Friday, June 29, 2018

Strain and Release

Ever since I read it, many years ago, I've been haunted by this passage from Plato's Phaedo:

Socrates, sitting up on the couch, bent and rubbed his leg, saying, as he was rubbing: "How singular is the thing called pleasure, and how curiously related to pain, which might be thought to be the opposite of it; for they are never present to a man at the same instant, and yet he who pursues either is generally compelled to take the other; their bodies are two, but they are joined by a single head. And I cannot help thinking that if Aesop had remembered them, he would have made a fable about God trying to reconcile their strife, and how, when he could not, he fastened their heads together; and this is the reason why when one comes the other follows, as I know by my own experience now, when after the pain in my leg which was caused by the chain pleasure appears to succeed."

When I read that passage, it made me quite depressed, as it seemed to suggest that all pleasure was simply the relief from pain. However, it can also be read in a more positive way; that our sufferings and frustrations contribute to our joys.

I have written on this subject before, for instance, in this poem (which garnered a surprising amount of comments). I've also touched on it under the aspect of liberty and repression. (And, to be honest, re-reading those posts makes me wonder if I've said everything I have to say on the topic. But I've started, so I'll finish, as Magnus Magnusson of Mastermind fame used to say.)

It seems to me highly desirable that our lives, and the societies in which we live, should combine strain and release in such a way as to give us the fullest benefit of both.

This thought arises from my recent fascination with the Catholic litugical calendar. Today is the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, a solemnity. I've recently evolved the tradition of allowing myself a can of Coke on Sundays and solemnities (I generally avoid Coke, which I could drink by the bucket-load, for the sake of my waistline). I drink it with great relish; pouring it into a glass, holding it up to the light, looking at the bubbles rising to the surface, enjoying all its nostalgic associations, and so forth. Of course, the rarity of the pleasure gives it most of its appeal.

And, even though this is obviously my own private tradition, the principle seems to be intrinsic to the liturgical calendar. Today, Christians often find themselves lamenting the fact that modern society has Christmas without Advent and Easter (insofar as it has Easter) without Lent.

Of course, even the more traditionally-minded Christians can be guilty of this. I've never really observed Lent as penitentially as I should. When it comes to fasting, especially, I find this very difficult, since over-eating is my biggest vice. Anne Widdecombe, the retired English politician, drinks nothing but water during Lent. I don't have that kind of will-power. Nevertheless, I do make some effort.

However, when I think of "strain" in the context of organised religion, I'm not only thinking of fasts and other obvious austerities. I'm also thinking about religious observances.

Occasionally, on this blog, I've remarked on the fact that Mass so often bores me. The paradoxical thing, however, is that this boredom seems strangely enriching, even on a natural level. And perhaps strain is a better term than "boredom".

Why is strain enriching? I don't know. It's very hard to understand the exact reason. It's not simply that there is a sense of relief when it's over, or a sense of satisfaction in having done it. It's more than that. Perhaps mental strain has the same bracing effect on our minds as physical strain has on our muscles-- who hasn't enjoyed the glow of exertion after some manual effort, even if it's just trimming a bush?

This principle doesn't only apply to religion, but to life in general. Take an example familiar to most people; going out to work, having a job. Having to be in a particular place at a particular time, having to get along with people you don't always like, having to sit through meetings, having to humour clients and customers you would gladly push into a lake-- what a bore it all is! And yet, how much we miss it when it's gone! I think the loss of such supports will be a big problem in the post-scarcity, automated society that some people believe we are moving towards.

(I had to abandon this post sooner than I'd intended to. Nevertheless, I feel that I've made all the main points here, and that if I wanted to elaborate on them, it would be a much longer post. I may do so in the future.)

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