The moment the smell of freshly brewed coffee fills my nose and its warmth my body, is the moment I know all is well in the world. Every morning this moment offers a caffeinated liberation. The to-do list of the day does not matter for the 10 minutes it takes to drink my coffee. All that matters in the world during these precious and certainly treasured moments is that my coffee is hot. The pleasure is unparalleled. Both the taste and smell offer me my a sweet consolation that only one’s favorite things can provide. But even more so, it is the pleasure that comes from the very fact that nothing else in the world matters. It is my coffee and me. That is it.
The worst part is then when the day starts. When I have to emerge from my dorm room into the world where responsibility and obligations ensue. As I go on with my day, I still treasure that moment in the morning: when all that mattered was my coffee and me. Inevitably so, it then dawns on me, why cannot every moment be like the morning coffee? Why can’t every moment be lived solely in the present and experienced in all the goodness and pleasure it has to offer? How awesome would my life be if I could live it like this, seeking the pleasure in the moment?
As great as this sounds, I also realized really fast it is just not a reality. On an everyday level, I think of the things I must do that I actually don’t receive this immediate pleasure from: cleaning my dorm room, folding laundry, schoolwork. But, I continue to do these things and actually value doing them. But even on a more metaphysical level, this also is just not a reality. I am not just a pleasure seeking animal. I don’t just do the above laborious (and boring) tasks for no reason. I rationally decide to study seeing the long term goal of my degree and a job I enjoy. I don’t just exist in the present moment. Or else, I wouldn’t continue to do my homework. So, there must be something that goes beyond the present and allows that to be a factor in my decisions and lifestyle. This is what the philosophers call the soul.
The soul is that immaterial and crazy mysterious principle that animates the body. My soul is certainly part of me by virtue of the fact that I am a human person. As much as I would love to isolate my flesh from my soul, it cannot be done. On account of a movement in my soul to the act, I can experience pleasure. The two are interwoven in such intimate unity. This may seem irrelevant, but when it comes to me acting the effects are paramount. When I act, I can’t act apart from my person. I am a person so I act as a person. Therefore, when I act, I cannot act just for this pure pleasure. My desire for all of my actions to have that simple pleasure that my morning coffee does is not ever going to happen.
If my desire for simple pleasure in all my actions is really a frustrated project, then why do we think that sex is some rare exception? I get it, what physical pleasure is greater than that in sex? But, this pleasure is not an isolated instance. It is part of a personal act, an act that involves the whole person. The soul? Well, of course! The deepest act of love you can participate in better have some activity in the soul where all that love is coming from. The body? I know you may be thinking “well of course sex involves the body.” But, it is the whole body, reproductive organs included. And so too the inevitable function of the reproductive organs are indeed part of the personal nature of sex.
And suddenly, everything gets hard. Careless fun turns quickly turns into new commitment. The reality of the responsibility of a child is gifted (even though it often seems burdened) to the lovers. And my aspiration for a lifestyle like that of my morning coffee bites the dust. But, is my hoped for ease and fulfillment simply left unfulfilled?
I don’t think so. Rather, there is even more joy to be found. Our soul, that principle which has access to eternal and immaterial (true) love, cannot act without the body in this life (1). To deny this unity is really then to deny yourself. So our options present themselves: to be utterly frustrated by the fact that our body seems to hinder the joy our soul can experience or to see the body as a way that allows us to experience new and greater joys. Ultimately, the question is are we made to experience any goodness at all or is everything just a series of unfortunate events? Our answer to this question answers how we respond to these acts, like sex, that open man up to experience his whole self in his gift of self.
The thing about personal acts is that it allows man to meet his heights and depths. Both sacrifice and joy are met here, not merely one or the other. When we claim our bodies as being an avenue for further joy, the responsibility is no longer merely a burden. Rather, we can experience new heights as our soul stretches out to new beings and ways of loving. What person is not in awe of parents holding their newborn child for the first time, the starstruck lovers committing to each other on their wedding day, or the elderly couple that gazes lovingly into each other’s eyes after decades of years? Sure, a parent could look at their child and feel burdened by the responsibilities of diaper changes, child rearing, and all else that is to come. Or the newly weds feel the weight of their promise in sickness and in health. Or the first time the old couple took each other as lovers could have been a remorse at the loss of one’s “freedom” and having to worry about the other from that moment on and their present gaze a simple regret. But, this analysis is one-sided. It only looks at what was lost while leaving what has been gained out of the picture. What is at stake here is more than being doomed to responsibility on account of our human nature. These are all the very occasions of new joy. The kind of joy that silences us in awe. This is the kind of joy that is promised to us when we accept the responsibility.
What I learned from my coffee is that my desire for all of my actions to be easy is stupid. Not all of my actions require a deep personal response, but some do. And for those acts (especially sex) the responsibility that is given is the very avenue for new and profound joy. These acts where my very personhood is at stake in the response are those that also give any new joy experienced to my whole person. Sure, this sometimes means accepting responsibilities that are not easy, but I think it is worth it. It is worth it to lose my false idea of a “good life” that is composed of painless pleasure. It is worth it to experience deeper joys than I ever could have imagined. It is worth it to be completely alive in oneself.
1) Petri, Thomas. Aquinas and the Theology of the Body: The Thomistic Foundations of John Paul II’s Anthropology, (204).