We all struggle with it, at some level. No matter how much we tell ourselves that we are going to be diligent workers and focus on the task at hand, there remains the temptation to set aside our work and indulge in a more immediately rewarding activity: guilty pleasure. But there is something distinct about this kind of distraction that can make it all the more tantalizing. Now, guilty pleasure can be said in different ways. I’m not talking about the I-know-I’m-a-dude-but-I-really-like-Taylor-Swift’s-new-song guilty pleasure, but the I-have-a-lot-of-work-to-do-but-I-really-want-to-take-a-break-and-do-something-else-that-I-enjoy guilty pleasure. While petty and often mind-numbing distractions, such as surfing the web instead of the Summa or writing blog-posts instead of papers, provide little fulfillment, we tend to identify some of our guilty pleasures with activities that produce something more substantive, something like happiness.
Whether it entails running an extra mile or two, or baking a tray of cookies while avoiding other work, we still feel like we have accomplished something after we have engaged in these sorts of diversions. And yet, there remains that killjoy lurking in the shadows throughout these supposed moments of leisure. Even when we indulge ourselves with alternative activities, telling ourselves that a break from work is needed, that respite can prove to be more of a burden. Rather than re-energizing us for more focused and productive work, it often drains us of our motivation to accomplish the task at hand.
But, you might object, we can’t always be working! And you would be right. We are not robots, nor are we angels. We have physical bodies that get worn out and need to rest from time to time. However, when that break is ill-timed and becomes a source of distraction from the task at hand, the peaceful nature of that rest is destroyed as the disturbing annoyance of guilt sets in. Sure, I really feel refreshed after a chat with the brother down the hall, but I still have my reading to do and my paper won’t write itself on its own.
When I was in college, a few friends and I formed a group called the Guilty Pleasure Club, which we ironically formed for this express purpose. The group’s activities usually consisted in watching portions of a BBC miniseries in the midst of the semester, at which time we had papers and problem sets to complete or, at the very least, parties and mixers to attend. Such scandalous behavior was the basis for our identification of the group’s activity as guilty pleasure. Each time and often to our chagrin, the work we had put off prior to our activities was there to welcome us again. Especially if our sessions were ill-timed, we would find that our attempts to unwind and rejuvenate had only led to heightened pressure and perhaps panic, as we frantically tried to work up the motivation to complete our term-papers and problem sets.
While such activity may have been harmless in itself, or even good as a form of rest and relaxation, it did not produce much good fruit. The problem was that, while the substance of our activity was fine, typically the circumstances and sometimes even the intentions were not. Taking a few hours’ break in order to give our minds a chance to rest can be a good thing. However, it is no longer a good thing when that break occurs the night before a deadline and a significant portion of work remains undone. The problem was even more obvious when we meant only to put-off our work, rather than seek to rest for the sake of our work.
In these cases, what kept our guilty pleasure from being forms of peaceful leisure was our failure to organize our breaks so that they did not get in the way of our work. In a more Thomistic turn of phrase, we did not properly order our breaks to the proper ends; we needed rest in order to better accomplish our assignments, but instead we were taking breaks in order to avoid that work. As a result, instead of being able to fully enjoy our breaks, we noticed that these moments of respite were marred by the nagging sense that we should have been doing other work at those times. On the other hand, in the few cases we had successfully planned our meetings in actual moments of free time, we found that we much better enjoyed ourselves and felt more rejuvenated.
Ultimately, our final goal is the eternal rest and bliss of heaven, and so the consummate guilty pleasures are those that distract and lead us away from this end. As a result of our fallen natures, we unfortunately can delight in our sins, even though they entail separation from our true happiness. One of the challenges of the Christian life entails learning to deny ourselves these pleasures, not for the sake of mortification in itself, but for the sake of attaining the truest happiness. As such, we can turn to the right pleasures on earth, for our deepest satisfaction is found in activities that authentically build us up now and for the life to come. Though this final rest cannot be found in this life, we can enjoy rewarding peace when our much-needed breaks and pleasurable pursuits aim to help us achieve our final goal. In this way, our guilty pleasure can become peaceful leisure.
Image: Benjamin Constant, Contemplation