I’ve been reading a memoir that uses Epicurus’ philosophy as a means to explore a fulfilled life in retirement. Most people conflate his philosophy with our contemporary idea of epicureanism — a fondness for luxury or indulgence in sensual pleasures. While Epicurus was concerned with pleasure, he wasn’t focused on indulgence. His focus was simple pleasure — a slow meal with friends, the unfolding of conversation, presence to others, et cetera.
I’ve also been struggling with a long-standing thorn in my side: a job that offers both the pleasure of deep engagement with learners and the pain of perennial institutional dysfunction. This week, the dysfunction won, and I made the decision to step away from the (increasingly overshadowed and meager) pleasure of the work. On the other side of that emotionally fraught turn, I’m wondering why I stayed so long. Indeed, several people have reminded me that I’ve been threatening to leave for nearly a decade. I’ve known for a long time that this work was a compromise and, perhaps even more, an obstacle to my happiness.
It’s been twenty-five years since I first read David Halprin’s Saint = Foucault, through which I was introduced to Foucault’s idea that the radical work of our era is the development of new forms of pleasure — and indeed that the pursuit of radical forms of pleasure was a tool for change. To a young queer, that was a yeasty idea and helped me unshackle myself from some of the Puritan dogma of my upbringing.
Some but not all.
I have a hard time allowing myself to engage with pleasure. I have a hard time acknowledging what I accomplish, and I conflate accomplishment with worth. Some of this is a byproduct of our age, the way that Calvinism infused American culture and the way Capitalism perfected the process of internalizing a sense of worthlessness. I’m also aware that as an adopted kid, I internalized the idea that my worth and security was tied to the service I performed to my family.
I need to unravel this. I need to insure that I don’t replace this self-defeating job with another means of reinforcing this nonsense. There’s ‘work’ to do.
Yes, I see the irony.