Tag Archives: joy

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