The Ecstasy of Ahh
I have intimately known many of life’s pleasures. But as time goes on, I marvel at the one pleasure that hides in plain sight, and waits poised beneath every stress, every problem, illness, fret, disaster. Indeed, it couldn’t exist without them.
For one of life’s greatest pleasures is relief. Defined as “The release from or easing of a burden or distress, such as pain, anxiety, or oppression,” it can bring remarkable pleasure and even joy.
Comedian Buddy Hackett once told the story of entering the military as a young man. “Within a few days, I knew from the strange sensation in my chest that I was dying. I visited the medic, and he realized the fear that gripped me was due to the sudden absence of the heartburn I’d always had from my mother’s cooking.”
Another standup comic once said it in a different way:
“I’ve been blissed out on great drugs; jumped out of airplanes and risked my life climbing mountains; I’ve stood before huge audiences and entertained them. But let me tell ya, the feeling of finally extricating myself from a bad relationship is unbeatable!”
Maybe he was trying to be funny, but who has ever left a bad marriage and has not eventually felt the thrill of relief?
And when I think about my own life’s moments of joy, they’ve mostly been about this ecstasy of ahh. The moment my new girlfriend Nancy walked into my living room when I was 17 and my whole body relaxed and warmed (and I hadn’t even known how tight and cold it had been) for that room had been devoid of female energy ever since my mom had died two years before. The phone call I got in ‘74 from the passenger who had interviewed me, to tell me I was hired and could quit driving a cab. When once a long-overdue and desperately needed check arrived. When Shelley and I realized her ex wasn’t showing up in court to press his suit against her. Whenever the Yom Kippur fast finally ends.
Or the day the sun finally comes and melts the rest of winter. Or when a thunderstorm snaps a heat spell. Or when I’ve awoken in a cold sweat and realized it was all just a dream. The time the cop let me go; or the time I finally let go of a grudge. When the Vicodin kicked in after the surgery; or when a good joke broke the tension in the room.
Relief is usually a great…relief.
I remember a daylong marathon group therapy encounter once in the early 70s with Joe, my therapist at the time. I’d been through the wringer romantically and spiritually for years and was at a true low point in my life. I felt depleted, starved for nurturing and longed just to be taken care of a little while. Joe had me go around the room and approach each person and ask, “Will you take care of me?” They all politely declined. The last person for me to ask was Joe himself. When I did, he pulled me to him in a warm embrace, and I immediately broke down into the deepest sobbing of my life, and stayed there, held in his arms and crying like a baby for the longest time, discharging years of accumulated sorrow and hardship and unmet needs. It was then I knew the ecstasy of relief, and how enormously healing it could be.
And the work I do now with clients often entails opening wide enough to receive them completely and without judgment, and embrace them in my heart, often resulting for them in the great relief of simply being heard and gotten.
So all this leaves me wondering about the nature of pleasure and pain. For example, are the words most certain to bring a tear of joy, the ones you most wish to hear in life, are they words like, “I love you”? Or words like, “It’s benign”?
Are they,”You’ve won the lottery”, or “We’ve found your child, and he’s ok” ?
I suspect they would be the latter.
But relief can only be as good as the bad was bad. Removing the thorn from your side can only feel as wonderful as the thorn was not. It can be a sobering realization that life from this perspective can appear to be little more than an endless building up and releasing of tensions and stresses of one kind or another.
And speaking of life, let me end by relating something the American spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said. He had asked an entity that someone was channeling (hey, I’m just reporting here) about what dying was like.
“Dying”, the entity said, “is like taking off an old shoe.”
So perhaps the one thing many of us fear the most in life – its end — will also come as a great relief.