Thursday, February 01, 2024

What Gives You Pleasure?


He has spent his life best who has enjoyed it most; God will take care that we do not enjoy it any more than is good for us. ~Samuel Butler

I find that more and more of my peers are retired. They tell me that their plans are to seek their pleasure, to enjoy the grandkids, to golf, to travel, to garden, to paint. In other words, they are doing, or aspiring to do, all the things that our younger selves were told were, at best, a waste of time. Of course, that's why most of these people can afford to retire: they've worked hard, pinched a sufficient number of pennies, invested wisely (or luckily) and now, during what will hopefully be the final third of life, they can, without guilt, take their leisure.

I don't know if I'll ever be in a position to retire. Oh sure, my wife and I could likely figure out a way to manage it financially, but the truth is that I can't quite imagine life without my work. While I've yet to enjoy the fruits of a lucky monetary investment, I have been lucky in how I've invested my time, which has allowed me the great privilege of living a life of purpose, which, at the end of the day is indistinguishable from a life of pleasure. I'm lucky because as many of my peers are just now getting to the part of our lives we set aside for pleasure, I'm decades ahead of them. 

Aristotle believed that our highest calling was for each of us to find our true path in life and that the way to discover that was through the answer to the question "What gives you pleasure?" By that, he proposed that we seek out and embrace those things that we do without prompting, effortlessly. In fact, the Ancient Greek word for leisure, skhole, is the root of our English word for school. That's right, at the roots of Western civilization lies the transformative idea that school should be a place of leisure, a time to discuss and study, not what others assign you, but rather according to what gives you pleasure. And through that, we discover what it is that makes us come alive.

As the novelist Samuel Butler put it in his masterpiece The Way of All Flesh: "Pleasure, after all, is a safer guide than either right or duty. For hard as it is to know what gives us pleasure, right and duty are often still harder to distinguish and, if we go wrong with them, will lead us into just as sorry a plight as a mistaken opinion concerning pleasure. When men burn their fingers through following after pleasure they find out their mistake and get to see where they have gone wrong more easily than when they have burnt them through following after a fancied duty, or a fancied idea concerning right virtue. The devil, in fact, when he dresses himself in angel's clothes, can only be detected by experts of exceptional skill, and so often does he adopt this disguise that it is hardly safe to be seen talking to an angel at all and prudent people will follow after pleasure as a more homely but more respectable and on the whole much more trustworthy guide."

As a society, we hardly begrudge a retired person their leisure. After all, they've earned the right to it after a life at the grindstone, but there is a tinge of sorrow in it for me that so many of us arrive at that point having never known what it means to have lived a life of purpose. From a very young age, we are taught that the grindstone is our duty. To pursue pleasure, we're told, is selfishness, best confined to weekends and holidays. Many of us even define pleasure as a kind of sin against both man and nature. We're all too eager to subject even our preschoolers to the toil, and it is always toil when we are compelled to do things we'd rather not.

The argument, of course, is that if we allow children to live lives of leisure, they will simply squander their youth on television, social media, and video games. And despite the big talk about painting and golf and gardening, that's where so many of my retired peers wind up. And no wonder: when you've never had the choice, when leisure has always been the forbidden fruit, it's only natural, when finally "free," to gorge yourself. This is especially true for children, who are rarely allowed to forget that all too soon they will be forced back to their duty, back to virtue, and that their pleasure, if not brought to an end, will ruin them.

When we allow young children their leisure to play, however, we seen natural humans discovering purpose through the pursuit of pleasure. Unlike my retired peers, however, or any adult on holiday for that matter, the children's pleasure is not mere rest, escape, and irresponsibility, but rather curiosity and passion. That is the what Aristotle means by the question, "What gives you pleasure?" I don't need to pose it to the children, however, because without the impending and onerous threat of duty to the grindstone, or adherence to some code of virtue, leisure leads inevitably to discussion and study, to learning and action. This is the only way to discover our own unique path in life, that thing that elevates us beyond mere responsibility, to a life of purpose. Of course, I don't expect for preschoolers, through their play, to find their life's work, but I do hope that they learn what it means to come alive and that is exactly what the world needs: people who know how to come alive.

If you ask any elected official or policy maker a question about education, they will always connect it to the economy. "We must get the children ready for the jobs of tomorrow!" "We must out-educate the Chinese!" But they are not alone. Too many of us have likewise bought into this devil dressed as an angel.

I've spent my adult life as a play-based educator and as such I've spent much of my time defending what I know is right from these devils clothed in duty and virtue. Many accuse me of spoiling or ruining the children. Some have even declared that I'm the "problem with America." Through this blog, public speaking, courses, and other endeavors, I've attempted to give them a view from within our bubble, and perhaps some progress has been made. For instance, most reasonable people will today agree that preschoolers should be playing, although it all too often morphs into duty as they take up our words and twist them into "play with a purpose" or "teachable moments" or simply deploying the promise of play as a trick to turn their attention back toward duty and virtue.

Author and educator, John Holt described it like this: "One reason the walled garden of childhood does not work very well is that the people who build and maintain it cannot stay in it. This very often leads them to resent the children for whose sake the garden was built. How many times must adults, comparing the lives of their children and themselves, think bitterly, "Why should they have it so easy when I have it so tough?" Often they say it out loud. It leads to this, that the people who built the garden to protect the children from the harsh reality outside begin in the name of that same harsh realty to put weeds, and stones, and broken glass, and barbed wire into the garden. "They'd better learn," they say furiously, "what the world out there is really like."

This is the natural response of someone who has never been allowed the leisure to discover what it means to live a life of purpose. This is why Samuel Butler dared not publish his greatest novel during his own lifetime.

The biggest challenge faced by so many of my retired peers, from my perspective, is that they don't know what to do with a life that is suddenly free from the "harsh reality" of duty. They are suddenly confronted with the biggest question of all, the very one that preschoolers at play are always in the process of answering: Who am I going to be? It's a disconcerting thing, I imagine, to have lived most of your life only to find that without duty and virtue to hold them back, with the freedom to be anything, they simply don't know who they are. I can't tell you how many of my retired peers have resorted to working part time as cashiers and waiters, not for the money, but simply to feel that their life still has meaning.

As publisher and philosopher Antonia Case writes in her book Flourish (a deep exploration of what it means to live a life of purpose), "We are so governed by our minds that we can fool ourselves into believing that self-change comes from thinking about it . . . We fool ourselves into thinking that we just need a little time, some space, and then, once all the receptors are open, the voice within will tell us the way . . . But this is not how self-change happens. Your footsteps are the road and nothing more."

This is what we were born to do: for each of us to find our purpose and it is never discovered through duty or virtue. Indeed, duty and virtue are the very things that prevent us from enjoying the leisure that we need in order to discover what gives us pleasure (as opposed to escape), and is the ultimate guide to discovering, at any stage of life, what makes us come alive.

I dream of a day when we all understand that this is what it means to be educated.


 This is your last chance to join the 2024 cohort for Teacher Tom's Play-Based Learning, a 6-week foundational course on my popular play-based pedagogy, designed for early childhood educators, childcare providers, parents and grandparents. It's a particularly powerful course to take with your entire team. I can't wait to share it with you! For more information and to register, click here

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