Have you been caught with your pants down?
The news cycle remains full, pretty much all the time, of wealthy and powerful people who got caught (often literally) with their pants down. A life of prestige and wealth and power is often brought down in just a moment of infamy – the resulting embarrassment and anger and lack of trust ending jobs, marriages, and other important relationships, and sometimes even putting the offender in prison.
These sorts of things happen constantly, and ten will get you twenty that for every case that comes to light, twenty or a hundred go undetected. And the people who do these things, business leaders, religious leaders, politicians – and their apologists – will insist that it’s just human nature, and that it’s the perks of power to be able to do these things. And they’re right.
But doesn’t it feel kind of empty to you? Really? Every time I hear one of those stories, I try to put myself in the head not only of the innocent(s) in the story, the wife, the investors, the employees, but into the head of the person who ‘did the deed’. I find it easier now that I have worked for several years with people who have substance abuse issues – because we’re looking at very similar thinking. Very short term thinking. The rush. The thrill. The short term pleasure ruling over long term joy.
It’s not just the wealthy and powerful that do these things, it’s all of us. Cheating on taxes and our spouses, lying to our bosses and subordinates at work, screaming at our children, drinking and gambling and eating too much, all of these stem from a similar root – the need for an immediate gain in place of a longer term one is one all of us succumb to in one form or another at some point in our lives.
You’ve felt it. Don’t lie, you know you have. You’ve done something forbidden, or at least a bit naughty or dangerous, and gotten away with it, and mixed in with the fear is a feeling of exultation that knocks your socks off. And whether you do it again often depends on whether the fear wins, or the exultation. It’s the Adrenalin rush. It’s the immediate flush of pleasure and fulfillment. It’s the high.
We humans have two completely different reward systems going on simultaneously – one short term and the other longer term. Spider Robinson, the science fiction and fantasy author whose Callahans books sparked a movement, laid down the difference in the opening pages of his book ‘Mindkiller’ (now available as the first third of the omnibus The Lifehouse Trilogy).
The first is the pleasure system, (loosely) designed to ensure we get enough calories (sweets and fats) and sex to preserve ourselves and our species. The second is the joy system, which seems to have sprung up later in evolution, and appears designed to hold us together in families and communities without the need for external enemies (at least, that’s my interpretation).
Addictions and actions that smack of lack of integrity both stem from disorders of the pleasure system – where we focus on short term pleasure to the exclusion of or detriment to the longer term joy system. And it’s a really insidious trap that harms us even more than it harms the people we might betray.
That’s where integrity comes in. Integrity allows us to look at the stockpile of immediately gratifying pleasurable experiences, and weigh them against those long term joyful experiences, to measure out their true worth. Is it worth it to have a chocolate candy? Sure. But what about a pound of chocolate a day? How will that impact long term joy?
Is it worth it to have glorious, wonderful sex with a partner you care deeply about? Sure – but not if you or that partner are committed elsewhere. Integrity demands that if you want this relationship to flourish into joy, you deal with any prior commitments honorably.
Addictions are a special case of the pleasure/joy conundrum, because in most cases addictions are not simply ignoring joy in favor of pleasure, but an actual disruption of the pleasure mechanism such that something that once gave you pleasure gives you ever diminishing pleasure, but you feel a compulsion to attempt to recreate that pleasure again and again.
Sometimes people get caught in an addictions trap for a few months, sometimes for years, decades, or even a lifetime. Sometimes people break free on their own, but more often need help. If you are in an addictions trap, take the steps you need to break free, and joy will come. Not immediately, but it will.
Are there times when it’s appropriate to choose pleasure over joy? That’s kind of a trick question. Sometimes our pleasure bolsters our joy. Sometimes our pleasure has no impact on our joy. In those cases, wallow in it. When we have just a bit too much to drink, once in awhile, or flirt just a little too hard with a stranger, we walk on that line, and we risk crossing over it. Is it worth it? Only you can decide.
Do we sometimes choose pleasure over joy in happy lives, even when we shouldn’t? Of course we do. The measure of integrity is a combination of how often, how ‘severe’, and what we do about it. There are three essential steps to moving past a mistake where you have damaged your long term happiness:
Use self-compassion (I have to admit I like this new buzz word) to forgive yourself. You’re human. You’ve made a mistake. Even though it has consequences, you are still human, and you can still have joy and value in your life.
Apologize for and atone for your mistake(s) to anyone you have harmed. Those people may not forgive you. You may still lose relationships that were valuable to you. But part of the process of regaining joy in your life is to ‘do right’ by those you have harmed. Even if that means respecting their wishes to leave them alone.
Change your behavior. You’ll never get to feel that lasting feeling that ‘all is right with the world’ until you change the behavior that kept you from getting there in the first place. Do right by others. Maintain honest relationships. Moderate your habits. Make whatever changes are necessary to bring short term pleasure and long term joy into balance in your life. If you need help getting there, seek out a mental health or substance abuse professional to help you.
Have I ever done anything I’ve regretted? Absolutely. More than one thing. I have a quick temper and an impulsive side that has cost me more than relationship in my life. I forgive myself, seek to apologize or atone where I can, and try not to do it again. Am I perfect? No. But in my life joy and pleasure are well balanced, and overall, I live happily. And that’s the best any of us can hope for.
- I is for Iced Tea and Integrity! (feetfirstbook.wordpress.com)