Why most good things come at a price
I had an Indian/Bangladeshi curry the other day for the first time in ages. Me and my wife found it difficult to fit them in for a while after having our baby boy and then began to feel guilty about the cost – spending £120 a month on a curry every Friday night seems pretty ludicrous when you write it down (I wish I hadn’t written it down now). The curry was good. In fact, it was glorious. It wasn’t actually anywhere close to the best curries I’ve had, but the intense flavours and unbridled gorging of those meals separate them from standard fare for me. It really feels like an event; it feels like food theatre. And it feels like I’m doing something a bit wrong; like drinking ten pints or agreeing with a Tory politician.
Curry is my favourite take-away cuisine. I love popadoms and the various assortment of cool and spicy dips that compliment them, I love garlic naan bread and I love pilau rice. I love the complex flavours and aromas that are inherent in most curry dishes – I just bloody love curry. Madras, korma, jalfrezi, bhuna, rogan, balti, biryani, dhansak… whatevs. I think I love them all. We ordered the usual bits and pieces, as well as our most regularly chosen main dishes – chilli chicken masala, lamb xacuti and a tarka daal. I always have seconds. In fact, I always eat everything we get; every last drop – even if I’m feeling incredibly bloated and uncomfortable (after my third sitting); I mop it all up like a ravenous wildebeest who hasn’t eaten for a week.
Think before you drink
And that’s the thing – I always feel bloated and uncomfortable after a curry (that’s the most polite and diplomatic way I could think of saying this). My wife Pru has one plate of food – an entirely well-proportioned plate, which she eats slowly, thoughtfully and with a respectful restraint. And yet she still feels the effects. I, however, eat until I’m in mild peril, and then eat a load more. It’s so dumb. The same thing happens every time. I always vow not to repeat this mistake and then end up doing it all over again the next time. I do the same thing with alcohol, of course – go on a night out, drink a certain amount and realise I’m pretty drunk. At that point, the sensible thing would be to either slow down or go home – so of course I drink even more and at an even faster rate. And then I wake up, and for a brief moment I think, ‘I actually don’t feel that bad…’ And then about ten minutes later I feel utterly dreadful and am mired in a swamp of pain, guilt and self-loathing until about 10pm that evening.
Those hangovers are so bad that I insist I won’t drink like that ever again – but that of course never rings true – just like the curries. I’ve written in some of my other blog posts about repeating harmful behaviours, our tendencies towards excess and Dionysian behaviours. You can read those posts right here if you fancy it:
The meaning of life
But back to the point of this blog post in particular – why is it that so many things we love actually cause us pain or suffering? And what is the best way to avoid such grievances? I believe it’s because the meaning of life is balance. I am certain that there is no greater meaning to life than to live it in respect to moderation. Whether it’s food, love, sex, wealth, healthy living, exercise, pleasure, pain, fun, misery – we experience it all. We have no choice in that. But if we can do so in moderation, avoiding too much or too little, as much as possible without becoming bored or stressed, I believe this is what makes for the most contented existence possible.
As anyone who’s read any of my blog posts will know, I’m a big fan of Taoism. And among the many things that a respect and understanding of the Tao teaches us, maintaining a balanced perspective is key to contentment (actually, you could argue contentment doesn’t come into it for the hermit sage, but I’ll just tweak it for my own ends for now). The forces of Yin and Yang, that well-known positive-negative duality, are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other. From the Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis to all strands of Eastern philosophy, balance seems to be key; moderation is key. Synthesis just seems to be a balanced perspective more often than not.
It wasn’t until some time after writing this post that I realised it was essentially based on Epicureanism. I was familiar with Epicurus’ philosophy, and thus it features in some of the blogs already mentioned in this one. But it’s worth a quick note here to highlight the majesty of the Epicurean ideal – because it’s basically the driving force behind much of my way of thinking. In a nutshell, Epicurus felt that pleasure was the greatest good, and that by avoiding pain and fear we would get closer to the hedonistic state of pleasure. However, he felt we should aim for the pleasurable things in life in moderation – he prescribed to a balanced, modest way of life. Instead of simply giving in to all of our desires, Epicurus felt we should limit them. Thus, we are occasionally allowing ourselves the great pleasures of life, but not incessantly. There is joy in the simple life – and steering clear of overindulgence.
