Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Drinking The Mortal Brew: You Can't Always Get What You Want

"Necessity is an evil; but there is no necessity for continuing to live subject to necessity." -Epicurus, Third Vatican Saying

As Mick Jagger so wisely observes: 'You can't always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you might find you get what you need'.

Often, what we need is to realize that we never needed what we thought we did to begin with. One of the important concepts of Epicureanism is to reduce your desire down to its basic components so that there's less stuff out there to be enslaved to, and thus, less stuff to need. By having our false needs thwarted, we discover our real ones.

Thank you Mick Jagger, for being a good Epicurean.

I am lucky to have very few regrets in my life (so far! there is always time to add to the collection...). There are plenty of things I wish I had never said, or wish I had said differently. There are a few people that have passed through my life that I wish I had been more helpful to. But these regrets are common; I am an imperfect animal, and can't expect to always live up to my full potential. Such is life.

But let me tell you about two different ways in which I have encountered the truth of this Vatican saying. Both pertain to regret.

For years, I fantasized about becoming rich and famous. Rich and famous as a baseball player (ages 9-14), rich and famous as a rock musician (ages 14-18), rich and famous as a stand up comedian (ages 18-19), and, finally, rich and famous as a writer (ages 19 to, oh, about 25). I'm 29 now, and I have spent most of my life fantasizing about that winning lottery ticket. The rich part is easy to explain. Becoming independently wealthy provides an individual (to paraphrase John Updike) an escape hatch out of the need to be A PRODUCTIVE MEMBER OF SOCIETY. As a person with a mild authority complex and a strong desire to do whatever I feel like doing, working a little harder on the front end so I could escape on the back end (or perhaps halfway through) was very appealing. The famous aspect of it...I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I have spent most of my life needing loads of outside validation. I have gotten better at validating myself (or 'carrying my happiness around on the inside' as I often phrase it), but that's the case. Insecurity + Aimless creativity + Desire to not become the kind of guy George Carlin spent his life making fun of = my artistic ambitions.

That shit made me miserable. Of all the artistic parachutes I've fashioned for myself, writing turned out to be the one I liked the best, and it's the one that I start to feel shitty about if I don't do it often enough. It clears things out, it's fun, and I'm pretty good at it. But until I came to terms with the fact that it would probably only ever be an outlet and hobby-horse to ride, it caused me anxiety.

I needed to get published. I needed to write a book. I needed to be paid for my work. At first, so that I could get the validation (and money) that I needed to function the way I wanted to. But as I discovered how wonderful it was to have a family, I incorporated them into my escape fantasy. We would all get out.

But the fantasy wore on me. I became disillusioned with it, and kind of burnt out. I kept writing though. Even though I had given up the fantasy, I kept writing. I think the best analogy would be to someone who realized they were unable to lose weight, yet kept working out. I laughed at myself for a minute, but then I realized that writing had become an end unto itself for me. Writing makes me happy, so I do it. As Banksy so aptly put it, 'You don't go to a restaurant and order a meal because you want to have a shit'.

Blogging, I have discovered, is even better, because it comes with the opportunity to exchange ideas and form relationships with people you otherwise would have never met, and it can be done as much (or as little) as you would like, at your own leisure.

What's better is that I've abandoned my escape fantasy too. I am fully intent to live the life of a family man (I think I'm a good one), read books,cook, write blogs, hang out with my family, play the occasional game of racquetball, and work at a homeless shelter. It's not a bad life. It's not what I have spent most of my adolescent and adult life thinking was necessary, but then, I am not required to gratify fanciful necessities.

the second way in which I encounter the truth of this saying comes to me courtesy of my appetite. I have a very weak will when it comes to the more sensual pleasures. Eating especially. Doughnuts are very hard for me to resist. The saying that alcoholics use that 'one drink is just right, two is too many, and three is never enough' could be applied to me and doughnuts. I know that I don't need them. I lust after them, however, and usually hate myself about halfway through one. God forbid I get to a second one! The guilt that I feel about my relationship to sweet pastries must be very similar to the kind of guilt an addict or adulterer has after engaging in their misdeeds. I go to the gym, I drink lots of water, but goddammit, the doughnuts have me by the balls. I regret this aspect of my personality, and see how it enslaves me.

So, we can see the wisdom in this little nugget: make the target area smaller, and it will be harder to hit. If pleasure is the ultimate good, overindulgence is surely the biggest perversion one can indulge in. All of the fundamentalists and fanatics will tell you 'THOU SHALT NOT!', but Epicurus just says, 'hey, take it easy'.

you knew this was coming:


the elegant ape said...

As brother Vonnegut said...

But I had a good uncle, my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life-insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Lodo Grdzak said...

Keep on blogging Spence!