On The Anticipation of Pleasure

5 Mar

On Saturday, we took Theo out to Leslieville to the little kid-friendly café where I used to run a French language baby group. It’s a great place; they have a large, fenced-off area for kids full of toys, activities and even a tree house. Meanwhile, they also have a sit-down area where they serve some pretty decent coffee and a few locally-made treats. Basically, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.

The only reason that Matt and I don’t take Theo there more than a couple of times a year is that it’s kind of out of the way (45 mins to an hour by public transit), and once you factor in meals and naps and all that good stuff, in can be hard to fit that kind of trip into a day. It’s probably a good thing that we don’t go there very often, though, because right next door is a Fancy Bakery that sells The Best Cupcakes in the World. And, naturally, because they are The Best Cupcakes in the World, they are pricey cupcakes. Which means that if we went to the above-mentioned cafe as often as we’d like to, I would basically be blowing my entire paycheque on cupcakes.

So anyway, we went, we saw, we conquered Leslieville, and came home happy and with a bag full of cupcakes. Except when we got off the train at St. Clair, I realized that I’d stupidly left the cupcakes on the goddamn Queen streetcar.

Strangely, though, I wasn’t that upset. Because I’d already had, like, two hours of looking forward to those cupcakes. And in some ways, that anticipation was almost better than the cupcakes themselves.

Sometimes, maybe even most times, I find anticipation more pleasurable than the actual thing I’m anticipating.

I’m slowly coming to realize that I have a fucked up relationship with pleasure and joy.

A few weeks ago, I posted Zadie Smith’s Joy on Facebook. It’s a good example of a certain type of essay that I stumble across every once in a while, the kind that leaves me nodding yes, yes, yes because everything it says seems to apply so perfectly to me.

What was interesting was that my friends who read it and commented were firmly divided into two camps: those who identified with and understood what Smith was saying, and those who found what she’d written to be unbearable, pretentious and difficult to read. Even more interesting was the realization that each of us identify and feel emotions differently, and things that I thought were universal were, in fact, deeply personal. It was like discovering that the colour you’ve called green your entire life actually looks to everyone else like the colour you call blue.

See, the crux of Smith’s essay was that there is a difference between pleasure and joy, and that joy is not simply an amplification of pleasure but is, instead, a “…strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.”

I read that, and I thought, oh hell yes.

And I thought that everyone would understand what she meant, because I figured that everyone experienced joy in the same way that she and I did.

Because, for me at least, joy brings with it the knowledge that you are living this one, specific wonderful moment that you will never, ever get back, a moment that will certainly end, and maybe end very soon. Joy is a breathless, frighteningly intense feeling, and it’s good, but it’s also somehow painful, in a way that I can’t properly articulate.

For me, joy is not on the other side of the spectrum from pain; rather, in my experience, it’s right next to it, and it’s possible for one to bleed into the other to the point where they occasionally seem indistinguishable. In the same way, I don’t think that love is the opposite of hate – those emotions are, in my experience, much more closely linked than we like to believe. Love (and hate) instead find their true counter in apathy.

But while Smith seems to be uncomfortable with joy, she seems to be perfectly fine with everyday, run of the mill pleasure. And I think that this is where we differ.

Because as much as I agree with Smith that joy is uncomfortable (in a thrilling, all-consuming way), the fact is that I don’t fare very well with pleasure, either.

And I’ve come to realize that what I actually find most pleasurable is the anticipation of something, rather than the thing itself.

To this end, I find myself “saving” things because I don’t want to use all their pleasure up right away. I do this with food, with gift certificates, with events, with books. I do it with particularly good emails, ones that I want to read and re-read before I give in to the pleasure of answering them. I do it with phone calls that I have to return, with articles that I want to dissect, with reading and answering comments on my blog.

And I wonder, why do I save these things? Part of it, I think, stems from the idea that I want to wait for a “special occasion” when I will somehow be deserving of receiving that pleasure. But I think that an equal part of it is that I worry that there is a finite amount of pleasure available to me, and once I use it all up, it’ll be gone. I also think that there might be a dash of the old fable of the ant and the grasshopper thrown in there – when some kind of metaphorical winter comes, at least I’ll still have my gift certificate to Red Lobster to get me through those dark times, you know?

But the ridiculous part is that I will literally save these good things until they’re not good anymore. I have set aside delicious food and left it until it spoiled because there was just never the “right” time to eat it – and then I’ve scraped the mould off that spoiled food and eaten it anyway, and told myself that it was worth the wait. I’ve watched gift certificates expire, and told myself that if I hadn’t used them by now, then I didn’t deserve to use them anyway. I’ve put off watching the second half of particularly lovely movies until it comes to the point where I’ve forgotten what happened in the first half. I’ve left off answering emails and comments long past the point where my lack of response has become embarrassing and difficult to explain.