Give it away now
You would think by now that most of us adults have realised that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. You only need to look at the lives of others who have (supposedly) ‘more’ than you – celebrities and the like. You can have all the fame and money in the world, access to wonderful things, holidays, big houses, facelifts, whatever – even the beautiful kids and loving family surrounding you; it doesn’t guarantee that you will be happy. Money can ensure certain comforts, but money also corrupts people; it gives rise to greed and jealousy.
Jean-Paul Sartre, despite his success as a novelist, playwright and general existential powerhouse writer, gave most of his money away; he kept enough to live modestly and, while it may be tricky to ever suggest Sartre was a happy man, he chose to live that way. He also chose to reject the Nobel Prize for literature because he felt that the role of a writer (of his ilk) was not to seek validation and glory in the form of awards – he insisted that he instead had a responsibility to use his platform as a writer to inform, educate and defend/protect those who needed support. He didn’t always perhaps choose the right battles or the right sides (particularly at the tail end of his career), but one would find it hard to criticise his principles, honour and spirit.
Just because you have money, doesn’t mean you will be happy. People often find it strange when they read stories about celebrities suffering from depression – you’ve got everything you could possibly want, how are you still unhappy? But we know life doesn’t work like that; human beings aren’t wired that way. This is something we must always be wary of – everyone is susceptible to depression; anyone can be unhappy. And there doesn’t always need to be a discernible reason for it. Look out for others – treat them with kindness and respect. And if you ever think someone might need help, don’t be afraid to step in. Just because they say they’re all right, doesn’t mean they’re all right.
The Prince and the Pauper principle
Let’s leave that thought to one side for now though and just explore The Prince and the Pauper principle – you almost certainly know the story. There’s a prince who yearns for a life of freedom; to loosen the suffocating shackles of his royal duties – to experience a ‘real’ life beyond the bounds of the castle walls. And there’s a pauper, who wishes to cast aside a life of poverty and servitude; to be wealthy – and to revel in the ‘joys’ which come from having the money to buy (almost) anything you want. They are both unfulfilled and don’t appreciate what they have – that is of course how desire works; we always want more. We want what we don’t have. The Freudian/Lacanian in me might suggest that these desires begin when we realise our separation from our primary caregiver infancy and assume our new role as this ‘separate’ being in the symbolic realm; thus beginning an endless yearning for completion again which is never fulfilled – not by any manner of objects, experiences and achievements. Until death, and inertia, that is. But that’s a whole other blog for another time.
For now, let’s just consider the case of The Prince and the Pauper – the two protagonists agree to swap places and live each other’s lives for a bit. At first, they are convinced that the other has it much better than they do; but they soon realise that existence is perfect for nobody, and that they were actually happier with the life they already had. And while some might disagree with the sentiment and lessons of this story, I fully endorse its message. I really believe I could have twice as many superficial things (money, house, guitars, whatever) and I would not necessarily be any happier. Might I be happier if I had another child? Perhaps. But I love my son so much; if I was to only ever have him, I am certain that would bring enough fulfilment to that aspect of my life. Would I be happier if I had twice as many friends as I do now? Probably not. It’s hard enough to spend time with the great friends I’ve got, having more would just add to the stress.
As mentioned, nobody’s life is perfect – but a brief consideration of The Prince and the Pauper principle just serves as a reminder of all the wonderful things you already have in your life. And you don’t need lots of wonderful things to have a good life – friends, family and food will do for me. If you sit me down with a plate full of curry with either my pals, my partner or my parents, I think you’ll find that I’ll be pretty contented. Just don’t let me eat too much!
It’s not all good if it’s ALL good
I believe there’s a reason why wonderful things can only be enjoyed to certain extents – it’s because their wonderfulness would be meaningless if they were simply wonderful, and included no down sides. Curry tastes amazing; it makes you want to eat more than you know you need to – or even actually want to. And you pay a price for that. And that’s good. Because if there was no price to pay, there would be no value in curry. If it didn’t eventually make you fat, or feel a bit sick, you’d just keep on eating it all the time. Love is the greatest thing we can discover in our human lives (at least I think it is) – but even love comes at a price; one of the costs is that everyone and everything you ever love won’t last forever. At least some of us don’t think it will. And it hurts when we lose love – a lot. Love is fraught because, as those of us who have had it and lost it know, it cause unquantifiable emotional pain.
