Pleasure and Pain

I just finished Brian Staveley’s third and final installment of CHRONICLES OF THE UNHEWN THRONE. I’ve been reading about a book a year, and with my hectic schedule, it took me a few months to get through the last one. Staveley’s writing is poetic and imaginative. The story is engaging, adventurous, and epic, and I traveled right along with it for the past two years. In the third installment, THE LAST MORTAL BOND, Staveley’s theme prevailed. Experiences with pleasure and pain define our lives. THE UNHEWN THRONE is a very visceral story, lots of battles, wounds, blood, and references to lustful pleasure. And I considered whether life is so simply described by experiences of the flesh. It isn’t. Trivialities of the flesh is only the first step in the cycle of life.

Because they do not fit my lexicon, I wanted to rephrase the terms pleasure and pain into joy and sorrow. Sorrow is what I face, or fear of facing. Time sweeps by, and my oldest son will graduate from high school in the next nine months. Just yesterday, we had an Army recruiter at the house as my oldest wants to begin his first solo life step by serving in the military for a few years. And I keep thinking, this is it, we will never be the same. Our dirt bike adventures are probably done. It’s the rare weekend that everyone is free. Our family game nights are nearly extinguished. Soon he won’t be around to brighten the room with his smile, his laughter. And those thoughts – that reality – hurts, seizing my stomach, stifling my lungs, aching my heart. I am proud of all he has done and will do, but I miss him already – I miss “us”.

Sure, I have more pain in my life, loss of family though most members still live, past tragedies that rile their ugly heads, nip at my skin, and sear my soul. But my view of pain is sheltered. While in the spectrum of pain, sorrow focuses on the losses or potential losses of friends, loved ones, times. Describing pain as sorrow limits the theme to individuals who do not have to fight to live, those endowed with housing, warmth, consistent and plentiful food from a store, and good health, whose only physical pain might be a headache or hangnail. Sorrow ignores the life experiences of individuals who struggle to live, who are hungry, out in the cold, facing violence, health issues, and utter loneliness.

It’s autumn now. Little birds have been prolific, fluttering amongst the bank of dead wildflowers behind the house, and our kitty has been equally busy, leaving her hunting trophies on the back porch for us to admire. The other day as I was picking up after the cat, the finch’s de minimis form tangible but lifeless, wrapped in a paper towel, I was struck with contemplation. It must be a relief for him to no longer suffer from hunger, cold, fear, to just rest, released from any pain, to not feel.

But have I forgotten pleasure to be charged with such a melancholy thought? Did the finch not thrive in song amongst his flock and nature? Did he not know happiness? Do I know happiness? Is it the pleasure of being in close relationships, loving and being loved unconditionally or belonging? Or is it self-fulfillment of goals, dreams, aspirations? Is it a mixture? We cannot say pleasure spawns from comfort; there are many sheltered individuals without a care in the world living without pleasure, happiness, just breathing. But we could argue that sorrow only comes from joy – when the goodness shifts only to memories.

Along that dichotomous line of thought, some individuals endure physical strife but experience great pleasure – that even amongst the pain of living, they have found joy in severing the societal bonds that once strangled them. Perhaps those are the lives worth living, being challenged by the world. It is the extraordinary man or woman who can live on the fringe of society, suffering its epitaph, but rise above to find joy in the battle and the spoils. There is no flesh in that pleasure, only a flourishing soul.

Towards the final third of THE LAST MORTAL BOND, Staveley conflicts one protagonist with the choice of destroying the deities of pleasure and pain. The act would erase all suffering but also all joy from the world. In this, Staveley implies that pleasure is more than the flesh, that he ultimately means joy.

Physical pain is all encompassing, a strident discord of life, meant to protect or warn the body from danger. Joy reminds us why we endure that pain, that we want to live. One without the other is incomplete. But because I have known joy, I suffer from sorrow. And so, the cycle continues: flesh, fulfillment, sorrow, and the end. Hopefully, my end, when it comes, continues forward – a reminder to my loved ones to embrace joy because it can be so fleeting.

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