Could it be True? Are Pleasure and Pain Correlative? (8/21/10—Buenos Aires)

Might it be a ‘psychological law’ that the sum of (subjectively experienced) pleasure over the course of a human life more or less exactly equals the sum of its opposite—pain, or displeasure—so that the two ultimately balance—or cancel each other out?  Can a persuasive case be made for the claim that the two are, in psychological fact, correlative?  What if it were true that our prospect of enjoying the most pleasurable life possible is always secretly being checked by an inescapable law—a law declaring that we can never exit the game of life as indisputable winners, but only in a kind of tie or stalemate?  If it were true that we could never finally and completely be ‘in the black’ since our ‘books’ are always being balanced—profits continually being matched by losses—what would be the wisest way of navigating through such a game of ‘poker’ where, after the final hand is dealt, nobody walks off with the pot?

The answer to this question will certainly turn out to be markedly different for each of us.  According to this hypothetical model, for those persons who are powerfully drawn to intense or king-size pleasures, intense or supersized wallops of pain will be the acceptable price paid for the privilege of enjoying such pleasures.  For those, on the other hand, who eschew extremes of any sort, a more moderate approach is embraced wherein prudent measures are taken to avoid being dislodged from one’s peakless and troughless, lukewarm bomb shelter in the flatline region of the midrange.

But since pleasure and pain are more accurately regarded as subjective in nature, rather than as objectively quantifiable experiences, these two—the ‘large dose’ and the ‘small dose’ types—actually tend to melt into and out of each other.  How does such a surprising situation arise?  Those who become habituated to big-game, high-impact pleasures and pains tend to become progressively desensitized to both, developing thick calluses, as it were, around their ardent souls and their greedy senses, so that their response gradually becomes blunted and dull.  ‘Raising the volume’ on either side of the pleasure-pain polarity only tends to thicken the callused skin between stimulus and response, so that one of two results typically occurs.  Desensitization continues from binge to binge until our ‘pleasure junkie’ begins to feel less and less of what he used to.  Or, he ‘purges,’ swearing off both extremes in a desperate bid to restore his lost sensitivity to pleasure as such.

At the other end, the stubbornly stoical man of the tepid and flavorless mid-zone who has deliberately hardened himself against both pleasure and pain faces a very different situation.  In armoring himself against pleasure and pain he inadvertently cuts himself off from two great motivators and instructors: pleasure is a great lure into experience and pain is a valuable early warning system.  He becomes the prisoner, as it were, of a very restricted range of psychological and/or sensory experiences.  As with our foregoing example of the over-exposed man who gradually acquires a thick, insulating ‘epidermis’ that eventually cuts him off from life, the underexposed, stoical type may develop an interiorized form of desensitization (apatheia) that leads to more or less the same problematic outcome: willful estrangement or alienation from the business of life itself.  When this alienation from pleasurable and painful springs of life reaches an advanced stage, the laws of psychological compensation kick reliably into gear and deliver to our ‘stuck’ stoic an extra powerful kick in the rear.  Thus, an extreme jolt—of seductive, irresistible pleasure and/or blood-and-spirit-stirring pain—is nature’s and the psyche’s way of returning such ‘disengaged’ types to the large, nourishing breasts of Life, where they are compelled to open their thin, chapped lips and suck for all they’re worth.

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