Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Illness and Hedonism

It is inevitable, I am bound to get sick at least two to four times starting in November and continuing into January. Currently, I'm in the middle of my second illness, a mild cold. Fortunately, being sick gave me a time to reflect on my emotional reaction to an aspect of reality. It provided me with an opportunity to gain insight into my response to a particular experience. It allowed me to discover what understanding could be gained from the perspective of someone who is (slightly) sick.

Being sick sucks.

Apart from that mind-blowing revelation, though, I had a train of thought on the first night when I could feel myself getting sick. I will come to that train of thought in a moment, first, a little background information.

I'm no fan of hedonism. I'm no fan of the notion that pleasure is good and pain is bad, partly because I think it is quite possible for pain to be good and pleasure to be bad, but even more pertinently, because I think there are other matters that can be valued more highly than pleasure and that in those cases pleasure and pain are subordinate to those higher values. Of course, due to my current nihilism, I cannot say that there is anything actually better than pleasure, only that I myself am very much relieved that humanity has historically managed to find much that they valued more highly.

Two considerations always concerned me, though. While I always found a hedonistic utopia hollow, I also found any situation that did not contain pleasure to be unsatisfying. Pleasure was not sufficient, but it was necessary; if you're interested in testing this for yourself, try to imagine yourself in heaven, however you would like to conceive it, but imagine it without anything resembling what you would call a good feeling. This always concerned me because it seemed to lend credence to the idea that conceiving of something as good was the same as conceiving of it as pleasant. The other consideration was that it seemed to me that alleviating suffering oftentimes seemed important and worthwhile to me; seeing people I care about suffer, even if their sufferings were actually quite insignificant, made me want to make things better for them. However, if there were more valuable things to be concerned about, then why did I care so much about their suffering, why did it so easily become a priority?

The train of thought I had, which I think will explain those two considerations without falling into hedonism, was this: when I am sick all I want is to get better. I want to stop feeling bad, and in fact, when I am sufficiently sick, that tends to be the prime focus of my life. Once I get better, though, I move on to other considerations. The increase of pleasure and the minimizing of pain is not my prime value when I am well, but it is when I am sick. Why is this?

It occurred to me that the life of pleasure vs. pain could be seen as a kind of necessity. As an analogy, consider oxygen: no one would live their whole life in pursuit of oxygen, but take it away and that becomes the single most important thing in the world. Once access is restored, the formerly deprived person will go back to whatever he finds truly valuable in the world. There are things that are important or even vital, but which can be satisfied to such an extent that they cease to seem worth seeking until they again become lacking. Oxygen is one such thing for physiological reasons; pleasure and the absence of pain could be one such thing in a spiritual, emotional, or mental sense.

Yes, one can lead a hedonistic life in pursuit of pleasure and in flight from pain, but for most people, happiness does not consist of just matters of pleasure. Still, matters of pleasure and pain are a part of happiness, they must be tended to before we move on to our higher values. I conceive of it, now, like a pyramid, sort of like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs; on the bottom of the pyramid are all the things that must be satisfied and moved beyond.

If you need to shit, you go and shit. But who would lead a life in pursuit of shitting? Shit, and then move on.

One thought occurs to me now, though. All those “higher” values, whatever they might be (say, love, power, harmony, or creative expression), do we pursue these things because we value them so much or do we pursue them because they're permanently elusive? They either can't be completely satisfied or they are very unlikely to be satisfied, so they can only be more fulfilled or less fulfilled. If they were to ever be fulfilled, though, would they too be moved beyond? A question for another day.

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