“When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.” ~Viktor Frankl
When Izzie was a baby, she loved to be rocked and sung to. She was especially fond of James Taylor, Dolly Parton, and The Beatles (all the things she now strums on her guitar). She would gaze at me, blue eyes wide, enraptured. It was clear when she had had her fill; first, a slow blink, then a shifting of her gaze over my shoulder instead of into my eyes.
When humans are operating from a healthy nervous system, they cycle naturally between being connected and then disconnecting. Babies are really good at listening to the signals of their brains and bodies, intuitively know when to be engaged with their world and when to turn away and process.
Charles Darwin called this our aesthetic instinct. The idea that competition is our most instinctive characteristic of life is a myth and actually only half of what Charles Darwin wrote about in regards to the origin of species. We have a drive to survive, yes. But we also have a longing for connection, beauty, and pleasure. After all, if sex wasn’t pleasurable, our species would move toward extinction pretty quickly.
So we cycle through a natural rhythm of connection and disconnection, of fasting and feasting. We binge and then digest, show up in the world and then retreat to our beds.
It has been a season of feasting for me. After two long years of challenge and struggle, my family shifted blessedly into a season of relative calm. As we had abstained so long from true pleasure, I dove eagerly into a time of hedonistic feasting. My friends dubbed this my Gatsby Summer, by which they mean it’s been a season of travel, parties, and self-indulgent pleasure-seeking. Sleeping in, staying up late, screaming at loud concerts and all-night dance parties, reading forgettable “beach books” in the hammock while sipping prosecco, whiling away entire weekends in the pool, sunburned and shiftless. My aesthetic instinct has been on point, finding opportunities for lazy decadence everywhere I look. I’ve been literally drowning myself in dopamine, mojitos, and sourdough bread (that is itself drowning in truly egregious amounts of salted butter).
But life ebbs and flows. Let’s not forget that it was the end of the Great War that gave rise to the the “Roaring 20s” Jay Gatsby so enjoyed, and that time culminated in the Great Depression. Life is hard, and then it’s momentarily beautiful. And then hard again. Rinse and repeat.
I find myself growing weary and bored of constant entertainment, am feeling a pull back towards routine and duty, more structure and purpose. Carefree and coddled was necessary, but it’s time to get back to the work of living (and it would be nice to fit back into my jeans again). When we’re constantly exposed to pleasure-producing stimuli, our brains adjust and, eventually, we need more and more pleasure just to feel “normal.” This so-called dopamine deficit state eventually leads to a general sense of ennui. Like a brooding, age-old vampire who has seen and done it all until there are no surprises left, we feel generally dissatisfied with our existence.
We have been encultured to equate feeling good with feeling content. But the first is fleeting, while the latter is the backbone of a good life.
For me, getting the wheels back on my mental and physical wagon means more meditation and fewer margaritas. More intentional movement and less idle lounging. Picking up a book that challenges me instead of reading another totally forgettable thriller. More service to others and shorter periods of time indulging my every whim.
My Gatsby Summer was a beautiful distraction, but not a truly meaningful one. Most of our greatest growth in this lifetime is born of pain. I’m certainly not saying I want to return to the stress and heartache of my last few years, but I also do not want an existence that is devoted solely to pleasure seeking. Because humans – of which I am one – are easily bored and will start seeking out that pleasurable distraction in all the wrong places.
So we cycle through a natural rhythm of connection and disconnection, of fasting and feasting. We binge and then digest, show up in the world and then retreat to our beds. Looking forward to now digesting my Gatsby Summer.