“Dear friend, I’m sorry that I haven’t answered you yet, it’s just that thinking about answering you was so lovely that I kept having to put it off.”

As if there will never be any more delicious food, nice emails or good movies ever again.

And, of course, the problem is that when you live this life of delayed gratification, whatever it is that you’re saving never lives up to the expectations that you’ve put on it. And so the anticipation itself begins to be what gives you pleasure, more pleasure than anything else. In a funny way, thinking about those cupcakes was even better than eating them – I didn’t have to deal with the sugar high and subsequent crash, didn’t have to feel the queasiness that I associate with too much cake and buttercream icing, didn’t have to worry about my teeth aching from the sweetness of it. In my thoughts, those cupcakes were perfect – much better than they could ever be in real life.

These are the things I tell myself, when I look around and see other people enjoying things much more or much better than I seem to be able to.

I am not very good at experiencing pleasure. I am not very good at living in the moment.

I am much better at parcelling things out, making them last, making them endure.

I am much, much, much better at thinking about the future, than I am at giving myself up to whatever joy or pleasure is at hand.

And that’s starting to feel really fucked up.

More than anything, I want to be this chick in the photo below, the one who throws caution to the wind, gets drunk on a school night, and laughs til she cries. Because she exists somewhere, I just haven’t figured out how to find her when I need her.

Me, laughing so hard that I'm crying

Me, laughing so hard that I’m crying

25 Responses to “On The Anticipation of Pleasure”

  1. edenkaill March 5, 2013 at 12:48 am #

    I am totally inspired by your recognition of the pleasure of anticipation. I also anticipate excessively, but it’s terrifying because I am utterly crushed when my anticipation doesn’t pan out. I would have cried over those cupcakes.

    • Audra Williams March 6, 2013 at 3:23 am #

      I would also have COMPLETELY WEPT over those cupcakes. Like, I would have been inconsolable. I can’t really handle disappointment.

      • eden March 7, 2013 at 12:51 am #

        Sometimes I get genuinely upset preemptively when I am really looking forward to something because I am anticipating the possibility of disappointment. Oh, brains.

      • bellejarblog March 7, 2013 at 1:26 am #

        I usually can’t either! I think this is maybe all a way of protecting myself against it? UNSURE.

    • bellejarblog March 7, 2013 at 1:25 am #

      I am also usually really crushed! But now I think I am trying to see the pleasure in anticipation as a good thing? Because I don’t want to be crushed? Hmmmm.

  2. Matt March 5, 2013 at 5:06 am #

    So I’m putting on my own armchair therapist hat, so please bear with me. If I’m totally off base, I absolutely welcome being called on it.

    I think that your “fucked up relationship with pleasure” is closely rooted to your relationship with depression. Between how long you’ve had your diagnosis and the fact that your dose is shifting up (and your neurochemistry is still adapting to that, hence the sleepiness), along with the recurrence of symptoms in January, I’d say OF COURSE you have a weird relationship with pleasure, and the act that the anticipation is better than the pleasure itself is almost self-evident. The examples you mention–leftovers and gift certificates particularly–really drive it home.

    Pleasure is fleeting. You, of all people, are certainly familiar with the end of pleasure; you’ve told me before that your own anticipation of the cessation of pleasure invariably puts a damper on the experience of pleasure itself. Delicious leftovers and gift certificates, similarly, will end when used, and then you don’t have them anymore.

    But anticipation is something you can control the duration of, particularly if the pleasure that you’re anticipating is something directly under your control. The pleasurable event will end, but the anticipation can go on forever, right? The delicious leftovers and gift certificates are concrete examples of this principle in action (with the obvious exception that food spoils and gift certificates used to expire eventually). Knowing you and your writing, I suspect that this is what you were consciously thinking of when you chose those examples, if you didn’t flat out say as such (I’m worried that the iPad won’t let me check without dropping this email on the floor).

    I wouldn’t call this a fucked up relationship with pleasure, I’d call it a coping mechanism for your depression. You got accustomed to the shuddering crash from pleasurable events back into the depths of your depression, and you found a way to maintain the pleasure of the event, by anticipating the pleasure itself, and finding pleasure in the imagined outcome.

    This isn’t a bad thing. It’s not even surprising. And the fact that you’re able to take that step back, and look at where you’re deriving the most enjoyment of an event, is a very good thing. I think your blog, and what you write in it about your depression, is of enormous value here.

