing pleasurable about that moment, but I can't recall a deeper experience of pure joy in my entire life.

Now sometimes these two things are quite connected. I'm not sure I can fully comprehend even now the experience of holding my newborn daughter in my arms in her first moments of life, but I'm almost positive both pleasure and joy were mixed up in it. But what I've been thinking about a bit lately is how much we've (society in general? westerners? whoever) come to expect joy and pleasure to be one and the same. We expect all of our best moments to be happy moments. We're constantly seeking pleasure when what we really long for is a deep, abiding joy.

Joy isn't always pleasure - and we've completely forgotten about that.

Joy, I believe, comes with a discovery, even just a glimpse, of what it means to discover real purpose. Human beings were certainly made to be happy, but human beings were certainly not made just to be happy. I'd argue our purpose is to suffer together - if we're talking about the dictionary: we're made for compassion. Passion comes from the latin for struggle - we are made to be co-strugglers. I believe we experience joy when we experience the realities of life (both pleasurable and otherwise); and I think we experience this joy most deeply when we do so in connection to someone else - even if that other is creation itself.

For me, it's a hike through the woods or the indescribably joyful feeling of insignificance I experience looking out over an expansive mountain range. For me, this is a broad brush of humanity barreling down at me from great distance. It helps me appreciate the struggle.

We find no pleasure in a loved one who suffers tragedy, but we do experience joy in walking through such tragedy with them. The struggles of life are not things we wish on anyone, but we also consider life (and its necessary struggles) an almost priceless, beautiful gift. Why? I think the answer is joy.

We're part of a world that speaks only to pleasure - finding happiness is the solution to all your problems and the fulfillment of your purpose. We seek blindly after pleasure and when we find it empty, we assume we've not yet found the right pleasure and we move on. It's an addiction to happiness and an aversion to pain. I don't think either of these characterize life.

As a Christian, there's common belief in an eternity with no sorrow or pain - but those are so often used as synonymns, the same way joy and pleasure so often are. Just like joy and pleasure are really two different concepts, so too are sorrow and pain. Sorrow is the opposite of joy - a lack of purpose, self-worth, dignity, meaning; I fully believe these things can and will be eradicated by love. That's the hope I profess. I'm less confident, though, that pain is fleeting or ultimately doomed.

There is just as much chance for joy in pain as there is in pleasure - at least my experiences tell me that's true - in the same way as there's just as much room for sorrow in pleasure as there is in pain. These things are not necessarily linked. Think about it - a relationship without misunderstanding or miscommunication is no relationship at all. The very value of any relationship is the unpredictability, the otherness of the other. If we always said the right thing, we'd quickly grow tired of each other. Our ability to surprise, even after ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years together is what provides the great joy that comes from relationships. If the cost of this unpredictable joy is occasional pain, I think it's worth every penny.

Again, this pain is not confused with sorrow, specifically the sorrow that comes from intentional harm, hurt, and insult. Relationships have that, too - at least for the time being. Pain comes from the same joyful unpredictability; sorrow comes from selfishness.

In the end, it may be just that simple. We can experience joy when we're living purely for the benefit of others - whether it's enjoying a brisk evening walk among the trees or sitting by the bedside of a cancer-ridden spouse, joy can persist in the midst of both pleasure and pain. Pleasure is certainly not a bad thing, but pursuit of our own pleasure as an end in itself will bring nothing but sorrow. Pursuit of pleasure for another might bring happiness for ourselves too, but much more than that, it will bring a deep and abiding joy that reveals all the best of what life has to offer and the very purpose for our existence.

Let's not let the dictionary have the final word here.

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