In a 2008 essay in the New York Review of Books, Steven Weinberg enumerated the consolations of life in the absence of belief in the hereafter: humor; “the ordinary pleasures of life” like beautiful spring days and “the pleasures of the flesh”; and “the pleasures brought to us by the high arts.” To summarize: humor, pleasure, and pleasure. In Nothing to Be Frightened Of, his book-length meditation on death, Julian Barnes, quoting Richard Dawkins, produces a similar list: “music, poetry, sex, love (and science).” Again the emphasis is on the pleasures, high and low. Look at lists of “100 Things to Do Before You Die,” and you’ll find them dominated by exotic sensations of one kind or another (“Skydive”; “Shower in a waterfall”; “Eat jellied eels from a stall in London”).
Really? This is the best we can do? This is what it’s all about? These are the things that make our lives worth living? When I think about what really makes me happy, what I really crave, I come up with a very different list: concentrated, purposeful work, especially creative work; being with people I love; feeling like I’m part of something larger. Meaning, connectedness, doing strenuously what you do well: not sights, not thrills, and not even pleasures, as welcome as they are. Not passivity, not letting the world come in and tickle you, but creativity, curiosity, altruism, engagement, craft. Raising children, or teaching students, or hanging out with friends. Playing music, not listening to it. Making things, or making them happen. Thinking hard and feeling deeply.
None of which involve spending money, except in an ancillary way. None of which, in other words, are consumer experiences. I have no doubt that Weinberg, Dawkins, and Barnes understand what I’m saying—understand it, in fact, a lot better than I do. Weinberg and Dawkins are scientists, Barnes is a novelist, all of them superlative at what they do, all extremely well-acquainted with the delights of thought and creation and the strenuous exercise of one’s faculties. Barnes himself has beautifully written that “children easily get into the habit of believing that just to say they want something is an interesting and valuable expression of their personality.” It is no different for an adult than a child, and not ultimately that much different for a symphony than a toy. But we forget, we forget, even Weinberg, Barnes, and Dawkins forget, because we’re so bombarded with messages about what we desire and what we should desire, and all of them, perforce, are things we’re being sold. Our idea of the self becomes a consumerist one, which means a passive and diminished one. I’m all for jellied eels, but the pleasures of the body are as nothing to the joys of the soul.