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The Pleasure of a Challenge

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

Among the many symptoms of our collective eviction from the Garden of Eden are famine, war, sickness, and more recently … gas prices. To this list the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in his poem called “Adam’s Curse,” added that “we must labour to be beautiful.” Like it nor not, Yeats’ point is one that most of us recognize immediately: beautiful things are often difficult to achieve.

Athletes capable of beautiful feats or possessing beautiful bodies train long and hard for these achievements. Beautiful buildings require planning and craftmanship beyond the ordinary. Once achieved, the well-wrought body or building emanates excellence even beyond those immediately involved in crafting it.

It is not simply that beautiful things are hard to achieve, but because they are hard, we tend to appreciate their beauty more. Jobs that require us to take some pains also give us more pleasure. The implication being that by choosing the easy path toward a particular end we deny ourselves and others the legitimately heightened pleasure of enjoying a worthy thing that was difficult to achieve.

Pardon the hedonistic angle here, but in our flight toward labor-saving devices and the convenience of a virtual world, we have lost some opportunities for serious pleasure.

Take food production, for example, from which contemporary Americans have never been more insulated. For many children, milk comes from a cooler at the store, as do eggs, meat, cheese, and butter. In no part of their lives do they have any experiential knowledge of cultivating or harvesting these foods in nature. The pleasure we take in eating is so much less than it could be if it were mixed with the pride of accomplishment that comes from difficult work. Hunters know that venison affords a particular pleasure when mixed with memories of frost-nipped fingers from the hunt, and greens from a home garden that have taken weeks of labor to cultivate make a salad something to savor.

The further our consumption is removed from the labor of production, the more distorted, and frankly ugly, the practice and results of eating becomes.

Along with readily available industrially processed foods come excess consumption and waste with predictable results on the human body itself. Also, age-old rituals of community that have enriched the pleasure of eating for millennia are hollowed out when families or communities no longer need to gather and work together to prepare and present a beautiful meal. If we worked a little harder at our food, we might enjoy it more.

Here is another example: in our hypersexualized world, how many folks are enjoying richly pleasurable sex lives?

The statistics on this front look grim. A permissive sexual culture has made opportunities for sex more numerous and easier than ever. Gone are the moral and cultural barriers of marriage, the necessity of providing for potential offspring, involvement with another person’s family, and innumerable other factors that can make having sex difficult. The result? Fewer and fewer people engage in the kinds of relationships correlated with the greatest sexual satisfaction: monogamous, long-term relationships. Turns out, the most challenging relationships to maintain offer the greatest opportunity for sexual pleasure.

Porn takes the point to an extreme. It is so easy to come by that it’s actually hard to avoid. And, at least on the surface, it is totally attachment free. And yet, porn use is consistently correlated with the lowest levels of sexual satisfaction. It actually destroys one’s ability to take pleasure in sex. Just like food, the easier sex is to do (or imitate), the more distorted, ugly and unsatisfying it is.

But like every beautiful thing, sexual pleasure can be reclaimed by welcoming the challenge. Pursuing intimacy with another real human being, in full acceptance of the hard work of self-denial, patience, fidelity, potential child-rearing and aging allows one to create a beautiful relationship where the rewards of sexual pleasure flourish.

So here is a counterintuitive but practical framework for reclaiming pleasure: Engage the difficulty of doing a good thing the way a lifter engages weights or a mountaineer engages the mountain. This applies not only in your own life, but also in how you counsel or encourage others.

Don’t rule out challenging folks and making demands of them. Sometimes we seek to shield others from the difficulty associated with a particular job. We might simply do the job ourselves, or accept a poor substitute since the real item would constitute a daunting challenge. But don’t sell others short. Give them a chance to struggle with a real challenge, because that struggle not only affords an opportunity for growth, but also the pleasure of achievement.

The challenge of doing hard things is the opportunity to achieve beautiful things.


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