Everyone will be called to account for all the legitimate pleasures which he or she has failed to enjoy.
By Chris Dwyer
My wife sat in front of me, almost eclipsed by her giant margarita, then peeked around to ask, “Do you want to take a trip around the world, with me?”
“That just seems… too self-indulgent,” was my unthinking response.
Giant alcohol slush puppies are fine, but trips around the world?! For some reason, I condone one but not the other.
I hated what came out of my mouth. I hated that one part of me guilt-tripped another part of me (whose imagination could already smell the thrill of delicious airplane ozone and feel the far-off mountains beneath my feet).
Are my hang-ups to indulge in beautiful desires unique to us retired altar boys? Or a remnant of collective whiteboy guilt? Where did this sickening emotion come from which has me border-line-apologizing for wanting to indulge dreams? Is my ego or alter-ego telling me that it is NOT OK to want to suck the marrow out of this juicy dimension we call mortal life on planet Earth? Is that why it’s December 7th, I can see my breath, and yet I continue to shower outside with cold hose water, hoping to balance someone’s karma bank account, by de-indulging?
I’ve dedicated today’s blog, and my year in general, to explore the origins of my/ our warped relationship with self-indulgence. My goal is to reclaim the lost dignity of self-indulgence! I know it’s not easy, because the gnarly roots of self-absorption and self-pity tangle themselves with the healthy saplings of self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-actualization.
I’m guessing my condition isn’t unique to decorated five-star Catholics. In fact, I see a LOT of people struggling to own their legitimate delights — to identify that which makes them come most alive.
Let’s break Susie’s indigestible margarita question down into smaller, more manageable sips, to determine where and if we crossed the line of self-indulgence:
|Question Fragment||Was it self-indulgent?|
|Do you want…||YES|
|To take a trip…||YES|
|Around the World…||YES|
My Warped Rationale
Question Fragment Irrational Rationale (I realize these are perverted.)
|Do you want…||Don’t Buddhists say that want is the cause of all suffering? Seems like there may be something to it.|
To take a trip…
|Take? No, taking is selfish. Giving is obligatory. Travel is futile. As T.S. Eliot said, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time. “ Well, by that rationale, if we just arrive where we started, then why don’t we focus on where we are and spare the expense?|
Around the world…
|The world is material. The world is evil. Just be spiritual.If we cared about the world, shouldn’t we save the fossil fuels spent on visiting it and contaminating it? I mean, with National Geographic’s in depth journalism, and cable TV’s plethora of channels, why go to Italy at all when you can just download the lasagna recipes from the Internet and watch Rick Steves go behind the scenes at the Vatican Museum?|
|With me (Susie)…||Susie, let’s face it – you are the guiltiest pleasure I’ve ever found.|
I love “opposite-thinking” as a useful, if not entertaining, thought experiment. This one was popularized by a classic Seinfeld episode. Jerry’s best friend, George, has an epiphany and realizes his life has gone disastrously wrong because every decision he has ever made has been wrong. So Jerry concocts a solution–whatever George’s instincts are, from then on, he must act out the opposite of those instincts.
His first attempt at righting his past wrongs occurs at the coffee shop, where he normally orders tuna on toast and a coffee. But that order has never worked out. So instead, he orders chicken salad, UNtoasted, and a tea. Next, he sees a beautiful woman (who just ordered the same thing) and decides with renewed gumption to approach her with a self-effacing but effective pickup line: “Hello, my name is George, I’m unemployed and live with my parents.” At which point, he wins the woman’s name, Victoria, and a flirtatious smile!
The way I see it, the opposite of a self-indulgent trip would look like the following situation:
Susie pokes her head around her aromatic medicinal green tea and says,“Chris, be obligated to stay where you are, alone!”
|Warped Fantasy Fragment||Was it self-indulgent?|
|Where you are…||NOPE|
But only a virtue-detector that’s fucked up would celebrate this as a success. It’s not a venture at all. In many ways, it’s business as usual. Anyone can see that the opposite of my self-indulgent trip is clearly NOT worth indulging. That’s a recipe for stagnation, near-sightedness, small-mindedness, self-absorption, and self-pity.
One of the ways I think God, or our higher selves talks to us is through our jealousy. (On the theme of opposite-thinking, I’m going to praise jealousy for a minute for being, not a vice, but one of the wisest oracles.)
Looking like a ghost on the horizon, I came upon John riding his bicycle through a rainstorm in the desert. I was visiting an old mining town outside of Phoenix for a work project two years ago. I could see John heavily loaded with gear bags on both sides of both wheels.
“For sure this guy is one of those crazies, biking across the WHOLE country,” I said to myself. “I HAVE to take him out for breakfast!”
I pulled up really slowly to John, so as not to scare him off the highway. He was barely moving fast enough to stay upright. I shouted, “Hey brother–you look like you’ve got quite the journey ahead of you and not a great day for it. Can I get you out of the rain and buy you a hot breakfast and coffee?”
“I’m OK,” he said as he flashed me his two-gallon grocery bag full of KitKats.
“No, man — that won’t do! I insist. You’ll make horrible time in these conditions anyway.”
I turned my car around and reserved a booth at a grungy diner just up the road. There we sat in silence for several minutes as he composed himself after a morning spent battling the wind and highway rumble strips and rain.
It turns out he was indeed biking across the whole dang country. Mine and his! He started in eastern Canada, with an original goal of biking to Vancouver. Then he decided to go down the whole west coast of the U.S. But when he got to San Diego, he decided why not just go east to Florida? Once there, he wasn’t sure if he would buy a boat and sail north to Canada or else maybe just ride his way home. TOTAL BADASS!
The longer he talked, the more my jealousy raged. He was doing what I had only dreamed of. I knew I had to pay attention to that. Jealousy has proven to be a very good muse. I had two burning questions for him:
1) How did you manage to arrange your life affairs so as to take such a trip?
2) Don’t you feel terribly guilty for a taking such a self-indulgent trip?
I almost felt bad for asking such an overly-personal question to a perfect stranger, but I figured, heck, if he could manage a saddle up his butt 100 miles per day, then my heartfelt questions were practically ointment on his groin.
I learned that John was a 40 year-old retired engineer. In answer to my first question, he invented some gizmo or another that made him a lot of money. As for my second question, I was overjoyed to hear that YES, he does feel guilty and self-indulgent. Halleluia! For some reason, that humanized him to me.
But on the other hand, his feelings of unclaimed joy haunted me, long after we parted. I guess I was hoping that he would have a better response, some nugget of wisdom. But he didn’t. I was left to wonder: Could his joys ever be claimed? If not by him, then who?
Practically speaking, how can we rally behind our self-indulgence better? How would I rally behind my own? Honestly, I am having difficult time ingesting my sugar. I might use my opposite-thinking tactic plus some Mary Poppins’ lyrics to sing a song about a spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down. Maybe that’s why I keep acting like a fool and taking cold showers outside.
I wonder what might reconcile these two pieces of me– A) The future-looking piece that wants to indulge in legitimate delights, with B) the piece of me hung up on so much shit. Part of me believes I must pay for history’s atrocities and pre-emptively bathe myself in the suffering of the universe, micro-atoning for the micro-aggressions. I ask myself, how can there be a smidgen of joy in the world when Aleppo is getting bombed right now? But an equally compelling question is how can suffering stand a chance in a world where babies laugh, there’s bossanova music, and giant margarita conversations?