Wednesday, May 18, 2005

postal scrotum: hedonism vs. asceticism

"A reader" writes (email has been slightly edited for privacy's sake):

Dear Kevin,

I thought I'd write in about an issue that has begun to coalesce in my mind. I decided to write to you because, as a student of religion, I think you, out of most people I know, would most likely be able to appreciate what I want to discuss. This issue is really important to me at this stage of my life; I've been in this train of thought for a while and probably will be for some time. This is kind of rambling, but it's straight from a heated brain. I'd appreciate it if you published it.

Human beings are built to seek pleasure. Eating feels good. So does sleeping, shitting, pissing, having sex, and so on. It seems to me, though, that when it comes to sensual pleasures, there are two main strands in society: the hedonistic approach and the ascetic approach.

My problem is, I don't know where I should be. On one side, on the other side, or in the middle? I don't know what's right for me or what I want.

Everyone can't just follow their desires, because that would lead to social anarchy. At least one reason why monogamy exists is to enforce a social structure that is conducive to raising children. In theory, it would be wonderful if we could have sex with whoever we wanted, but you probably wouldn't want to raise your wife's child if she had been inseminated by another man.

I see the hedonists in action. The guys who go clubbing and have to have a different girl every night. They don't seem very happy, though. The people who seem most connected to their physical desires seem the least happy. Is this what Buddhism means when it talks about how your desires are like a prison? (Does Buddhism even say that?)

You lauded me once by e-mail, telling me it was good that I did my best to be faithful to my wife. But I felt a streak of guilt when you said that, because I am far from faithful--at least mentally and emotionally speaking. The sex instinct is overpowering.

One part of me tells me to seek out as many new sexual adventures as possible. That part says that sex is only natural, that it feels great, and that the monogamy I impose upon myself is only due to the cultural restrictions I face in this part of the world. In the Middle East for example, men can have multiple wives. As you wrote when you talked about absolutes, there is no universal morality. Why should I be monogamous when I don't have to be, one part of me asks. All those sexual experiences I am missing out on. And yet, sex with another woman would feel empty. I love my wife, and it's best with her and only her. The worst part of it is, I know it's only my biology (the sex instinct that tells men to "conquer") that makes me so sex crazed. You see a beautiful girl in the street and you automatically want her, despite yourself. That the other part of me says it's OK to be sex crazed, and that the only reason I don't cheat is fear of getting a disease or impregnating someone else. So around we go in a circle.

Where should I stand? The thought of a vow of celibacy, like that taken by priests, fills me with a feeling of hollowness. Some of the early Christians castrated themselves--ouch!--but they found to their chagrin that they still had the desire. St. Augustine pleaded with God to stop him from having wet dreams. I won't have any of that. "Sex is natural, sex is fun," as George Michael sang.

I recently gave up drinking, because I don't like the way it makes my thoughts clouded. I like to be in control. I don't like feeling confused. But I don't want to be an ascetic Buddhist monk, cutting myself off from tasty spicy meat dishes. I want to enjoy physical pleasures. (Then again, something about a hallowed life of peaceful aceticism on a mountaintop appeals to me.)

Back to my first point. When I think about the human project, I wonder where we should stand. A lot of the arguments against hedonism stem from the harm they cause the world. If you indulge in sex, you may get a disease or make a child out of wedlock. Pot can impinge on your mental skills. Booze is bad for your organs, and tobacco, as we all know, is a killer. What will happen in the future when we begin to find the technology to disconnect the pleasure from the unfortunate consequences? I really wonder about that.

I'm still young, and I anticipate a lot of years ahead of me. But sometimes I feel as confused as a hormonal teenager. I still can't think about where I want to stand while the world goes on around me. Where do ascetism and hedonism fit into the human endeavor? Could you shed some light on my confusion?


a reader

One side, the other side, or the middle? I'm a big advocate of the middle way, especially when it comes to behaviors/practices like hedonism and asceticism. I think that hedonism and asceticism represent extremes of human behavior and experience; they're like the endpoints of a spectrum, and most of us cluster somewhere in the middle.

