A few words on candy and bread

 

            Not that I’m particularly proud of this fact, but I’m fairly sure that my growing up on a diet of Twinkies and Coke has just about ruined any chance I have of appreciating foods with any sense of discrimination.  I have an aunt who is a professional chef and who is aghast whenever she witnesses my inability to enjoy her time-consuming creations any more than I do a box of Little Debbie Marshmallow Supremes.  I tell myself that someday, when I have the time, I will learn to cook with some measure of sophistication and pull myself from the world of simplistic foods to the world of a better palate.  But for now, though I realize this inability of mine, it does not overly concern me but rather puts me in the mind of considering a more general rule of life.  That is this: we are sensitive creatures but our sensitivities are such that if they are overtaxed with our constant attempts to excite them, they can be dulled into non-existence.  This is all the more likely in a society such as ours where we have both the wealth to accomplish such overbearing and individuals who are economically motivated to enable such activity (like the good people at Little Debbie Incorporated).

            I don’t know if this analogy is clear, so let me try to make it plain.  In nearly every aspect of life, there is candy and there is bread.  The pleasure of candy is easy and immediate.  It is a hit and a high.  Enjoyment requires nothing more than the mere time and effort of consumption.  And access is cheap.  The pleasure of bread is just about opposite.  It is subtle and sublime and as such requires patience and a quietude of mind.  It is not obvious or immediate and so its appreciation often requires time and guidance.

            One would think this would be a natural goal of education, but it is not easy.  You cannot enjoy Shakespeare if you are focused on grades and course credit.  Nor can you enjoy it if you are trying to “get it” and be done with it or are reading so that you can somehow “get cultured.”  You can only appreciate it if you unselfconsciously immerse yourself in the language and the literature and stay there until you feel at home in it.  The same can be said of Dvorak and Darwin, Riccardo and Rodin.  Any subject that has stood through time and cultural shifts is likely to be bread, but because it requires a learned taste, most who are looking for immediate gratification dismiss it and never see its value.

            But as Bentham said, pushpins or poetry.  Why does it matter which sort of pleasure we take part in, candy or bread?  Well, the difference is that one of them has a catch.  With candy, the hills of pleasure create the valleys of its absence.  In sum, you accomplish nothing.  There is no lack of psychological research showing that exotic vacations, fine dining, and expensive gifts given to yourself are more than countered by the emptiness created when you return home, are back to Wednesday taco night, and your purchases become just more stuff you own.  And the more you struggle to make the hills higher and more frequent, equally lower and more frequent become the valleys.

            The pleasure of bread is qualitatively different. It is not concerned with collection or consumption; the pleasure is inherent in the qualities of the activity itself.  You cannot lose anything because there is nothing to gain in the first place.  You can no more “get it” than you can grab a fistful of water.  For this reason, bread is free from the oscillating topology of candy.  It is there, quiet and subtle, but stable.

            Pairs of these are not too difficult to find.  Creating art which achieves praise and acclaim, that is candy.  Creating art that is an accurate manifestation of part of yourself, that is bread.  In athletics, winning is candy.  Using sports as a medium for the development and expression of physical talents, that is bread.  A friendship in which the other person does what you want them to, that is candy.  When the company of a friend is enough in itself, that is bread.  Acquisition, attainment, accomplishment: these are the bywords of candy.  Awareness is alone central to bread.

            Beyond these individually, there can be seen a bread to life itself.  That you are now in that small fraction of time when you are present rather than absent, that you are in possession and control of the extraordinary machine of your body, that you are in constant contact with a rich environment through the amazing apparati of your senses: these are all pleasures that require nothing more than your awareness of them.  This most sublime and subtle pleasure, that of simply being alive, is what I believe is pointed to by eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism.  It is no small feat, for it is a polar opposite to how most of us exist.  But it is possible and, in this world, there is nothing more for which you can ask.