Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Unspoken Command to Enjoy

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

An often unspoken reason why people enter therapy is the desire to learn how to enjoy their lives again. Certainly the stated reason is to find a way of freeing themselves from fears or anxieties or depression or addictions. But behind it is the implicit wish to enjoy.
To enjoy what? To enjoy one’s life and the ordinary things that one does. To re-find an enjoyment in relationships. To experience again the enjoyment of taking on something new, going in a new direction, deciding on a new challenge. And yet to reach this goal can sometimes, but not always, be elusive and involve quite an amount of therapeutic work.
We live in a culture, by which I mean western culture generally, where there is an unspoken command to enjoy. In our contemporary society this finds its voice in various ways. People in shops say it to us when we buy a coffee, or in restaurants when our meal arrives, or when a friend gives us a gift, or when we are going on holiday or out for an evening. The images of success that are presented to us daily are of people who appear to know the secret of how to enjoy. Enjoy! It is a well-intentioned wish, a desire that we find pleasure in whatever it is we are doing.
But the opposite, as far as society is concerned, equally holds true. Our pathology, our un-wellness if you like, resides in not being able to enjoy. It is often revealed by this very lack because the flip side of not enjoying one’s life or one’s life experiences is the unavoidable conclusion that there must be something wrong. So enjoyment becomes a goal that we not only set for ourselves but one that is set for us by society at large. It can then become a burden, a seemingly unattainable state of mind that some can reach but not others. And that’s before we consider the realm of what psychoanalysis calls the ‘beyond of enjoyment’, the place of excess pleasure, the place where the illusory promise of final and total satisfaction leads us.
In the Victorian era, the dominant discourse was to Obey! We had to obey our leaders, religious and secular, our parents, our community and our elders. In the modern and post-modern eras, the dominant discourse is, yes, to Enjoy! And it is interesting how both seem to be communicated with that stern sense of doing what you are told because it is good for you. Many commentators point to the similarities between the consumerism of the present and organised religion of the past as an example of this shift.
All things being equal, the command to enjoy should be far easier to achieve than the command to obey. After all, one involves sacrifice and adherence to rules while the other does not. And, when all is said and done, the command to enjoy is more fun.
But at a time of great personal and civilian freedoms we often find, at least in the clinical setting, the ability to enjoy is diminished. And this might be in spite of living a life that, on the face of it, participates in varied pleasures and enjoyments. In reality some people live extraordinarily ‘fun’ lives as well as enjoying close personal, family and emotional relationships, a busy social schedule, a measure of success in their careers, good social skills and strong personal attributes. But while pleasure surrounds them, the ever elusive full enjoyment of, and complete satisfaction from, those pleasures is always just out of reach. Psychoanalytic psychotherapy has many theories as to why the notion of attaining full satisfaction, full enjoyment, is so problematic. Without going in too deeply, it offers a rounded sense of what it means to be human, in all its glories and failings, so that enjoyment has a context. Certainly it is attainable, in a personal and subjective sense, but when enjoyment is sought as the panacea for our failings, to fill up our sense of lack, it will always fail to give us what we ask of it.

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