HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: We’re miserable but let’s moderate it and make time for joy

OPINION

If you’ve ever participated in one of those “Conversation Starter” games, or just run out of things to say to someone, this inevitable question always arises: Who would you rather be instead of you?

The other day, while browsing through a philosophy website that had an article on Greek Mythology, I learned about Eros and Psyche’s daughter Hedone. I have decided that instead of Haji, I would please like to be Hedone. She is a minor deity, she doesn’t come with any magic myths but has just one trait attached to her, and that is the gift of pleasure.

Of course, in Rome, where everything is a problem, from Christ to the wrong kind of grape, Hedone was seen as problematic. In fact, Cicero described her as vicious and unnatural because her deification overpowered natural instinct… that is, to be unhappy and have little or no experience of pleasure.

I would love to tell that you your unhappiness and the inability to experience pleasure are unnatural states and that misery is a curse we willingly embrace because without it we simply cannot continue to live, but in the name of Hedone, what an awful thought, yet here we are. That is exactly how things are today.

We’re still scarily and cautiously, (some of us) treading the tightrope of a global pandemic. We cannot believe that the price of a head of cabbage is now R34.00 – and I am not referring to “I went to university Woolworths cabbage”.

We are a half a tank of petrol away from removing the engines of our cars, cutting out the bottoms and just using our feet to move our cars Fred Flinstone style because fuel is too expensive.

Many of us have lost our jobs or can’t find any thus having to make difficult choices about whether to buy our chronic medication - which we need to survive, or healthy food for our children. Of course, all of the above has to happen in the dark, because Eskom keeps on finding new levels of load shedding. I wish they would do us all a favour and just steal the sun so that we don’t have to live in wonder anymore.

To counter the inevitable economic, psychological and general lack of willingness to continue to exist in this miserable state of affairs, it is human nature to seek pleasure elsewhere but here’s the catch… Even pleasure can ruin our lives.

Some people have resorted to over-the-counter drugs to feel a bit nice, amphetamines, or edibles to make themselves feel happy or relaxed. Stimulants do feel nice, but they are ultimately destructive when we’re dependent on them. So effectively, when there is a pause on that kind of pleasure, it comes with consequences.

This impact is not only personal but also has consequences for everyone around people who choose to do this.

Others resort to sleeping away the time. The pleasure of sleep can be healing and regenerative, and rejuvenating but too much of it and when used as a form of escapism is a complete waste of a day and time that can be used for more sustainable forms of pleasure.

Everything in moderation.

We have heard this so many times. And while we have given up on it, there has never been a more apposite time in history to find a balance between puritanism and indulgence in the search for pleasure. The world is forcing us to live in moderate circumstances as it is, so why not follow suit.

We have to leave a party or a gathering if it becomes dangerously full. We have to prepare for the moderate amounts of electricity we use. We need to be responsible and use things like shampoo and dishwashing liquid and peanut butter in moderation so that we can afford to buy them again. Moderation is already being forced on us and if we’re smart, we can measure our pleasure with moderation as well.

But we also need to remind ourselves that pleasure is not the same as enjoyment. Pleasure happens to you, the enjoyment you choose. Pleasure in moderation is enjoyment. Pleasure in isolation is allowing things to happen to you that are ultimately addictive and destructive in the long run. When we elect to enjoy something, pleasure is a pleasant by-product. When we choose only pleasure, we choose a moment that means nothing, that feeds no part of us until we feed it again and again and again. Taking a pill, or a drug or sleeping too much is easy but it’s not better for you.

In 1990, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argued that “enjoyment gives you a sense of effort, forward movement, and accomplishment”. In 2021, psychologists also found that enjoyment is a conscious commitment. To enjoy something is to “commit oneself to savouring the situation and engaging in the task to have positive feelings of joy and fun.” We have the pleasure of enjoyment when we commit to valuing conscious and ultimately permanent choices.

But it would be wise to remember that not all things that eventually manifest in joy are pleasurable in the moment. For example, going to the gym, for a long walk, or going to a hard therapy session doesn’t fill many people with pleasant emotions. But making a voluntary effort to do these things regardless of how painful, time-consuming and unlikable they are, are all part of seeking enjoyment - to enjoy the improvement of your body, mind, energy levels, thought processing and emotional release.

To deny ourselves these things and to constantly choose the “pleasure” of just working and sleeping for example is to deny joy. To settle for comfort over contentment is a bad trade-off.

We can argue that the world we live in, or the circumstances we find ourselves in leaves us no room to actively seek enjoyment whose return is ultimately, happiness. But that is the decision we make, consciously or not, by self-sabotaging and ruining something very simple because of pressures – which will always be inevitable but do not have to dictate our lives.

We can argue that a walk is a misuse of time and energy, it gets in the way of rest, (without moderation) because that is a practical use of an open gap between work where we feel we absolutely have to go out of our way to prove that we are extremely practical people with high-stress jobs that translate into economic sense. It doesn’t.

An attitude like this eliminates the sheer power of leisure, pleasure and simple and pure enjoyment. To take the time to be moderate and enjoy something is worthy of effort and even planning because it is more generative and restorative than convincing ourselves that we’re too busy being overproductive in other ways.

If we schedule our days, we can schedule our time to enjoy things. Whether it’s in 15-minute intervals, or an hour at a time. When we plan, we actively moderate instead of leaving enjoyment up to chance and unnecessarily filling the gaps we all absolutely do have by crowding them with the things we didn’t do and mindless pleasures as a reward for doing them.

We don’t have power over Eskom or deadly diseases, or chronic illness, or deadlines, but we do have the power to plan and declare our independence in pursuing a life we really enjoy. Whether those moments are planned for intermittently or regularly, as practice of a daily routine, moderately, we have to make one decisive declaration at a time.

To use our agency for moments of joy is to live a life of purpose.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa. Follow her on Twitter.