Freedom to Seek Pleasure

We all know that pleasure—feeling good—is more than simply engaging our experience and memory of the proverbial five senses; it includes doing things that project us over time and through our environment to indulge such experience and its body-muscle memory. The pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain—the essential feedback mechanism of Life—relies on the freedom to move toward the former and away from the latter as the individual goes about constructing their life, but the shoots of these impulses can be found in infancy and before when the freedom to move is greatly circumscribed by nature.

Within a few seconds of birth, in response to the change from the ambient conditions of the womb, the individual initiates the most fundamental of pleasures, breathing, a process that will be sometimes mixed with pain, a process that must continue until death. The warmth of the womb is soon sought and remembered in the maternal embrace after birth, leading to the first suckling at the mother’s breast. From time to time thereafter, separation from that sustenance with the attendant hunger evokes the desire to feed, to whimper and to cry for maternal recognition, and the infant’s emotional life begins. Separation from the primal source of pleasure begets want, which when unmet spawns a sense of loss, then fear or anger, vocalized in qualitative changes in the baby’s cries as watchful parents come to recognize. 

As the child grows out of infancy and begins to toddle, to develop the capacity to move about on its own, to reach for objects of desire, and to run and hide from perceived threats, the skill to respond appropriately and effectively will be in some measure framed by the infant experience. It is well known that a lack of sufficient parental attention at the early stages of life—or too much—can have long lasting emotional effects upon the individual, who may develop debilitating coping skills in response to unmet basic needs. 

Not that all such detrimental development can or should be laid on the shoulders of the parents or the greater community of which they are a part. From the perspective of some, including my own, we bring a certain amount of baggage with us when we come into this world, though that perspective should not be used as an reason for either a permissive or a penalizing attitude toward an individual; such perspective is as prone to be a source of simplification and misdiagnosis as is the naive belief that we are all blank slates when we enter this arena, to be formed solely by a combination of nature and nurture. To these two guideposts, there is also character—the skill of living a principled life—that accrues to the experience of the soul, not as some divine gift of privilege, but through and for honest self-appraisal of the hard lessons of life and sincere application of their implications, from the past, into the present, and toward the future.

Balanced emotional upbringing is conducive for the development of an individual’s self-confidence in approaching and grappling with the many challenges of life. This involves a measure of understanding and self-restraint of the urging of one’s desires and fears, especially of their passionate expression and repression. It is the emotions, particularly of  the passionate kind, that move one to act and to affiliate with others to pursue a common activity, often with great consequence and not always pleasant for the individual, the group, and those outside that group. It is therefore incumbent on the individuals not to squelch those emotions, but to temper them first in an attempt to faithfully understand the nature of the condition that urges their actions along with the full repercussions of  proceeding with those actions. It is imperative that the motivation to action be understood and takes into account those repercussions, that it is in accordance with the intent of the activity, and that the primary motivation of the activity is not the individual or group pleasure that is derived solely from the activity itself—unless that activity is a form of recreation, sport, gaming, or other entertainment, of the good nature of play.

It is important that intent, motivation, and action be understood as distinct and separate, though they are frequently conceived or known by experience as the expression of one impulse. Intent is essentially a desired condition or perceived outcome anticipated by an individual or group to result from a given course of action; the formation of an idea of acquisition of a desired object of pleasure or eradication of an object of trepidation. Motivation is the perceived set of circumstances that moves those parties to form and/or act on the intent embodied in that outcome; the experience of an envisioned opportunity of attempting  that acquisition or eradication and the risk of not taking such action. Neither motivation nor intent of themselves bespeak the realized course of action. 

 As an example, the intent is to eat to maintain one’s energy level and well being; the motivation is present or foreseen future hunger; the activity is preparing a meal from existing food stocks or taking it from nature or someone else, then eating. That activity may embody the opportunity to fix a really good meal and the risk of having it be inedible; or of having someone else take you out to dinner and of getting stuck with the tab. Or the motivation may come first—say thirst—followed by a more immediate intent—drink something—resulting in the activity of opening the refrigerator door and taking a big slug of juice from the jug, or the frustration of that intent and subsequent activity by the memory of having forgotten to go to the store to buy it.

In the larger sense this activity consists of finding work, hunting, foraging, growing a garden, or otherwise accessing food; finding a place with ready access to the food source to shelter while not working; acquiring and maintaining the tools, clothing, and other necessities as required to ultimately acquire the food; and finally acquiring and consuming the food. Depending on the circumstances, the majority of this other activity leading up to the consuming of the food may not be all that pleasurable, in fact the consumption of the particular food itself may not be that enjoyable, though in most cases it will be found to be more pleasurable than the discomfort of starvation. And it may be, again depending on the circumstances, that the thought and relished anticipation of the meal, the motivating pleasure of intended gratification, is more enjoyable than the eventuality.

In both the limited and the larger sense, eating to stay alive, along with most of the other pleasures of life, normally involves a degree of freedom of movement and initiative not necessarily found in forming an intent and in experiencing a motivation. But when such freedom is not possible, as with a cartoon prisoner shackled in a solitary cell or a counterpart penitent monk sequestered in a cave—both day dreaming of the same tropical island paradise—the sole pleasure may be the ever-present motivation of that vision of freedom; for one through external, the other, through internal, release. Yet even this fantasy pleasure will not be possible for long if some penal or ecclesiastical source is not maintained to supply the soul with the daily gruel or slop.

This is the crux of the current world condition. It is clear to all that have eyes to see and ears to hear that the active pursuit of happiness requires a minimum degree of intent and motivation on the part of every individual who rightly dreams of such pursuit; it requires as well, for those who are otherwise lacking in liberty, a minimum degree of help from those who are able. Beyond the intention and motivation that sustains them, the faith of the penitent and the hope of the prisoner remain dependent on the charity of those whose actions are required to provide, if not the release itself, at least a necessary measure of sustenance, along with any fostering of faith and hope, prior to that release. The crux is in an understanding of which charity facilitates and which charity impedes that release, from whom is it required and to whom is it due.