• Matthew Emerson

Comfortable Discomfort

You know that feeling of grotesque fascination you get when watching a good slasher horror film? Or the butterflies that appear in your stomach whenever the cappuccino and piece of chocolate pair just right? Pain and pleasure captivate our imaginations and pursuits. We're always looking for the next best beer, or the creepier horror movie. There is something in us that forces our attention at pleasure and pain. It's an inescapable reaction.


There's a mystery around the two topics. We sit back and scratch our heads at how pleasure and pain coexist. Yet we all view our lives between the book ends of pleasure and pain. The highs and the lows. The ups and downs. In fact, pleasure and pain are what color most of our memories. We biologically encode memories of situations of high emotion with splendid detail. They're normally called "flashbulb memories." For a lot of us, we probably live our lives trying to figure out how we can avoid this pain as much as possible. The problem is, we can't. It's always present, somewhere.

This isn't a new thought, either. Sigmund Freud brought a spotlight onto this topic with what he called the "pleasure principle." In simplified terms, it's essentially the idea that human behavior is geared towards avoiding pain and maximizing pleasure. Seems pretty obvious at first.

But is it really? Is pleasure untainted by pain what we're really after?

Hugh Hefner was a man known for achieving the heights of sensual pleasure. The great patriarch of the Playboy magazine. For Hefner, sex was life itself. He was constantly surrounded by gorgeous women. Celebrities flocked to his side. Yet, today, history is largely ambivalent towards Hefner. He was sexist, misogynistic, and debauchery. Yet, when people speak of him, their head-shaking is colored by a strange emotion: Envy. There's a seductive mystery that surrounds Hefner's life and the walls of the infamous Playboy mansion. As morally despicable as Hefner's lifestyle was, people can't seem to consign him to the closet of history. They keep revisiting his wild life of unrestrained pleasure seeking. Perhaps, then, there is a part of us that shares the same impulses as Hugh Hefner.

It isn't hard to find. We all know the prospect of finding a more attractive mate, a better piece of chocolate, a faster car. Whatever pleasure we delight in most, that same pleasure motivates us in an almost animal fashion. We must have more of it. Individuals like Hefner simply represent what happens when this impulse in utterly unfettered by moral decency.

Happily, there are also less troublesome pleasures--like spaghetti with a friend :)

But if Hugh Hefner was a pleasure professional, then many other powerful individuals were pain professionals. These people committed horrible atrocities. Yet there are pages and pages of ink spilled on these figures. During the early-2000s, the History Channel might as well of been called the "Hitler Channel." There is a fascination with history's most despicably cruel men and women, just as there is an uncomfortable obsession with its most prolific pleasure seekers. A mythological aura surrounds them, yet they were real individuals. They were human. And this presents a rather profound problem. If these cruel and lecherous beings were human, then we are capable of being every bit as cruel and lecherous.

Just as our desire is innate, we have an innate capacity to inflict pain. It normally manifests itself in reasonable reactions. When we feel wronged, we want vengeance. When someone we care about is hurt, we want retribution. Usually, it is somewhat proportionate. Yet this is a blessing of society and the morals it imparts. In the ancient Jewish religion, retribution was limited to "an eye for an eye." In America, use of excessive force in self-defense can lead to a civil lawsuit. Legalistic societies are firm believers in proportionality. Yet this is a rational idea, not an emotional impulse. Given free rein, it is difficult to argue that individuals would restrain themselves in such a manner.

It makes little difference to the animal portion of the human psyche whether it drowns in tubs of alcohol or in tubs of blood. Sometimes the psyche wants both simultaneously.

One of the defining features in the lives of the central figures of history--those individuals who are so often called "the great"--is the extent of their passion. The pleasures they loved and the pain they were willing to suffer (and, often, inflict) was of remarkable intensity. Countless perished in Alexander's quest to rule the world. More died in Caesar's own bid at universal domination. Yet intensity of persona is not limited to ill-doing. It is possible to harness this passion and transform it into compassion.

Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Christianity, is a man remembered by his friends for beginning his recorded adult life with celebrating a wedding with fine wine and ending it bloodied on a cross. Christ represents compassion at its finest. It is no surprise that he has become the ultimate archetypal figure in the western canon. Even today, his life is rich with lessons for our own. First, Life is not about chasing the pleasure and avoiding pain, it's about acceptance. Christ's life speaks to the necessity of accepting, experience, and transcending pain. The cross, an instrument of Roman torture is now somehow a symbol of comfort to over a billion people on this planet. This is the power of sacrifice: It transforms pain into victory.

Hence the resurrection element of the Christian faith. The crosses of life are not to be avoided at all costs--that leads to fear and tyranny. Rather, life's difficult moments are to be patiently borne. Not for their own sake, but because of the resurrection that follows. It's in the comfortable discomfort of joy and sorrow that we operate. We know, deep down, that we cannot attain a euphoric utopia, or get the best of all who hurt us.

It's that period of working out when your muscles are struggling under the weight, but can just barely lift where the strength is gained. Suffering, it seems, produces endurance. Yet it need not be mindless. There is a kind of suffering that does not end in death, but in resurrection. And, happily, it usually need not be undertaken alone.

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