Pleasure is so seductive, so desirable. Even the word itself is somewhat onomatopoeic. Who would eschew pleasure?
Virtually all of us, at least some of the time.
We may say no to pleasures that carry a heavy price, such as gambling or unprotected sex. We may forego the pleasure of foods that are produced through cruelty to animals, or reject certain forms of entertainment, such as cruise ships, that come at the expense of the environment.
But most of us still seek out pleasure, often as a reward for our hard work, our completion of chores, and for many of us, our activism. And there’s nothing wrong with doing so.
But what we sometimes forget is that the time we lavish on pursuing pleasure might sometimes be better spent pursuing joy.
What’s the difference between pleasure and joy?
Pleasure is time-bound and fleeting; joy suffuses our whole being and often becomes integrated into our personality, accessible even in challenging times. Pleasure is often the direct result of sensory stimulation; joy may well from the inside out. Pleasure often comes without any connection to others (for example, when watching a favorite TV show); joy often carries a deep connection not only with other people, but with other species and the earth itself. Pleasure doesn’t usually lead to a desire to give, but joy often inspires generosity and acts of goodness.
Recently, I made a conscious decision to pursue joy over pleasure.
My husband and I had worked most of the weekend cleaning up after a leak in our basement created a big mess. We were both tired by Sunday afternoon and would have been happy to pursue a bit of pleasure by taking a short walk with the dogs, eating a good dinner and watching a movie on Netflix. Instead, we chose to pursue joy. We headed to the wilderness—land nearby called Otter Bog—where we go to experience the mysterious, amazing, ever-changing natural world. It was a glorious, sunny late afternoon, and the Lyrid meteor shower would be peaking early the next morning.
After a hike with the dogs, we sat at the bog, which surrounds a 13-acre pond, to wait for the beavers who usually arrive at dusk. Sure enough, two huge beavers were gnawing on sticks (as we ate sandwiches for dinner) before entering the water to glide by (see the photo above). We watched a pair of Bufflehead ducks and saw a Bald Eagle and an osprey. We were serenaded by the sounds of tiny frogs called Spring Peepers. Their peeps beckoned, and we decided to visit them. When we got to their boggy patch of reeds and water, the noise was deafening (watch this video). When our ears couldn’t endure the sound any longer, we continued to “Sometimes Pond,” a meadow gradually turning into a pond from beavers’ creating several dams along the stream that flows through it. We got to see those beavers, too, though barely, because by now it was dark.
Our next destination was a vernal pool deep in the woods to see salamander eggs. Earlier in the week there were no egg cases, but there had been a warm, rainy evening a few nights later, and we felt confident there would be a few. What we didn’t expect was to see swarms of squirming mosquito larvae (see photo), thousands upon thousands of them. We discovered some salamander egg cases, too, gelatinous white globs that look like eyes (see photo). We were relieved to know that when they hatched, the salamander larvae would feast on the mosquito larvae.
We trekked back and slid into our sleeping bags. The alarm would be going off at 3:45 a.m., because I was intent upon watching the meteor showers. Later, as dawn broke, I was greeted by three kinds of warblers and watched a Hooded Merganser land on the pond. The beavers came by for a morning visit, too, before we left to go to work.
And while I slept little and fitfully, and shivered in the 25-degree morning for several hours, this was joy.
Such joy (coupled with wonder, reverence and awe) makes my commitment to work to protect this beautiful planet ever more fierce, which is why I bothered to write this long post. Without fierce commitment, we may be left only with this: a pursuit of pleasure that often comes—albeit unintentionally—at the expense of the natural world that sustains us all.
Our children are growing up with fewer and fewer opportunities to experience joy and wonder in their ultimate home—the earth—and more and more indulgences of pleasure (usually in the form of screen time) in what we call home: the buildings in which we reside. Without a connection to their ultimate home, and without experiencing the joy that comes from that connection, our children may grow up unwilling and unable to take the necessary steps to ensure that our planet remains healthy, and that other species thrive despite an ever-growing population of pleasure-seeking humans.
My message for today? Now and then, consider choosing joy over pleasure. Feed your fierce commitment to protecting life: yours and the generations of all species to follow.
Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm; Above All, Be Kind; and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDxDirigo talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach“
My TEDxConejo talk: “Solutionaries”
My TEDxYouth@CEHS “How to Be a Solutionary”
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