I don't think there's any reason to feel guilty about having sexual thoughts. In keeping with the middle-way theme, I'd be suspicious of people whose minds are so thoroughly disciplined that the sex urge is entirely absent. I'd be equally suspicious of people who reduce everything in life to sex and the pursuit of sex.

You're married, and happily so, which means you attach great value to your marriage. It also means that, whatever your religious convictions, you and the wife entered into something very much like a contractual relationship. "Contract" is a rude term to use for marriage, I admit; I don't mean to imply anything businesslike or legalistic; instead, I use the word to signify something more like a "covenant"-- a deep mutual promise that both of you have sworn to keep. Marriage entails commitment. Commitment entails sacrifice. As you know from your own personal pursuits, anything worthwhile requires that other things be given up.

Behavior that begins to stray from the path of moderation will rapidly become unhealthy. A husband who surfs too much porn might be a good 21st-century example of this. I'm not against porn, but there are men who take their desires to an extreme, often compromising important aspects of family life by spending too much time at the keyboard staring at 2-D images and not enough time with the living, breathing people who matter.

The reason so many hedonists don't seem deeply happy is that they've mistakenly reduced life to pleasure (which, as any philosopher worth his salt will note, is not the same thing as happiness). Life isn't synonymous with pleasure. In fact, I'd argue that life isn't reducible to any one thing. Life is pleasure, but it's also hardship. Life is rest, but it's also work. Your body's systems rely on the dynamic tension between these extremes. You need rest; you need work. You need pleasure; you also need some hardship. Those extremes find their harmony inside you.

Perhaps you're wondering about what it means to live a middle way. There's no single description of what such a path looks like. I think that's a good thing. It's a sign of spiritual immaturity to desire a ready-made map complete with answers to all life's questions. The map needs to be drawn and redrawn as the terrain changes. No single prescription fits all possible situations. "Follow your situation," as the Korean Seon Buddhists say.

Since we're doing metaphors, I'll note a well-used one. Love is like a garden: beautiful, but always requiring maintenance. The gardening tools for this maintenance are many-- things like care, warmth, openness, giving of one's time, compromise, and communication. Unlike actual garden tools, the metaphorical ones are protean: they can change over time and according to the situation. What, for example, is loving action when it's your anniversary? What is loving action when you have to discipline your child?

A psychotherapist I quote often on this blog, M. Scott Peck, wrote that love is primarily an action, not a feeling. I think this is important because feelings come and go, but loving actions can become good habits, and habits can sustain us through those times when we'd rather scream at our spouse or banish the kids to the cellar forever. As with all important things in life, love is something demonstrated and proven over time.

Getting back to your particular situation: when you say the sex urge is "overpowering" and that you're "sex crazed," should I assume you mean that this is an abnormally difficult moral struggle? If so, this may be something serious, and you'd need to talk with someone about it. If, however, your desire for sex seems to be no greater than the typical man's, perhaps you simply need to find your own middle-way solution. Asceticism is obviously out: you're married, and I don't think your wife would appreciate it if you closed off sexual options. And given your marital commitments, running around is also out, unless you and your wife agree to an "open" marriage, which seems to fit only a limited group of people in Western society.

Commitment means sacrifice. Yes, you're a taken man, so you'll be missing out on piles of tight little East Asian booty. But thinking of it as "missing out" is too negative. Consider what you have: a wonderful wife, the chance to build a family, the chance to know someone in depth and to watch that relationship grow and deepen through your loving actions.

Many would argue that, especially in this day and age, maintaining a good marriage and fostering a healthy, nurturing family environment are among the noblest of human undertakings. There's nothing wrong with appreciating a fine ass, but unless you've decided your marital commitment is no longer sacred to you, you should keep those urges where they belong: inside your head. You're a principled guy; I trust that you'll do the right thing.


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