Human Nature, Life

Are Pleasure and Pain Lenses Through Which We See the World?

(About a 4 minute read)

Yesterday,  a friend showed up at my cottage — a surprise visit.  Her mood was quite good, but mine wasn’t.  I was a bit down from lack of sleep.

Normally, I take great pleasure in her visits right from the start, but it was a few minutes before I was able to do so yesterday.  During that time, I noticed how my disappointment that I didn’t feel an immediate rush of pleasure to see her colored my ability to appreciate and share in her good mood.

Now none of that was odd, except for this:  This one time, I was more aware than I usually am of how my expectations created as feeling of disappointment that in turn, for a few minutes, colored what I thought about her, how I felt about her, and how I saw her.  That’s to say, it was a little bit as if she appeared to me a different person than the one I know so well.

After she left much later on in the morning, I got to thinking about those few minutes again and consequently began wondering how much does the pleasure (or pain) we take in people affect our view of them?  I think they obviously do to some extent.

Yet the challenge here is knowing the manner and extent to which they do.  When a person sets him- or herself to figuring out what it is they don’t know, the project quickly runs up against the fact it is so very hard in most cases to gauge what we don’t know, for we would otherwise know it.  But let’s give it a try.  We can start with pain.

I suppose most of us have enough experience of pain to easily recognize that it turns us inward upon ourselves.  We easily lose much interest or appreciation for the world beyond it, and we typically become predominantly concerned with ourselves. Hard to see the beauty of hawk in flight, if your back is in agony, or to concern yourself with someone’s feelings besides your own.   In fact, we not merely become concerned with ourselves, but usually only with those aspects of ourselves that either demand our attention or have something to do with our suffering.

When seen that way, pain can be thought of as a lens through which we see the world — not precisely as it is — but as it appears through the distortions of the lens.  But can’t we say the same about pleasure?

That is a point that I myself often forget, and yet I believe, it should be every bit quite as obvious to me as that pain can be a lens.

It’s true we usually treat pleasure and pain differently — we typically seek the one and try to avoid the other.  Perhaps because we think in terms of seeking pleasure, we might be inclined to also think that pleasure draws us out, prompts us to engage the world, rather than turns us inward upon ourselves, as does pain.   But if that’s how we think, then we are misled.

To see the point more clearly, consider a beautiful man or woman walks by your window while you’re busy doing taxes.  I think most of us would feel a rush of pleasure in such circumstances, and might easily “forget” whatever else was going on besides the beautiful man or woman.

Certainly, there’s a sense here in which the desire to take pleasure in the appearance of a beautiful person draws us out, prompts us to engage the world.  But is there not also a sense in which the actual pleasure makes us less sensitive to everything else but the object of it?  Are we really being prompted to engage the world, or just that one aspect of it?

Moreover,  is there not a further sense in which we are now more concerned with ourselves — in the form of our own pleasurable feelings — than we are with the beautiful person themselves?

A couple decades ago, I happened to come across a stunningly attractive friend of mine after having not seen her for months.  I was instantly impressed with how much more beautiful she was in person than in my memories of her, and I was at once flooded with the pleasure of seeing her.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

At least six or more minutes passed before I was suddenly jarred to realize that I not only was doing almost all the talking, but that she was showing several signs of distress right down to her tear streaked face.  But I had been looking right at her face!

Of course, I’d been so wrapped up in my feelings, I had noticed so little about her — other than what contributed to my pleasure.  But isn’t that almost precisely the same thing that we mentioned earlier about pain?  That “we not merely become concerned with ourselves, but usually only with those aspects of ourselves that either demand attention or have something to do with our suffering”?

So I think it can be reasonably said that both pain and pleasure are lenses through which we see the world (and ourselves) — not as it is — but as it appears distorted by them.  And given how we tend to all but constantly seek to avoid the one, and gain the other, I think that fact has quite a few interesting implications.

Comments?  Questions?  Depraved Rants?  Generous offers to share some fresh, tasty roadkill?

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