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.

The Joker is a Symptom of Society.

My husband and I used to frequent the movie theaters before we had kids, and then when the kids were old enough and good movies still common. Lately, the theaters offer a lot of remakes and superheroes or remade superheroes (Really? Another Spider Man?). And if not one of those, Hollywood patronizes us with mainstream scat popped of cupcake molds. They slather it with a little frosting, hoping to masquerade the crap below. I get it; originality in writing is risky in the big economy. Society likes to chew on the same themes and memes, because repetition doesn’t force individuals to think beyond the boundary of their knowledge. It’s the same reason young children like to be entertained with the same book or movie; nothing is more comforting than retreading steps to the same conclusion. While the Joker is a spin on an old tale – a prequel to Batman – don’t go to the theater expecting an action-packed DC episode, but do reflect how society’s indifference for the individual transforms Arthur Fleck into the Joker, a man we all fear.

The Joker is not about defeating good or evil. Or even combatting it. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of a man already struggling with mental illness who is injured, demoralized, and humiliated by society is both fascinating and painful to watch. Arthur Fleck begins the film as socially awkward but good-hearted man with contorted and cringey dance moves. Skipping the step-by-step erosion of a man’s dignity, I will tell you he is physically assaulted by both teenage thugs and Wall Street-type upstarts. He shows strangers kindness, but they rudely dismiss his company. Coworkers betray him. And he learns of his mother’s treason to his young, innocent self – most likely the catalyst to his mental illness. But the Joker’s transformation solidifies when Fleck’s role model publicly humiliates Arthur in his pursuit of a lifelong aspiration. Nothing is better than a viral laugh unless it is to the detriment of another.

Arthur’s life course is the recipe of suicides, mass shootings, and radicalizations. Let’s face it; life is hard. If the constraints of society do not inter us, then we are fighting to survive in a third world country. And we need to belong in this ugliness, to feel that those moments of connection with others are worth trudging through the mind-numbing sludge. But demoralized or isolated, as a pariah to others, few can resist the impact. Some escape the pain in one fashion or another. And others shift into something beyond societal boundaries.

All it takes are moments of kindness, communication, genuine reflection and connection with others. These drops of dust in the erosion of time are the nourishment of community. Just a smile, a shared laughed, or twin tears can bind us, propping us up for days, weeks, years. But when life is stupidly busy, it’s hard to find those moments. We take loved-ones for granted, overlook friends, and ignore strangers. Though we try, social media is not a substitute for authentic connection. Those ones and zeros only dissolve the glue of society, injecting it with anger. Instead, be present in the real world, look for that friend, that stranger, and engage in a conversation. In the world’s strife, find something common, and share in that commonality. Take an interest in another’s life, and maybe they will take an interest in yours. And for goodness sakes, a smiling emoji is not the same as a genuine smile.

When the Joker emerges from his streak of revenge, the city is in civil unrest. With riots, protestors, and flames surrounding him, the Joker stands atop a police car, and never did he dance so beautifully smooth. In the absence of all others, he had found a connection with chaos.

Toward the movie’s beginning, before undergoing the brutal attacks, Arthur is in his social worker’s office. She’s asking him routine questions, and he notes that despite her job, she never really listens to him for her narrative never varies visit to visit. And he asks, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”

Yes, Arthur. Yes, it is.

Why do I write?

A river can’t be rushed. The current, boulders and bramble in the midst, the river becomes larger than its passengers. So when I shoved my boat from the shoreline, my endeavor became a journey of obstacles, scenery, and faces old and new. Along the way, rocks bruised my shins, my palms became calloused by the oar grips, and ignorance abraded my ego. But with toil, comes resilience and appreciation. The more I row, the more I understand the passing landscape. And downstream the rugged, stunning topography shifts. The canyon walls encroach the river, suffocating the passageway. In the narrow confines, the stream becomes furious and tumultuous. Other vessels congest the waterway; their oarsmen are so focused on pointing their bows downstream they ignore the mounting paddock.

The Ardent Halo saga is the culmination of two stories – two elements of a challenge facing humanity: safeguarding the old while propagating the new. We have challenged the elements of this world, and those elements will define our future and fate. We love our children and their children to come but the river can only ferry so many. Discussions of the consequences of our manifest destiny are rare. When will the magnitude of our population be considered? Who will warn the others that only so many of us can drift this way? Let not hubris drown the travelers. Allow reflection to govern the morrow.