Voices April 25, 2018
Bigger not better in revival of childhood pleasures
Is there wisdom in turning to comfort food? Surely it can be an effective part of a healthy response to pain or sorrow.
For example, giving someone a gift of nice food can be a real godsend, especially when they are grieving. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely considers such remedies for sorrow in his theology textbook, the Summa Theologiae (I-II, q.38).
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had observed that sorrow is counteracted by any intense contrary pleasure. Aquinas notices further that true pleasure is caused when our whirling desires find their rest in a suitable good. So what suits us best in our sorrows?
Well, do you remember eating Wagon Wheel cookies as a child? If so, you probably remember delighting in their combination of chocolate, biscuit, and marshmallow.
Yet many people report being dissatisfied when they attempt to revisit such a deliciously happy memory. Now that they are adults, the cookies seem smaller to them.
Grasping that special snack with the small hands of a child, it seemed so much bigger than all other cookies. Yet to an adult, it no longer appears to be as big as the wheel of a stagecoach.
Did the “Wagon Wheel” cookie really change size?
Did the Wagon Wheel cookie really change size in the intervening years? Or did your perception of the world change?
Maybe cookies really have gotten smaller. But then is it an effective remedy to eat more of them?
Sometimes bigger is not better. Take the example of streaming television on the Internet. A few companies like Amazon and Netflix have massive amounts of cash to spend, thanks to their success in technological innovation.
Lost in Space is the latest big-budget television event from Netflix, which has invested a lot of money in original content to woo subscribers. Lost in Space takes an old television show and reimagines it in an expensive new way, with a quirky female villain and a redesigned robot.
If you watch the new Lost in Space, you will see how Netflix spared no expense. But as with much of streaming television today, there is a noticeable bloat accompanying such lack of restraint.
Do the episodes really need to be an hour long? The pacing would improve if they edited them down to forty minutes. Yet who can blame the creators for not wanting to cut scenes they spent so much money on?
Imagine if you too had billions of dollars...
Imagine if you too had billions of dollars. You would order a custom-made cookie that really was the size of a horse and buggy’s wagon wheel, simply because you could.
That’s the situation these Internet technology companies find themselves in. They are able to create so much gigantic content, and we are able to consume it in enormous quantities.
But Aquinas noticed that multiplying small pleasures is not going to be a sufficient remedy for sorrow. Tears and groans are also a natural way to cope with sadness.
Maybe that’s why a 10-hour binge of Lost in Space is not going to work any more than a cookie enlarged to ten times its size will. What naturally fits best is what our nature demands, which may simply be a good cry.
Yet friendship is even more suited to human nature. Thus, Aquinas also notes that pain and sorrow are soothed by the sympathy of friends. He paraphrases Aristotle’s discussion of how the sympathy of a friend brings consolation, giving two reasons.
“Since sorrow has a depressing effect, it is like a weight”—Aquinas
First, “since sorrow has a depressing effect, it is like a weight whereof we strive to unburden ourselves, so that when a man sees others saddened by his own sorrow, it seems as though others were bearing the burden with him, striving, as it were, to lessen its weight,” says Aquinas, “wherefore the load of sorrow becomes lighter for him, something like what occurs in the carrying of bodily burdens.”
“The second and better reason,” notes Aquinas, “is because when a man’s friends sorrow with him, he sees that he is loved by them, and this affords him pleasure.” And this is a humane pleasure most suitable to human nature.
Aquinas also finds a most suitable consolation in the contemplation of truth and divine wisdom. This satisfies our mind, and yet Aquinas does not forget we have bodies too: he concludes with Saint Augustine’s recommendation that we have a good sleep and take a nice bath.
Augustine himself quotes the magnificent words of the hymn of his friend Saint Ambrose: quies artus solutos reddit laboris usui, mentesque fessas allevat, luctusque solvit anxios (“Sleep restores the tired limbs to labour, refreshes the weary mind, and banishes sorrow”).