Thursday, December 11, 2008

Censoring One's Life Based on Fun

Generally speaking, there are two types of things we do our leisure time. Things we do because we want to, and things we do because we feel we should. There is a psychological tendency to view activities that are unpleasant as beneficial to one’s mastery of self, building character and self-discipline. When we ache after a workout we feel as if it was a “good” workout. When we leave an art film confused and perhaps disturbed, we feel as though we have just witnessed “real” cinema.

For me, two examples of this are swimming and reading classic works of fiction. I see my continued partaking of these activities as positive in several respects. Swimming is a pretty useful skill, as far as sporting abilities go. It’s certainly better to know how to swim than to serve a tennis ball. So although one lap leaves me huffing and puffing, and despite the fact that my goggles never stay on right and I have to constantly adjust them to keep water from getting in, I keep on swimming. I don’t enjoy it. I may even hate it. But I do it anyway, hoping to get better (which I never do).

Same with reading classic fiction. Do I like reading dense paragraphs of Victorian English whose plots leave me utterly bored and sleepy? Not at all. I’d much rather read some stimulating modern fiction (although I still read exclusively “literature,” rather than popular fiction, which I avoid due to its lack of perceived edifying content). Yet I continue to plod through Faulkner, Dreiser, and others, believing I am bettering myself by perfunctorily running my blurry eyes over the words on the pages.

I’d love to be able to say, “Clearly no one should do something they don’t enjoy. We have very limited free time, and you should spend it doing something that is fun for you.” But despite this logic, a large part of me still strongly insists that life is made richer by forcing yourself to swim, to eat new foods, to listen to music that you don’t usually like, etc. Life is about more than pleasure; it is about learning. If we cherry-pick the things we do and never challenge ourselves to push through unpleasant times, we are guaranteed to lead sterile and static, albeit fun, lives. The choice is ours.

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