Fleeting Pleasures and Inexhaustible Sources of Joy

A natural question frequently asked about a multitude of pursuits and activities is whether or not they are worth the time, effort, cost, and inconvenience that often attend them. For example, is an overpriced college education at a typically ultra liberal, politically correct college worth the exorbitant cost and the massive debt students incur to earn academic degrees at institutions with low academic standards and grade inflation? Does the cost of attending a professional sporting event and paying $100 for a ticket, $50 for parking, and $25 for food equal the pleasure or satisfaction that accompanies the enjoyment of this pastime? Does an expensive cruise with all its amenities or luxuries, endless shows and entertainments, and delicious, sumptuous cuisine around the clock offer the relaxation and rejuvenation that it is advertised to give? In an age of sophisticated and sensationalistic hype, advertisement, and salesmanship, many alluring deals, exotic tours, and enticing vacation sites fill the mind with images of gratification and pure delight. However, many things in life disappoint and are not worth the price, the debt, or the investment of time and involvement they demand. The expenditure is great, but the gain is minimal. Despite high expectations, the results are often anti-climactic.

Some things in life, though, are well worth the effort and produce a yield or harvest far beyond a person’s expectations. The investment in a committed, lifelong marriage and the dedication of mothers and fathers to the care, happiness, and education of children produce abundant fruits that more than compensate for all the labor, responsibilities, and expenses that the marital vocation demands. Work that is a labor of love that proceeds from the call of a vocation also reaps a great harvest that often surpasses all original expectations. A spiritual life modeled upon an imitation of Christ and the lives of the saints, the desire for Christian perfection, and a love of truth and wisdom never fail to fulfill a person’s deepest longings. The cultivation of good health, nutritious diet, regular exercise, and temperate living leads to a long life relatively free of medical problems. A life of the mind in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake out of a love of wisdom and desire for truth enriches a person’s interior life and increases life’s sources of joy as a person learns the art of living well. The gift of friendship also often brings great rewards that no amount of calculation could ever foresee.

Antonio and Bassanio

Antonio and Bassanio

Why do some pursuits of happiness disappoint despite high hopes and others surprise with humble beginnings? Why do some aspirations and goals end with the frustration uttered in Solomon’s famous words from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of Vanities . . . . All is vanity? What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” Why do other ambitions and dreams culminate in wonder, a dream come true, an answer to a prayer, and a sense of overflowing superabundant joy? These great rewards that are worth the long journey, the many sacrifices, and the arduous struggle all have a common element: they follow from a love of good things for their own sake without ulterior motives of gain, self-interest or worldly advantage. Seeking goodness, truth, beauty, and God as sublime ideals motivated by pure, disinterested motives renders them desirable and lovable for their own sake–as ends in themselves rather than as a means to an end. These goals lead to enduring sources of happiness that always fill and replenish, never disappoint or frustrate.

Marriage, the unconditional giving of man and woman in the exchange of love in an indissoluble union, expresses the generosity of giving without counting the cost or the consequences. The fruitfulness of love that abounds in children is inspired by the knowledge that it is more blessed to give than to receive and by a gratitude for the gift of life that shares this treasure with the newborn. To earn a livelihood or chose a profession from the motive of a vocation—a calling to use one’s talent, gifts, and opportunities to serve others or to live for a great cause or noble ideal—never leads to a barren field or to futile labor. An investment in the spiritual life committed to Christ’s promise that “I am the way, the truth, and the life” produces light, fruit, joy, and truth, the various gifts of the Holy Spirit summarized by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

A life that values the gift of good health maintains it with the care, attention, and discipline it requires and enjoys the benefits of a ripe old age that beholds the special blessing of delighting in one’s children’s children. Temperance in all matters of eating and drinking that avoid all forms of overindulgence, the habit of exercise that increases stamina and relieves the mind of stress, and the proper balance between work and play keep both the mind and body young at heart and robustly vigorous and alive. This investment of time, work, and commitment in keeping a sound mind in a strong body leads to not only a happier old age but also multiplies the many sources of enjoyment that a healthy life nurtures. Like goodness, virtue, beauty, and truth, health too is inherently valuable and produces a cornucopia of life’s sweetest pleasures.

Friendship too belongs in the category of the infinitely cherished and priceless gifts. The reciprocal giving and receiving and the mutual enjoyment and helpfulness of true friendships always bring surprising returns and incalculable benefits. Called “the wine of life” by Dr. Samuel Johnson, famous for the cultivation of a lifetime of loyal friends from all professions and social classes, friendship cultivates kind hospitality, mirthful social occasions, and honest conversations on a host of topics that dispel melancholy and loneliness. As Shakespeare shows in the ideal friendship of Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, a good friend will never be outdone in generosity, whether it is lending money or saving a friend from paying “a pound of flesh” from a usurious loan. All these pursuits that are loved for their own sake, as ends in themselves, and for the pure love of goodness or joy that motivates them have an inherent grace attached that Blessed Cardinal Newman refers to as their “prolific” power.

In The Idea of the University Newman writes, “Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it. Good is prolific.” The human acts inspired by love, goodness, generosity, gratitude, health, and friendship are always worth it, not in a materialistic or economic sense of profit, but, in Newman’s words, “as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world.” The world’s standards of worth or value cannot measure the riches that overflow and proliferate when the true, the good, and the beautiful guide a person’s life, work, vocation, and human relationships. Known as “transcendentals” because in their limitless profusion they cannot ever be exhausted, the pursuit of these spiritual ideals never disappoints, frustrates, or disillusions. They never produce the sense of futility that the classical punishments of the underworld portray like Sisyphus forever pushing a rock up the hill that only rolls down for him to push up again and again with no sense of accomplishment or satisfaction that moves a person to say “it is worth it.”

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
Articles by Mitchell: