Story by Zoe Yu Gilligan
Illustration by Catherine McMahon
Why is pleasure so synonymous with pain? Sex, love, art. A gun to a rose. Hedonism is defined as, “The ethical theory that pleasure—in the sense of the satisfaction of desires—is the highest good and proper aim of human life.” Youth, then, can be seen as an embodiment of hedonism. In my youth, there is a restlessness that often pushes me over the edge, from deprivation to over-indulgence, and somehow always finds me screaming into a pillow at night. It seems to forsake the idea of everything in moderation as well. (Sorry, mom.) Being young and restless means sometimes just having to throw out self-temperance with the latest soured man. Men and moderation have recurring expiration dates in my life. Excess, indulgence, gluttony. Everything related to pleasure is included in the definition of hedonism except for pain. Yet surely it is known that the pursuit of hedonism is the pursuit of pain; pain and pleasure are one in the same.
Thinking across the sex-love-art spectrums, from my own ancestors’ erotic but painful practices, like foot-binding, to things like unrequited love, Gaspar Noé’s films, and Nobuyoshi Araki’s photography, there is a special kind of feeling evoked when pain is found in pleasure. Beyond my youth and restlessness, and just as a human, then, am I both equally pleasure and pain? Is it patriarchy or are we doomed? Cursed as humans to exist forever in binaries? Good and evil, sun and moon, black and white, “man” and “woman”. It is all just so…relative. Not only do both of each set—even that word, set—exist in all of us, but there are stars and other planets and shades of gray and so many more colors and genders. It’s as if we are unable to move past the fact that 1+1=2, when the number 3 and infinity exceed them both anyways.
There’s this saying which essentially states misery as being vital to life in order for happiness to be known, to exist. So is it a coping mechanism or a twisted facet of human nature to find grams of pleasure in ounces of pain. Certain kinds of pain can be intriguing and exciting, even sexy, but where is the line drawn?
This reminds me of Lana Del Rey circa 2012, the woman who diagnosed America with depression, and her toxic cliche of falling in love with her own sadness, relishing in the comfort of melancholy’s constancy and the purpose it gives you (in being purposeless, I suppose). When many of us were too young to care for white man nihilistic literature—not that age has really made a huge difference in my caring—we had Lana Del Rey push us to ponder life’s futility while bathing in a Lush bath bomb of sadness after shopping at American Apparel. She perhaps was the most vital pioneer of Pain-Pleasure Fusion (my favorite cocktail) amidst the digital frontier of Tumblr, We Heart It, and Instagram. Where would sad music be today without her? What would exist in the absence of wanting to go on coke binges and sleep with older men?
This journal entry is not about Lana Del Rey, though. It is about the synonymic relationship of pain and pleasure. We see this relationship in the BDSM community, which is everything fun and thrilling, but has its own run-ins with slandering when it comes to the boundaries of pain and consent. We see this with people who don’t know how to say no, who continually tolerate bad friends—Stockholm Syndrome or just a lack of sound judgement?—and take back shitty exes and purposely put themselves in such perilous situations, only to bitch about them later, making for a seemingly endless cycle of contradictions and toxicity. (Is there some deep-seeded satisfaction to be found in condemning oneself to being played, back-stabbed, and dumped over and over again?) We also witness this in people who simply seek pain in order to feel something. To feel something when always being numb is quite satisfying, just as how the pain that comes with numbing the pre-existing pain is satisfying too. Feeling too much or feeling nothing at all: both extremes hold great deals of ache and thrill. For the restless, it is difficult not only to sit still, but to sit still in the middle, the moderated. When I lay in this middle, itching to feel more than a subdued balance, I convince myself that pleasure, to its full extent, is worth any anguish necessary in escaping the tamed. At times, it is even difficult to distinguish one from the other, pleasure and anguish, when they’re each in their climaxes.
In defense of pleasurable-pain, I indulge in it because I am restless, reckless, and young, with my Mars in Scorpio. I like to feel things. All things. I take pleasure in the feeling of being alive because I have flirted with Death before and to be robbed of all feelings—even the feeling of numbness itself—is a damn sin. Pain is almost always unbearable, but co-opting it into an outlet of pleasure can be a great coping mechanism for those who are accustomed to feeling everything at once or nothing at all. Boundaries ought to be in place and lines should be drawn when it comes down to it, but life being the tragically beautiful horror-comedy it is, this isn’t always the case.
Pain warrants perspective. We do not always have to reject pain because there can be value in what we decide to make of it. We learn and grow stronger from not rejecting it. Accepting pain is only the first step; the important part is what you do about it once you’ve accepted it. To feel pain wholly and utterly in this acceptance implies a special kind of strength. It implies a deep understanding of pain’s mechanics—that we must dive deep into its belly before tearing through it to resurge into the light again. Not everyone is able to do this, though, primarily because of systemic obstacles barring them. The true tragedy in this is that stifling pain in turn stifles the potential for joy; being unable to probe the depths of pain negates experiencing the full culmination of joy. The more we know pain, the more we know happiness. It is a privilege to feel so profoundly when many people simply cannot or have not been allowed to feel at all.
Growth, for those of us living in Western societies who have yet to achieve our own personal enlightenments, seems to stem from experiences in the extremities and rarely from the balanced-middle. Perhaps because of who I am and the current place I’m in—the balanced-middle, actually—I cannot help but find the notion of supernovae, stars that burn brightly but shortly as a result of self-explosions releasing their masses, to be pretty romantic. To burn brightly, even if shortly, then to go out with a big bang. A big bang of one’s own. Painful, probably, but also delightful. Of course, this is my restlessness seeking to throw things out of balance for me because who knew chaos to be comforting and peace to be a bit stifling? One moment outside of the balanced-middle, though, and I’ll be yearning for it all over again (Moon in Libra, anyone?). Nonetheless, I am grateful to be where I am. It is untroubled and my skin is clearing up, but sometimes I am trouble and I just need to scream and implode and dance until sunrise for three nights in a row.
The balanced-middle is a state everyone should be able to easily attain in an ideal world. Sometimes it is as though the extremities of feelings are on a seesaw and weigh ten thousand pounds each. Many people are born onto ends of the seesaw; some find themselves on opposite ends because of their respective life experiences, and some find themselves on the middle part, balanced between the feelings, almost existing outside of the binary. Perhaps that is why many balanced-middle people are unaffected by visceral feelings, pain. Or maybe they’re hiding just how affected they are, how they seesaw like the rest of us, or maybe they’re just dead on the inside.
It is better to feel too much than nothing at all. To be too much rather than nothing. To be alive than just be a walking dead. Am I not currently in the balanced-middle and proclaiming that everyone should be able to easily access this state, though? I’m a pretty paradoxical lady. Being on both ends of the seesaw and trying to balance them are only natural. Many pains are unnecessary and should never be known to people, but sometimes it is difficult to remain in the middle when all that one has known are on polar ends of the seesaw. And so upon returning to either of them, it is comforting, even pleasurable.
Pain is urgent, pressing, burning. It is not beautiful, but what can be made of it has the possibility to be. Like art. Pain is a risk, the price for pleasure, but sometimes expired men and soft-serve ice cream can be worth it. (I am young, so I can still convince myself of this, though we all know that this is not true—their temporary pleasures are not worth the pain. I am also lactose intolerant, if you are wondering.) Taking pleasure in pain is grotesque and fascinating. Were we born to do so, or were we just made able to do so through life experiences? Is it merely a coping mechanism for understanding and undergoing pain? Pleasure in pain is vital to the human-condition, to being alive. We all have Lilith in us. Why be ashamed when we are human? We are dressed up animals. We are heavy and part darkness. We are not just one thing. Some guns, some roses, some supernovae. We fire and we fall and we burn. Are we really made from stardust? Or is that just a poetic notion we choose to believe. Gunpowder, rose petals, supernovae remnants: this is what constitutes the fibers and flesh of my body. I will soar free and I will feel alive.
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