So I can accept that there is a price to pay for experiencing love, joy and pleasure. I am resolved with the notion that everything good in life comes at a cost. And that nothing can last forever. This is part of what makes life, fleeting and brief as it is, so very special. And this is why we have to grasp the opportunity to live it to its fullest while we can.
Keeping your balance
So is moderation the answer to general contentment? I think it might be. I concede that I could be wrong. And, of course, contentment is subjective anyway. If you’re someone who enjoys having more money than others, if you take pleasure from using your wealth to buy superficial things to flaunt at others, in the hope that it incurs jealousy on their part, then perhaps moderation means little to you. But I would always doubt the true nature of happiness experienced by anyone who lived that way; I would always doubt the sincerity of the emotional, compassionate and fulfilling experiences that kind of person would have in their life.
For me, balance is key. The French post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault (who, for want of a better phrase, loved to party hard) was asked this about Greek sex in an interview with Paul Rainbow and Hubert Dreyfus in 1983: “What about someone who had so much sex he damaged his health?” Foucault replied: “That’s hubris, that’s excess. The problem is not one of deviancy but of excess or moderation.” And it was his own sexual excesses that unfortunately played a part in the demise of his own health; his own hubris. He had AIDS and died of a brain infection in 1984. It just seems to be a recurring pattern, in whatever context you apply it – if you care too much, you suffocate, alienate and lose perspective. If you care too little, well – you’ll almost certainly lose or ruin the thing in question. Perhaps you won’t care anyway?
Fighting isn’t a good thing – but fighting for a good cause is. Fighting to protect those who can’t protect themselves is noble. But where does a good fight end and an unnecessary fight begin? It needs to come from a balanced perspective. You can push and push for that pay increase you believe you deserve, but you must be wary of pushing too hard and too far; you must be conscious of your good fight becoming mere greed – and be conscious of upsetting those who may feel that they deserve parity. That’s not to say don’t fight the good fight – always fight for what you believe in; particularly if it comes from a nice place. Just be careful not to push too far. Balance is key.
Being (happy) and nothingness
The more you put into anything, the more you’re going to get back from it. It’s obviously not an exact science to suggest this statement is as matter of fact; we don’t always get what we deserve. Karma doesn’t always pay off. But, generally speaking, I believe that the more kindness and love you put out there, the happier you’ll be. This is what Genuinity is all about.
If you’d like to read more about my concept of Genuinity, click here:
If you allow yourself to connect with others, listen to and stay true to your childish, feminine inner voice, and strive to be kind, compassionate, sensitive and empathic, I truly believe you will give yourself the best opportunity to be happy/contented.
This is why it’s also important to work hard. The more time, effort and dedication you’re prepared to put into something, the more likely you are to succeed with it – but only to an extent! Because, of course, as discussed throughout, balance and moderation are key. If you try too hard, if you allow something to take up too much of your time, if you become obsessive and you don’t allow yourself time to relax and enjoy a variety of different pursuits, you will more than likely hamper yourself. As Benjamin Hoff illuminates when writing about the concept of Wu Wei in The Tao Of Pooh, a mind that thinks too much and tries too hard is likely to fail. Things work out – if you let them. There’s no need to try desperately hard to make things happen – if you accept things as they are, they will always work out in the end.
Wu Wei is all about attuning yourself to the natural rhythm of things and appreciating one can do nothing but nothing is not done. There is strength, order and contentment in simplicity, peace, stillness, nothingness. Effortless action. One must be at peace, even when carrying out frenetic tasks, so skill and accuracy are preserved; it’s a state of profound concentration and flow. We must put our egos to one side and respond to the situation – go with the flow. Trust the natural order. Be like water. Malleable and flexible. Yet strong; unbreakable. Able to traverse any obstacle with a calm, adaptable approach.
From the Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu…
Extreme love exacts a great price.
Many possessions entail heavy loss. Know what is enough and when to stop.
Great accomplishment seems unfinished, but it’s use is continuous.
No greater fault, than desire for success. Knowing that enough is enough – is always enough.
Sage does without trying.
Arrive at non-doing. Non-doing – and nothing not done.