Sometimes you have those days when the stars align and it seems as if the universe itself wants you to think and reflect on a certain subject. I had one of those a few days ago as I was reading through my morning routine: a poem from Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, news stories I learned about on Twitter, and Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Normally, there’s not much to say. But on this particular Tuesday, the fates apparently wanted me to think about leisure and the pursuit of pleasure.
I would say that I’ve always a “leisurely” person. Some might call me lazy, but tomato-tomato, right? I would say my philosophy of pleasure is more aligned with Europe rather than my hardworking, American forefathers: my ultimate goal in life is to work just hard enough so that I have time to sit back and do…nothing. For me, relaxing means abstaining from “work” and doing something I truly enjoy, no matter how fruitless and frivolous that activity may be. Usually, this means reading, but it also involves baking chocolate chip cookies, organizing my closet, listening to classical music, drinking wine, dancing to pop songs, and watching seasons of Gilmore Girls. No matter how much I may enjoy my work, it is only during these moments of unadulterated leisure that I’m truly happy. For this reason, I’ve developed an insane work ethic, planning my days around super-efficient routines so that I can fully maximize the time I spend relaxing. I know it sounds strange, but it’s my life and it makes me happy.
Most of the time, I don’t feel bad about these habits in the least. My mother never stopped working, but I truly am my father’s daughter; when my father comes home in the afternoon, he doesn’t talk about work. My family has long dinners, where we sit around a large table and talk. The highlight of our weekend would be plans to order Chinese, watch “Dr. Zhivago” and then talk about it (looking back, it’s no wonder I enjoyed studying obscenely long Victorian novels in college). Sometimes, I feel guilty about my “live and let live” philosophy. Occasionally, I feel lazy. But most of the time, I feel that this country could do with a little bit more of my philosophy, and a little less time Blackberry’ing on vacation.
I also believe that the pursuit of unadulterated pleasure is key to understanding beauty. Now, I’m not going all hedonistic on everyone, but there’s something to be said about sitting back and noticing life’s little lovely moments. What kind of life is really worth living if, as W.H. Davies says, we can not “stand and stare:”
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait til her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
Elizabeth Gilbert also considers this question in the first part of Eat Pray Love, when she’s pursuing a life of sheer pleasure in Italy. In her reflections on the Italian people, she claims the reason Italy has captured the world’s imagination for so long (despite its lack of political power) is because of their relationship with pleasure. When one doesn’t have much to work with (i.e. world standing, power, money), the only thing one can do to stay happy is to please the senses. The Italians do this through food, Gilbert says, but they make sure not to shortchange other artistic endeavors either. Beauty and art are taken seriously in Italy, as the elevation of the soul is the only sensation that can be fully trusted:
In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real.
To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of beauty, then, can be a serious business–not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding on to the real when everything else is flaking away into…rhetoric and plot.
…Still, I will say that the same thing which has helped generations of Sicilians hold their dignity has helped me begin to recover mine–namely, the idea that the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one’s humanity.
The same day I was reading this, I also stumbled across an article in the Washington Post about a tiny village in France, who had banded together to save a small, neighborhood bookshop. The author attributed the move to the French people’s insane loyalty to preserving its history. The author also points to France’s conservatism and its longing for “how things used to be,” however from my study of French, I see the same dedication to pleasure and leisure as enjoyed by the Italians. As the author points out:
Former president Jacques Chirac famously observed that French people would not accept the changes necessary to compete in a modern, global economy, preferring a long lunch break to a higher salary and a secure health insurance system to lower taxes.
As members of civilized society, we are meant to work. It is our duty and obligation to society that contribute to the collective good both for our gain as well as our neighbor’s. Our nation wouldn’t be where it is today if not for the generations of Americans who broke their backs working, exploring and creating. However, don’t we deserve a chance to enjoy the beauty that surrounds us? As human beings, our soul cries out for succour and we shouldn’t feel guilty about appeasing it with art, love and pleasure. Liz Gilbert has a slightly spiritualistic take on the issue, but one that I fiercely agree with (and I believe God would as well): You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.