There comes an hour in the afternoon when the child is tired of ‘pretending’; when he is weary of being a robber or a noble savage. It is then that he torments the cat. There comes a time in the routine of an ordered civilization when the man is tired at playing at mythology and pretending that a tree is a maiden or that the moon made love to a man. The effect of this staleness is the same everywhere; it is seen in all drug-taking and dram-drinking and every form of the tendency to increase the dose. Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense. They seek after mad religions for the same reason. They try to stab their nerves to life, if it were with the knives of the priests of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares.
Ah, the genius of Chesterton! I read this passage years ago and have never forgotten it. Even if one doesn’t fully agree with his assessment, nobody can argue with his expression. Moreover it doesn’t strain the imagination to see evidence of what he is expressing inside of our own culture today. Salient examples abound: The illegal drug trade is one of the biggest industries in the world, internet pornography is the biggest addiction in the world, excessive use of alcohol is everywhere, high-profile athletes and entertainers brag that they have slept with thousands of people, even as they go in and out of rehab regularly, celebrities show up at parties carrying briefcases full of cocaine, and drug dealers already find a market among our elementary school students. Evidently many of us today are also trying to stab our nerves to life by constantly increasing the dosage.
But we need not look at the lives of rich and the famous to see this. None of us are immune. We just do this more subtly. Take, for example, our addictive struggle with information technology. It’s not that the internet and the myriad of programs, phones, pads, gadgets, and games that are linked to it are bad. They aren’t. In fact we are a very lucky generation to have such instant and constant access to information and to each other. Ever smarter phones, better internet programs, and things such as Facebook are not the problem. Our problem is in handling them in a non-addictive way, both in how we respond to the pressure to constantly buy ever-newer, faster, flashy, and more capable technologies, and in our inability to not let them control our lives. We too perpetually tire of what we have and seek somehow to increase the dosage to stab our nerves into life.
Whenever that happens we begin to lose control of our lives and find ourselves on a dangerous treadmill upon which we begin to lose any sense of real enjoyment in life.
Antoine Vergote, the famed Belgium psychologist, had a mantra which read: Excess is a substitute for genuine enjoyment. We go to excess in things because we can no longer enjoy them simply. It’s when we no longer enjoy our food that we overeat; it’s when we no longer enjoy a drink that we drink to excess; it’s when we no longer enjoy a simple party that we let things get out of hand; it’s when we can no longer enjoy a simple game that we need extreme sports, and it’s when we no longer simply enjoy the taste of chocolate that we try to eat all the chocolate in the world. The same principle holds true, even more strongly, for the enjoyment of sex.
Moreover excess isn’t just a substitute for enjoyment; it’s also the very thing that drains all enjoyment from our lives. Every recovering addict will tell us that. When excess enters, enjoyment departs, as does freedom. Compulsion sets in. Now we begin to seek a thing not because it will bring us enjoyment, but because we are driven to have it. Excess is a substitute for enjoyment and because it doesn’t bring genuine enjoyment it pushes us on to further excess, to something more extreme, in the hope that the enjoyment we are seeking will eventually be induced. That’s what Chesterton’s metaphors – tormenting the cat and stabbing our nerves back into life – express.
The answer? A simpler life. But that is easier said than done. We live with constant pressure, from without and from within, to see more, consume more, buy more, and drink in more of life. The pressure to increase the dosage is constant and unrelenting. But this is precisely where a deliberate, willful, and hard asceticism is demanded of us. To quote Mary Jo Leddy, we must, at some point say this, mean it, and live it: It’s enough. I have enough. I am enough. Life is enough. I need to gratefully enjoy what I have.