    I also think that the psychiatrist you saw at CAMH saw all this too; I suspect that this is at least part of what her prescription of “do something every day(?) that makes you happy” is all about.

  3. SunbonnetSmart.com March 5, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    Hey there, Anne! Well, I went through lots of this type of thinking in the 1980s, when I was listening and working with Louise Hay, whom, I find out, is unknown to many people today. But here is a GREAT movie I just put on a post, and maybe I should have thought about sending it to you. http://bit.ly/13Euo6B Play it for even a few seconds, and you’ll hear a woman doing the mind chatter that I bet goes on in your head.

    My problems come when I am not living in the present. I’m either dreading the future or regretting the past, neither of which has anything to do with where I am. It is very hard to enjoy, or receive, pleasure when one is not in the moment, because that is when the joy is happening. I think that’s why people take lots of photos now, they can’t connect to the present and keep their mental eyes shut, then savor the event after it is safe and a closed box by looking at the photos.

    Feeling worthy to receive pleasure and joy is also the crux of the issue. And, being afraid to feel joy, because one will be punished with pain for stepping outside the bounds of numbness is the problem. It used to be when I was happy, I was waiting for the shoe to drop and put me back in my place. I tried to avoid that bad occurrence by not feeling pleasure. But, the things happen as they do, and the only thing I was accomplishing was letting life go by without being happy. Not so safe and miserable.

    So, here’s my post on Risk and Trust….as stated by Amanda Palmer, who maybe you like. I really like her. http://bit.ly/Y8PbHm and then, later this week, I’m doing a post on feeling worthy, this video is really good for that: The Power of Vulnerability http://bit.ly/ZlEaot So, see if any of this speaks to you. Love you much, Fondly, Robin

    BTW, This is a remarkable line: “Love (and hate) instead find their true counter in apathy.”

    • bellejarblog March 7, 2013 at 1:40 am #

      Oh I love that post! Thank you! I can’t wait to read your post on feeling worthy, too.

      Thank you for this & for your unflagging support xoxoxo

  4. allison March 5, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

    To completely miss the point of your post but hopefully provide helpful information for future pleasure and/or joy: consensus among cupcake lovers that I know is that Desmond & Beatrice (Queen East at Broadview) cupcakes are far superior to Babette and Belle.

    • bellejarblog March 7, 2013 at 1:28 am #

      OH I have passed them, but never gone in – I’ll have to try their cupcakes soon!

  5. Cupcakes And Hoodies March 5, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

    Ah but for truly scrumptious cupcakes you have to come visit me in Burlington and we will do a tour. Seriously, there are about 5 shops in driving distance. A day trip of cupcake craziness!

    I understand where you are coming from. I have a similar problem when I “treat” myself to something expensive. Like my art brushes. I have really really nice art brushes I bought. They were about 20.00 a piece. I have not used them. I am afraid I will use them up and then I will not have them anymore. I think this may be a monetary thing though.

    When it comes to joy/pleasure I’m on the other end of the stick. I can’t wait. I have to eat the cupcake/open the gift/give the gift etc etc…RIGHT AWAY. I have little to no willpower. I’m so desperate to feel anything remotely joyful that I practically shove it down my throat. Problem is I’m lost when it comes to recognizing that feeling much anymore.

    I’m not sure where I was going with this comment. Seems that you are seeking a part of yourself much as I am seeking a part of myself. May we find what we are looking for soon and it be what we needed, not necessarily what we wanted. xoxo

    • bellejarblog March 7, 2013 at 1:39 am #

      Mmmm that sounds delicious! Looking forward to my next visit to Burlington 🙂

      This is really interesting because I feel like I’ve been there too:

      “When it comes to joy/pleasure I’m on the other end of the stick. I can’t wait. I have to eat the cupcake/open the gift/give the gift etc etc…RIGHT AWAY. I have little to no willpower. I’m so desperate to feel anything remotely joyful that I practically shove it down my throat. Problem is I’m lost when it comes to recognizing that feeling much anymore.”

      Like, I try so many things that I think will make me happy, and they don’t, and that’s its own special brand of frustration and sadness.

      • Cupcakes And Hoodies March 7, 2013 at 3:26 am #

        YES! That’s exactly it! I always feel like a jack of all trades trying a bit of this and that trying to find what makes me happy.

        This journey takes us to strange places with seemingly contrary paths.

