Two flies cuddled on the tip of the overhead lamp in my bedroom. As the baby nursed and I slowly rose out of the fuddlement of sleep, I gazed up at the flies and felt a strange tenderness and pity. It would have been a prime opportunity to swat them dead and get rid of two of the numerous bugs that are gathering in the house; but I just stared and thought about what it’s like to be a fly.
I know they are driven by evolutionary impulses to do the disgusting things that are specific to flies. They are also driven to do the things that all living creatures do: They feel, without understanding, that they must mate; they feel that they must eat; and they feel that they must sleep. I am sure that, when they don’t or can’t do these things, they feel pain or discomfort. Pain is what nature uses as a motivator to keep creatures alive.
We are prey to this phenomenon, too: We are pushed by hunger, thirst, fear, pain, sexual desire, and weariness to do the things we must do to survive as individuals and as a species. But there is another side to it, once the evolutionary discomfort has been alleviated: We are also rewarded with pleasure when we do the thing we were driven to do. Eating food doesn’t just make hunger cease; it also gives us pleasure during and after the meal. Fear makes us run from a dangerous situation, but once we are safe, we don’t simply experience a return to a neutral emotional state. Instead, we are flooded with an intensely pleasurable sense of relief. And so on. Pain motivates us, and pleasure rewards us.
Pleasure is an evolutionary motivator, too, of course. If all you believe in is evolution, you could make the case that we need rewards to keep us going. That “all’s right with the world” feeling you feel after making love? That’s nothing more than a cocktail of brain chemicals and hormones we’ve developed over eons to ensure the propagation of offspring. You could make that case.
I don’t believe it’s so. I believe that pleasure, satisfaction, contentment, triumph, and relief are pure gifts given to us by a God who loves us and who loves it when we are happy doing the things we are supposed to do. I believe that the ability to ponder these things is a gift upon that gift.
God could have made us so that pain and fear, hunger and panic were sufficiently motivating to keep us alive. He could have made us any way at all. He could have made the world black and white instead of shimmering with quadrillions of colours. He could have made us deaf or blind, and capable of getting through life with our other senses. He could have made us so we never wonder about these things, never look for deeper meaning, never stop and stare and feel and think and enjoy and understand and know.
Instead, he gave us every good thing, along with allowing the bad.
We always ask why there has to be pain in the world, but how often do we ask why there is pleasure? The sleeping fly will wake with a start and buzz off to another day of his meaningless life, driven by impulses, unaware that he is even alive, until one day he suddenly dies.
But I wake up, I stretch comfortably, I yawn deliciously, I feel my limbs restored from the exhaustion and stiffness of last night. I ruminate over the dreams I had. I consider how morning light is different from evening light, and I wonder where, exactly, that pale lavender colour on the walls exists. Is it in the paint, or in my eyes, or in my brain, or what? How full the room is – how packed down, firmly shaken, overflowing with ideas and wonders and good things it is, and I have only just woken up. I am alive, and I am glad.
If we look for it, so much of life is “a good portion – packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing” that falls right into our laps. (Luke 6:38) Thanks be to God. It didn’t have to be that way, but it is.