The Lost Art of Enjoying People
October 2007By Mitchell Kalpakgian
Mitchell Kalpakgian, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor of Humanities at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander. He is the author of The Marvelous in Fielding's Novels (University of America Press), The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature (Neumann Press), An Armenian Family Reunion (Neumann Press), and the upcoming Wisdom Ever Ancient, Ever New (Neumann Press, 2008).
"No man can live without pleasure," St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, for man is created for happiness and beatitude. The pleasures appropriate for man are rational pleasures enjoyed in accordance with moral laws. The pleasures of eating and drinking, for example, must never degenerate into the sins of gluttony or drunkenness. Likewise, the enjoyment of learning must never deteriorate into the sins of pride or curiosity. And the delight of chaste marital love is not to be confused with the sin of lust.
In his natural desire for pleasure, man enjoys the whole gamut of sources of happiness, from the pleasures of the five senses to the entertainment of the arts to the possession of worldly things. Eating in restaurants, listening to classical music, going to the theater or the cinema, traveling to foreign countries, attending organized sporting events, swimming on the beaches of Hawaii, and reading great literature all represent rational worldly pleasures that civilized men savor. In Western societies, where materialism and consumerism run riot, expensive gifts, modern conveniences, and new technologies multiply the sources of pleasure to include new cars, video games, e-mail, cable television, and cell phones. A person is never at a loss for amusement or diversion, whether at home, in the car, at the mall, or in the city. But in this pursuit of pleasure and entertainment, the greatest source of happiness, the enjoyment of persons, is downplayed and underestimated. The gift for enjoying people has become a lost art.
Of course people still socialize, entertain guests, delight in good conversation, and spend the holidays with friends and family, but more and more often people seek pleasure by viewing sports on television, watching movies at home, playing video games, and surfing the Internet. The decline in population in Europe and America is one symptom of this loss of the enjoyment of people, of the delight in children. In a culture in which a society is not replacing itself, the enjoyment of children as one of life's greatest sources of happiness holds no privileged place in the hierarchy of pleasures. Somehow there is no time or energy in the affluent West to found large families, but there is ample time for education, for a career, for travel, and for "self-improvement." The increase in divorce and the rise of cohabitation, the isolation of the elderly, and the prevalence of abortion and euthanasia also reflect the failure to value others enough to love, cherish, and rejoice in them for a lifetime. For many, the novelty of pleasure a person offers seems only temporary. Like cheap products or changing fashions, people appear as ephemeral pleasures or replaceable items -- not an investment for a lifetime or an eternity.
In reality, man is a rational, social, and spiritual being, possessing depths and riches -- a fountain of goodness, love, joy, and mirth that overflows, bringing happiness to many others. A child is a joy for a brother or sister, a gift to parents, a blessing to grandparents, a delight to friends, and becomes a lover to a spouse and the benefactor of life to his own children. To enjoy people is to marvel at their uniqueness and remarkable individuality. Just as seasonings and spices give savor and aroma to enhance the taste of food, people lend flavor and color to daily experience. One person missing from the family table or absent from a special occasion alters the entire tone of the event. We mourn our deceased loved ones, lament the absence of others abroad, and yearn for the company and presence of those we miss because they are unrepeatable and irreplaceable in their individuality. Contrary to Sartre's infamous remark that "hell is other people," people are inexhaustible joys who touch many lives.
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