  6. Christa March 5, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

    I get this. I have scrapbook paper I haven’t used because the layout I may be working on is not special enough. It is the anticipation of Christmas that I really really love. I think that for some actual joy is so seldom felt that we create the joy in anticipation. We also live in a society that is so fast paced that there is no time to experience real joy and we might not recognize it when we do.
    I live in my head a lot, so I have to actually seek out joy sometimes but that’s okay…my life is so much more enjoyable b/c I do.
    Not sure where I was really going with this but I guess I just wanted to say that I wish I was the girl who would drink on a school night and laughed till I cried more often too. xo

    • bellejarblog March 7, 2013 at 1:37 am #

      I feel the same way about Christmas! Like, I always look forward to it, and then it ends up falling way below my expectations. And then I feel like a loser for being excited about it :/

  7. Quinn March 6, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    It is dangerous to get bogged down in semantics OR quantifying what should be qualified.

    it has nothing really to do with pleasure OR joy. You’re just using two words to describe two different kinds of happy. But instead of saying “i feel happy and that’s awesome”, you, and this Zadie woman, are both attempting to quantify the weight of a WORD and what that WORD should mean in terms of understanding you as a person.

    Yes of course you’re writing a blog about how you feel and you’re going to need words to do that. Of course. But a writer who knows thyself can use the words without becoming attached to them or mistake the words, the POINTERS, for the feelings themselves.

    My god if i tore all my feelings apart and subjected them to THIS much semantic and arithmetic scrutiny, I wouldn’t have the brain power left to devote to wondering about the mysteries of the universe or teaching myself the oboe, or reading about the moons of saturn, or loving my partner or even doing my job. And i write for a living so i’m used to wrestling with this bullshit!

    • bellejarblog March 7, 2013 at 1:36 am #

      Hmmm well I think that when you’ve lived for a long time with a mood disorder and have struggled with the ability to find enjoyment in things, then it becomes natural to dissect what you find pleasurable and why.

      I mean, obviously this isn’t going to be of interest to everybody, or maybe not even most people, but I find it helpful to write it out, and the feedback I’ve had has helped me understand this stuff a bit more.

      • Quinn March 7, 2013 at 11:53 am #

        If you find it helpful and it’s working for you then by all means keep doing it. But if you find that you feel worse the more you worry, just consider it 🙂

  8. Ciara Raven Blaze March 7, 2013 at 1:38 am #

    I seriously don’t know what else to say except for I GET THIS. I TOTALLY UNDERSTAND THIS. also, *big hug because why not?*

  9. mel March 7, 2013 at 3:07 am #

    I get this. I still have my radiohead ticket from last summer’s toronto show on my bedroom mirror. I’m still anticipating something that’ll never happen. I also sometimes get upset preemptively, like I’m predicting the failure of whatever it is.

  10. adhesiveslipper (@adhesiveslipper) March 7, 2013 at 3:24 am #

    I think that my relationship with pleasure is a bit fucked up, but in a much different way. Having semi-severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I tend to ignore the present to make room for obsessively dissecting the past and freaking the hell out about the uncertainty of the future. One thing I constantly have to work on is saying to myself “This is fun; I am having fun right now,” because otherwise I’ll just patiently wait until the moment is over, go home, and sit in the dark thinking about how I’d had fun earlier, but that I probably ruined it somehow, and anyway I could die tomorrow,and got I really hated that one kid in the third grade, and oh shit what was that noise is there a burglar in the house?

    However, I don’t really trust people that have an easy time with feelings, lol.

    Also, that photo of you is megadorable.

  11. broadsideblog March 10, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

    I do it too, to some degree, although less so than in the past. I was given a gift certificate for Christmas 2012 and my husband now knows it might be months or a year before I use it. I love antiquing (love Lesiieville — ex-Toronto now in NY since 1989) and one reason is the thrill of the hunt. I enjoy looking at lovely things but don’t need to own all of them, nor can i afford to or have the space. The anticipation, for me, of a good flea market is insane!

  12. cafeterraceatnight March 11, 2013 at 3:41 am #

    I have friends that get excited about the anticipation of things and they ask me if I am looking forward to a particular thing. I can be happy about an event coming up, but it usually isn’t in the foreground of my mind. Thanks to you post, I see how it’s a personality thing. I actually prefer not having the anticipation and just finding out great things at the last moment.

  13. jee scapes March 12, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

    Enjoyed reading this. After I reached the end of the post, all I could think of was a recent radio broadcast by Radiolab that focused on “bliss.” The opening story was about a Norwegian fellow who went on a long solo expedition. He was near the end of his journey, starving, calorie deficient, delirious and perhaps on his way to death. He was looking for a food cache he had buried many, many, many months earlier and couldn’t be sure it was still there. His reaction to finding the cache was priceless. Anticipated pleasure for sure….go check it out: http://www.radiolab.org/2012/dec/17/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: