CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #62
CAERS Substack Article #62
We go through phases in our life. As children we just want to have fun. As youth we may want to test out our near-adult minds and bodies using the freedom that was unavailable when younger. In middle age we have the resources to explore the world and engage in a plethora of sensory experiences, even to the point of luxury. But in the winter of our lives, if we are lucky enough to reach it, sometimes things change again.
It would be hard to deny that in western society at least, much of life is about experiencing as many pleasurable sensations, and as few unpleasurable ones, as possible. We are fortunate in the west today that technological advances have provided more safety for us, and more assurance of abundance, than have existed for the majority of people who have ever inhabited this planet. There are perhaps two types of pleasurable sensations: ones that we experience within ourselves, such as a good meal or travel; and others that bring us outside of ourselves toward a large and wondrous universe, such as a star-studded summer evening or the birth of a child. The former can draw us into a state of narcissism and become addictive; the latter can inspire awe and connect us with one another, and with something greater.
One could argue, given the frequent historical scarcities of even the essentials, and the immense range and appeal of sensory input that we can enjoy, that humans are at significant risk of becoming addicted to needs and wants. Knowing what it means to have too little or be uncomfortable, we seek comfort and abundance. But as the saying goes, if you seek truth, you may find comfort, but if you seek comfort, you will not find truth. Letting go of personal comfort may not hardwired into our DNA.
But when we seek pleasures that take us outside of our immediate comfort and wants, we find more meaning and purpose in our lives. We come to appreciate the value of life itself. We see ourselves as part of a bigger story, and share in the search for truth with others in a mutually respectful and nurturing fashion. We come to understand that life is not about accumulating more ‘stuff’, or fame, or letters after our name. We come to appreciate people who may lack many of the trappings of modern life but who are ‘good souls’. Many studies have confirmed that people with disabilities, for example, often rate their quality of life not only higher than we might expect, but higher than those without such disabilities.
It is in the deeper search for meaning that we focus more on the mind aspects than the physical aspects of our mind-body existence. But it can be difficult to do that when one is starving, or in pain, or abandoned. Being the most social species on the planet, we can experience empathy for those who are not as well off as ourselves, and try to help. History illustrates that when too many of us are missing the essentials, society become unstable; the French and Russian Revolutions bear witness. The concept of ‘nine meals from anarchy’ captures this reality: no one will play by the rules if they or their loved ones miss too many consecutive meals.
That may explain why the winter of our lives can be a very different phase. We may grow to be more skeptical of ideologies that make unrealistic promises or offer simplistic quick-fixes. We may realize that what is sometimes deemed to be paranoia isn’t paranoia if there is evidence, or significant probability, of wrongdoing. We grow to the point of accepting some pain because we would rather live with a painful truth than with a pleasant lie.
The pandemic has been challenging in a multitude of ways. For many of us, our normal ability to experience pleasurable sensations has been more limited; it may have felt at times as though we were in the winter of our lives. But all is not lost; it can also be a reminder to re-evaluate our life goals and priorities. It may urge us to look deeper, and to appreciate family, friendships and the simple gift of life itself more than we ever did before. What we make of this phase is largely up to us.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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