The Problem of Pleasure

pews stained glassIf there is one absolute truth it is that life isn’t fair. I was raised on the South side of Chicago and though I cannot recall a specific moment when it occurred to me that the world was not fair it was something of which I was acutely aware.

My older brother and I were raised by a single mother. She worked hard to give us everything we needed but sometimes it was still not enough. My father left our young family months before I was born. My brother is six years older than me and we have different fathers. Neither of us knew our own father though, ironically, he knew mine.

In our extended family we can find drug abuse, addictions, suicide, bankruptcy, disease, sudden deaths, poverty, homelessness, imprisonment, as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Members of my family tree were drunkards, liars, drug abusers, whoremongers, thieves, murders and adulterers. A large percentage of the marriages in our extended family have been visited by divorce.

While my family tree may shock some the reality is that such an inventory is no longer uncommon. The world is an ugly place. It is full of heartbreak, pain and suffering. Life is simply not fair. To be clear, most of us do not mind an imbal- ance in the grand scheme of things as long as that imbalance weighs in our favor. It is when inequities appear that do not favor us that we begin to cry foul.

When we get a large sweet tea at the drive- thru window, though we only paid for a small, we don’t refuse it because it would be unfair, even though it is. We welcome it! If we get more that what we paid for we smile and enjoy our good fortune, but if we get less than what we paid for we demand immediate rectitude, even though both circumstances are, by definition, unfair. We’re not upset when life isn’t fair, as long as it’s not fair in our favor. It’s when life is unfair and it effects us negatively that we object.

So let us dispel with the idea that it is a cosmic imbalance in justice which disturbs us. That’s not it. It is not inequity that we are troubled with but rather inequities that bring us pain and suffering. What makes the suffering of such pain and evil in our lives so troubling is, not so much the pain itself but rather the indiscriminate manner in which it visits us. There is a maddening capriciousness to the pain and suffering that exist in the world. It seems that pain visits the good with the same random abandon that fortune visits the wicked.

We examine all of this while looking through the lens of our families and friends and conclude that life simply is not fair. The fates are not judicious in the dispensing of pain. We judge, in our finite knowledge, that our family and friends are made up of “good people” and they do not deserve this evil treatment from the cosmos. It’s simply not fair.

The problem of evil in the world has plagued thinkers for centuries. They’ve pointed to it as evidence that God must not exist, or at least not in the way many have believed Him to exist. The Epicurean philosophy is that either there is no God or He must be powerless or careless to deal with the evil that plagues what we believe to be His creation. He assuredly cannot be a good God, both of love and of power, else what keeps Him from stopping all the pain and suffering that plague the world?

Philip Yancey describes the problem of pain as “the question mark turned like a fish hook in the human heart.” Life is not fair, but if He indeed exists, it is ultimately God who is not fair and not good.

Yet I cannot help but consider that amidst all the pain and suffering that really does exist in the world there is also much pleasure in life. How else could we know pain, and furthermore learn to despise suffering, if we did not know great joys and pleasures? Could we fully appreciate the sweetness of sugar if we had not tasted the bitterness of the tea?

While I can recall sleepless nights in my childhood of fear and hunger, when we had no home, food or money, I am also able to recall days of great joy, safety and fullness. How can the two exist along side one another?

How does the skeptic, shouting about pain in the human condition, make equity of the fact that humans alone enjoy the great joys and pleasures of this natural world? Some species grow by merely absorbing what is in their environment. Many protozoans, certain algae, bacteria and amoeba all grow by simply assimilating proteins from their environment. How do we account for the fact that humankind gains pleasure from nourishment? Food tastes good! Many species of animals survive on other, smaller animals, dead carcass meat, plant life and water yet we enjoy the likes of Cherry Garcia, Cinnabon’s, and, if you’re lucky enough, an Italian Beef sandwich from Portillo’s in Chicago!

Most of the great beasts on land enjoy a steady diet of hay and grasses yet we, unique in nature, have created great monuments to food and the pleasure we derive from it. We enjoy a rainbow of color and zest in our diets, able to create and enjoy a myriad of pleasant and appetizing flavors and sensations while we are nourishing ourselves.

Our ability to enjoy food has reached such proportions that we will often place the enjoyment of the taste even above it’s ability to nourish us. This can be evidenced quite simply by the popularity of the Hostess and Little Debbie line of products. Mankind takes such pleasure in what we eat that we have become imbalanced in it on a scale represented in no other species.

What purpose is there that humankind should enjoy what nourishes him when we see this reflected nowhere else in nature? The question here is not one of pain but of pleasure.

Some species reproduce by simply splitting into two. Some creatures even kill or are killed following copulation. Other species copulate in a mere function and the two mating partners never engage with one another again in any kind of meaningful or responsible relationship. In the least, when we see fidelity in the act of reproduction in the animal kingdom it is without the profound meaning that human reproduction carries.

Yet, a man and a woman share arguably the greatest physical delight in the human experience in the act of reproduction. So much so that rarely is sex viewed by most moderns as a reproductive act. It is considered foremost to be an act of pleasure between a man and a woman and most would agree it to be the greatest of creational gifts mankind enjoys.

Once again, we enjoy the goodness of this pleasure to such a degree that we have become imbalanced in regard to sex. We have almost entirely divorced its purpose from the act and have pursued sex for the simple end of sex itself.

C.S. Lewis asked the question, “suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?”

How is it that we can, not only enjoy our reproductive act but, enjoy it to such a degree that we can actually become imbalanced in it?

Our other senses, beyond our appetite for food and sex, are equally as unique among the earth’s creatures in their ability to absorb pleasure from their function.

We can view the spectrum of the rainbow and the hues of the color wheel while canines live in a monochrome world. We can stand at the base of the Rocky Mountains in the western United States, drink the heights of the Sierra Nevada’s, or camp at the foot of the Alps in France, and appreciate their beauty and greatness. Yet snakes, birds and scorpions scurry in, over and around Arizona’s Grand Canyon every day without a hint of understanding as to it’s size, significance, and wonder on the planet they share with humans beings.

Allow me to understate the case by saying we enjoy sounds. We are daily inundated with music, singing and instruments. We have radios in our car, our home, our work place and enjoy it as an outlet in our recreation and entertainment. While there are certain species of birds and whales that seem to sing for pleasure there are certainly none that enjoy a song to the degree and extent that we humans have created and enjoy. While the dolphins may enjoy their sonar song they have nothing that compares to Handel’s “Messiah”.

We’ve been able to drink in breathtaking photographs and views from space as well as the depths of the seas. We’ve explored our world and begun to explore worlds beyond and yet amidst all this pleasure, goodness and wonder we still find ourselves shaking our fist at the heavens and demanding, “What doest thou?”

For all of our pain and sufferings, all the injustices and challenges, for all that’s ugly and unwelcome, for all the things in life that we would petition for God to change, we have so very much more to be thankful for.

Like Adam and Eve in the garden we’ve listened to the tempters offer to focus on the one thing we don’t have rather than see all themany pleasures we have been granted access to. We are quite literally missing the forest for the trees.

We’ve found it within us to ignore all the wonderful pleasures we enjoy every day and focus on the things that bring us the most discomfort, calling it proof that an omnipotent God could not and indeed does not exist.

Is not our logic failing us in this regard? If pain and evil, according to Epicurius and his adherents, point to a random, meaningless universe, void of a designer, or at best a handicapped deity, then to what does pleasure point? Where does all this goodness and pleasure in the human condition come from?

How is it that mankind stands alone on this great planet as the sole recipients of its pleasures and joys? Why does mankind deserve to experience the myriad of pleasure that plant and animal will never know? Furthermore, how is it that Earth stands alone in our Solar System, perfectly positioned and chemically balanced to be inhabited with life in such a robust manner?

Stuart Clark, writer for New Scientist magazine, asks the very same question when he says,

“We know that [Earth’s] distance from the sun provides the right amount of heat and light to make the planet habitable, but that alone is not enough. Without the unique mix of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur that makes up living things, and without liquid water on the planet’s surface, life as we know it could not have evolved. Chemically speaking, Earth is simply better set up for life than its neighbors. So how come we got all the good stuff?”

In his view, all the planets in our solar system “formed from the same cloud of gas and dust that surrounded the sun more than 4.5 billion years ago” yet Earth alone is perfectly suited for plant, animal and human life. Are we simply the winners of a cosmic, even galactic lottery, or are we living on a planet, positioned and crafted by a designer for the purpose of life?

If the skeptic believes pain is evidence to God’s non-existence then, following the same logic, doesn’t pleasure and great privilege indicate the existence of a loving and benevolent giver of life?

At the very least the pleasures we enjoy, the gravy of life, the sweet tea, maintain an existential balance of the bitter mixed with the sweet. There is pain and suffering in the world. There is also joy, gladness and great pleasures.

Life is not fair. Sometimes that works in our favor and other times it does not. Neither are reasons to reject God. They are the balanced result of the human condition in a fallen world.

The pleasures in life that we are free to enjoy are one of the many reasons I continue to believe.

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