At the poker game last Saturday night, between hands I was explaining the nuances of my bad back, and Arthur said, “80 percent of the people have bad backs and the other 20 percent don’t want to hear about it.”

It was a needed reminder, if a bit brusque.   Chronic pain is a sad narrative. No point in bringing it up. It’s the first time I’ve been in chronic pain, so I’m still learning how to navigate.

I also lost eighty dollars that night, and I bring that up because I took it as a sign to stop playing poker altogether. On the ride home, I explained it to a friend. First I I don’t play all that well.  Second, even when I’m lucky and the cards flow my way, I don’t enjoy winning. How can I feel pleasure if my gain is someone else’s loss? Third, I also don’t like to lose. Money doesn’t grow on trees. And fourth, the game itself isn’t that skillful. Not like chess or bridge is skillful. It’s the money around the game that makes it go.

So, add it all up, I just don’t enjoy poker all that much.

“What do you enjoy all that much?” my friend seemed poised to ask me. (Sometimes he sees me as a “cup-half-empty kind of guy.) “What do you enjoy all that much?” I was poised to ask him back?


A few days later, another friend, who sees a lot of what’s going on, told me about an experience he’d had recently. He was coming out of a LaVale shopping center. It was a sunny June afternoon, the first day of spring, and he was suddenly overcome by the contrast between the perfect day outside and the unhappiness he sensed in the people around him. Would they really miss this life if it were gone, he asked himself. The daily tasks? The sunny June day? Spring? Mingling in with the crowd?

How much are people actually enjoying their lives, I guess was his question, and is my question, too. Enjoyment is inevitably a come and go thing, and complicated as all hell. You’d think it would have something to do with prosperity and security, but does it? Americans, by world standards, are at the top of the food chain in that regard. Others (say, Syrians) would risk their lives to be in our place.   However, for us prosperity and security have become such familiar backdrops that we can’t even perceive them, let alone enjoy them anymore.

That’s one level of complication. Too much of a good thing makes it no longer a good thing. A expensive dinner out is enjoyable in proportion to the hunger one is feeling, as well as in proportion to the time elapsed since the last special dinner. The same analysis could be made in reference to all the other pleasures. Sex, obviously. Money, if it comes easily, soon ceases to bring with it a deep pleasure. Compliments, for those are always receiving them, are barely heard.

Indeed, to get the full picture of human enjoyment, or general happiness, you’d have to do a lot of digging. Obviously you’d have to dig down under the Prozac and other feel-good drugs being consumed in enormous quantities in First World countries. Is someone really enjoying life if he or she is taking drugs to enjoy life? Add to that, you’d have to dig down under the pretenses that people put forth to suggest that they are the fun loving kind. I’m not a member of the Face Book club, but from what I’ve been told it amounts to a lot of bragging; a lot of looking good in front of a camera, in the guise of “sharing,” putting forth a successful image, the places you’re going, the things you’re doing, Disneyworld, a trip to Europe, the wild back yard barbeque/beer party.

It all comes down to the same thing. You’re looking good. But inside you’re not. On the sly, you’re looking for a cure. A good therapist, a good doctor or acupuncturist or teacher. Somebody or something that can make “it” go away — the “not good” underneath.


. . .

It’s hard to reach the rock bottom to stand on here.  Might it be that the foundation of enjoyment is simply feeling good about oneself? But why does a natural positive self-regard happen so rarely? Come so hard?

Therein opens the labyrinthine underworld of psychoanalysis. Not for everybody. Luckily, it seems possible that we don’t have to plumb the depths of the whys and wherefores of our poor self regard to find a path out of it. But clearly we will find no path out of it if we are unwilling to see how deeply poor self regard controls our lives. As well, we must see how we are programmed by the advertising industry, on which the economic well-being of America now depends, to pursue false paths to self love: like  power, possessions, status, glamour.

If we are still grasping at straws for hope for the future, here’s where Donald Trump may actually help us find the way forward. He so clearly illustrates how power, money, etc. don’t move us an inch in the direction of positive self-regard, but if followed far enough would turn us into monsters like himself, egomaniacs, empty vessels.

Though he lives in a world of glitter beyond our own, the very same forces are operating in us. In short, we have to know the enemy to have a chance to come out ahead in the game of life.  And in looking at that enemy (which is us: we are Donald, small hands and all), we are perhaps on the threshold of understanding what Eric Hoffer, the San Francisco longshoreman/ philosopher said in the 1970’s: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.”

. . .

And what does a person really want?… A lot. Something enormous. Probably joy, if you’ll allow me that word. But at least enjoyment.   We’re capable of it, it seems, maybe even built for it, if we don’t get trapped in quick fixes.

Whitman comes to mind here. In his free-wheeling “I celebrate myself” he shows the possibility of an openly expressed joyous life. You can feel that it’s not “getting things” or “being told good things,” but some higher plane he’s walking on. Because it’s not just himself he’s celebrating. He’s celebrating everything.

(Almost everything. He doesn’t care much for complainers.   If he’s around complainers too much, he wishes he could go live with the animals, they are so placid and self-contained.)

Sometimes I almost get it.   You move out of your bad self-concept in proportion to how deeply you embrace life for what it is, including yourself for who you are, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME you live out a vision of yourself as a person working through, disciplining yourself through, shaping yourself through whatever falsities have befallen you.

This would be the ABC’s of a sustainable culture. But it’s so terribly late in the day to be still stuck in kindergarten.


1 Comment

  1. Eugenia

    Very profound. Ralston analyzes how people are not really content with their lifes.
    Makes you think what is what you really want.


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