A few months ago, when it was a pleasure rather than sheer torture to sit basking in the Delhi afternoon sun, I had lunch at a friend’s farmhouse. The lawns looked lovely, the fuchsia was in full bloom, and the kebabs and beer were going down a treat. There was a sharpish nip in the air if you stayed in the shade. But out in the open, with the heat of the sun on the top of your head, it was heavenly.
But most of the women stayed huddled in the shade, hiding behind factor 40 sunscreen and outsize sunglasses. Perhaps they were wary of sunburn or afraid of skin cancer – or a bit of both. But either way, there was no way they could be coaxed out into the open.
Finally, as the sun began to dip towards the horizon, one of them took her courage into her hands and stepped into the sunlight. In answer to the reproachful looks cast at her, she laughed nervously: “I need to get my Vitamin D fix for my bones, you know.” In that instant, all that was wrong with our modern mind-sets became searingly clear to me.
We can no longer admit to doing something simply because we want to and because it brings us pleasure. No, everything needs to have a purpose, it must do us some good, it must be a virtuous choice that will improve our life in some tangible way.
So, you could not possibly venture out into the sun simply because you like the feel of its warmth on your cheeks. The only valid reason to do so is that your body needs Vitamin D to strengthen your bones. And to produce Vitamin D you need to expose your body to direct sunlight. So, if you don’t want to get osteoporosis in old age (or even in middle-age) then you must spend some time in the sun.
Clearly, we are no longer comfortable doing anything unless we can take all the joy out of it, turning it into yet another cheerless chore among the countless others that make up our maddeningly busy lives.But while this epiphany struck only on that winter afternoon, this realisation had been hovering at the edge of my consciousness for quite some time now.
A few years ago, when I began taking French classes in the evening, nobody I knew could understand why. What good could learning French possibly do, given that I was editing the features section of a English-language newspaper? How would it improve my life? What was the point of spending my evenings learning a new language when I could be working out/going out with my friends/watching TV?
The same questions cropped up when I began studying Italian soon after. Why Italian? It wasn’t even spoken anywhere in the world apart from Italy. Why not study Spanish which was spoken in so many countries in South America as well? Was I planning to study opera? Er, no. Did I plan to go live in Italy? Not a chance. So why Italian?
I tried long and hard to explain that I studied these languages because I had always wanted to; because I loved the way they sounded; because learning to speak them brought me pleasure. But the only person who seemed to understand was my Italian teacher as she worked her way through the class asking why we were studying the language. When I answered hesitantly, “Perche mi piace” – which translates, quite literally, as ‘because it pleases me’ – she nodded gravely as if it made perfect sense.
Which, when you think about it, is perfectly right. After all, what better reason could there be for doing something other than the fact that it gives you pleasure? And yet, that is the one reason that we are most loath to offer for any of our actions or choices.
At a dinner party, people will ask for a glass of red wine while virtuously pointing out that it is good for your cardio-vascular health to have a couple of glasses every day. What about the fact that sometimes it just feels good to have a glass of red at the end of a long day? That it tastes nice, relaxes you and goes perfectly with the lamb chops? Oh no, that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with it. It’s those lovely little anti-oxidants that are so good for your heart that we are after.
Reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall late into the night? Could it be because Mantel tells a cracking good story and the book is hard to put down once you’ve started? Perish the thought. You are just trying to keep abreast of popular culture by reading the book that won the Man Booker prize.
Booking yourself in for a pedicure? Could it be because it feels great to have your feet pumiced and pummelled into shape and then slathered with luxurious cream? Oh no, it’s just that you need to be well-groomed for that business meeting, you understand?
And thus the excuses roll on. But seriously, why do we bother? What is so awful about admitting that we do something because we like it, it makes us happy, it brings us joy. What could be a better reason for doing something than that it simply pleases us?
- Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami.