There’s No Such Thing as a Guilty Pleasure. Instead of Feeling Guilty, Let’s Love Things Even Harder
A society that tells you to feel rewarded by work and guilty about pleasure isn’t a society that cares about you. Read a book and ignore them.
By Melissa DeVrieze
Here are some things I hold to be true: “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips is an exquisite piece of music. Every Jean Claude Van Damme movie is worth twice the price of admission. Christopher Pike’s teen thriller novels of the 80s and 90s are positively peerless.
These are my “guilty pleasures,” of course—the things I am meant to love in private, admitting them only in hushed tones to my closest of confidantes. How am I supposed to sing along to “Hold On” at the appropriate volume (deafening) if I must keep it a secret from both my neighbors and my fellow motorists? Why should I lock myself up in these chains?
Depending on who you ask, humans feel guilty because:
- At some point in the past 55 million years, our hominid ancestors adopted a “safety in numbers” approach to survival, thus triggering the evolutionary development of social emotions;
- Someone ate an apple; or
- It turns out there are more theories about how and why we experience social emotions than I anticipated. Though gifted in some ways, I must admit, I’m ill-equipped to understand 95% of them. There also simply isn’t room to list those that don’t suit my purpose, so this list ends here.
Guilt serves a pro-social function. You SHOULD feel guilty if, for example, you withheld essential aid from a foreign ally until they agreed to be your political pawn. If you’ve done that, feel free to experience every second of guilt you’ve earned.
Similarly, if you’re withholding life-saving medical supplies from your country’s citizens because you don’t think they’ve been nice enough to you, go ahead and wallow in some guilt. Or, at the very least, get used to being referred to as “guilty.”
But what, precisely, is wrong with the rest of us? Why have we bought into the notion that our enjoyment merits guilt? Is it fair to feel this way inside? Emphatically, I say no. None of us should feel shame for indulging our (harmless, non-felonious) passions, or finding joy where we can (within the bounds of international law).
The mind needs rest, and not just any rest—it needs a break from problem-solving and a reprieve from stress. Haunted hotel notwithstanding, Jack Torrance in The Shining paints a not-inaccurate picture of the havoc “all work and no play” can wreak on the mind and body. Whether that havoc kills you, breaks you, or burns you out is down to the luck of the draw.
We’ve been conditioned to see work as a moral act and to dismiss pleasure as merely a vice. With due respect to Aesop, this is an absolute crock. “The Ant and the Grasshopper” only works as a moral tale when you omit key entomological facts. Here’s one: worker ants generally live no more than 3 years, while the queens they toil to feed can live for decades.
If words still have meaning, there’s nothing moral about that little fable. A moral retelling might see the colony overthrowing the queen and redistributing her food caches to the worker class, for example.
Quick recap: Guilt has a purpose. We should feel guilty when we commit crimes against humanity. We should not feel guilty about enjoying harmless things.
And that brings us back around (the long way) to the point: You are, right now, living through a once-in-a-century pandemic in a world where eight people (six of whom are American) have more combined wealth than 50% of the human race.
Many of us will spend every summer gathering food we’ll never eat, and some won’t see winter. Until then, baby, are you gonna let ‘em hold you down and make you cry?
Read whatever the hell you want. And when summer comes, dance.