A Pursuit of Pleasure: The 'Happily Ever After' We're Not Taught
By. Jessica Brauer
Upon my picture-perfect engagement, my grandmother gifted me a yellowed, decades worn booklet titled, "Now That You are to be Married…" Its Cupid embossed introduction reads, "With every good wish for your present and future happiness, we dedicate this booklet to your approaching nuptials, with the hope that you may 'live happily ever after.'"
Well, eight years after thumbing through the dusty guide to planning an event "of sufficient permanent important in your life," grandma's dead, and I'm divorced.
In accordance with the rules, I gilded my name, Prince Charming adjacent, on luxury stationery and calloused my ring-finger with the ever-coveted, luminous rock. Only a few years later I came violently crashing from my curated, quaint corner lot, watching everything I knew about living erupt into a thousand tiny pieces. My pride turned into a casualty that, turns out, was pertinent to finding myself.
Ego-bruised and unprepared, I was forced into writing a new story on my terms–a quest forged forward with zero help from a handy publication passed down from one pioneering, society-challenging woman to the next. Despite my attempts to control my image and integrity, sheer grief and exhaustion eventually led me down a soul-enriching, bed post-notching, cross-country pilgrimage dedicated to filling my life with choices in direct service to me. On the surface, what looked a lot like "living my best life" or this summer's viral "hot girl summer," was profoundly telling. My "do what I want, say what I want, ask for what I want" attitude, in an unexpected twist of fate, led me into the arms of the "happily ever after" they should be printing handbooks about: the romantic love story of my absolute and abiding commitment to me.
From early childhood, we are conditioned to feel shame in the pursuit of the desires that stimulate our minds and bodies. Gratification of the senses is indulgent; pleasure, in any of its forms, is sin; in sexuality, it's grounds for societal eradication and displacement from the warm embrace of the wondrous Kingdom of God. Women are mothers, wives, and sisters living in compassionate servitude to our people, honored for our commitment to looking, always first, to their needs. The men fight, fuck and rule the roost, while we squish girls into tight, tidy boxes built to quiet the minds, voices and desires that turn a good woman into a righteous handful for her man.
Whether in calories or climaxes, welcoming a life of what feels good is quickly tied to greed, narcissism, egocentrism, and self-indulgence. For fear of what the neighborhood will whisper, no woman dare stitch the bold-faced, capital P on her pleasure-seeking chest.
1 Timothy 5:6 But she that giveth herself to pleasure is dead while she liveth.
This verse speaks to what's deemed appropriate behavior of widows, appearing in variations throughout different versions of The Bible, all suggesting that a woman's responsibility lies first with her family, then with herself. It contrasts the pious widow with the uncontrolled, indulgent and sinful widow, referred to as the Greek spatalōsa, or "a widow who lives for pleasure." Our boy Paul the Apostle suggests these women must take control of their passions and root themselves in the family with particular attention to avoiding behaviors such as "moving from house to house."
Biblical suggestions aside, children are traditionally raised in an environment that aligns pleasure with guilt. As soon as we enter early schooling we’re taught the facts necessary to achieve our intellectual peak; we learn the functions of our body parts and how to effectively use, groom, and train them for success. Just as we reach the brink of puberty we dive into a quick and dirty lesson on what the hell is happening in our hormone-raged bodies with special attention spent on what we need to be extra careful to avoid.
Upon birth, we intuitively know with great clarity what we need and want. An infant knows when they feel hungry, sad, or scared. A toddler knows how to explore pleasure of the mind, body, and soul. They know when it's time to wiggle, rest, eat, laugh, cry, or dance without abandon. A kid can't keep their hands out of their damn pants because they don't yet have the societal rules telling them their curiosity and self-soothing is not what good boys and girls do.
Our education is constrained to textbooks, tests and painfully boring video clips, and leaves little, if any, space for the exploration of what we may actually feel and think and want. As zit-speckled teenagers we are flashed images of venereal diseases, crowning babies, and destitute, broken parents who made the wrong choice. Then as young adults, we have zero fundamental skills in exploring our totally natural sexuality without quickly associating it with deep shame.
We aren't asked what we feel about the facts of history, science, and literature that are taught to us, but instead demanded to regurgitate them with robotic accuracy alongside our peers. We don't explore the concept of passion and purpose, asking in what way do we actually desire to show up in our world around us. Instead, we pick titles–doctors, lawyers, mothers, servants of God–and follow the step-by-step curriculum to achieve the right to bare their restrictive yet coveted tag.
Then, finally, as adults, we foolishly allow ourselves to believe that we can strong-arm our way around our wants and feelings and needs.
My body wants to sleep, but I will make it work later.
My stomach is still hungry, but I will withhold food in hopes of beauty.
My soul wishes to create art, but I will convince it to make money.
My heart wants to feel more, but I will stay for fear of being alone.
Girls, specifically, are taught that their bodies are vessels of shame, meant to be small, kempt and meant for giving–giving of life, giving of pleasure, contorted to fit the needs of others, as The Bible suggests, in pursuit of true "life." These girls grow into women who aren't equipped to decipher whether the behaviors of others toward them are genuinely what they want. How many women have said "yes" to something and realized far too late that they didn't really want to say yes? How many women have realized after they let someone in their space, inside their pleasure-giving body, that they truly didn't want them there?
Girls are to be polite, kind, wholesome and tame. Good girls don't speak up when they're made uncomfortable. Good girls don't dare ask for what they desire.
I'm not a woman who holds much stock in The Bible's tips for living [though I can appreciate the body of work], and I've spent the better part of my twenties working in direct opposition of its instruction. You could say my body is less of a temple and more of a graffiti-veiled train car roaring across the country, disruptively winding through the interesting parts of town. What I do know is that it took the better part of 30 years and uncountable missteps for me to recognize that my pursuit of an authentic, beautiful life comes with one, so simple, entirely stigmatized and unpopular rule of living, which also happens to be precisely what The Bible, my upbringing, and societal conditioning taught me was not true:
I deserve a life abundant in boundless, bone-shaking, soul-igniting pleasure. And it's my sole responsibility to gift it to myself.
Our minds quickly enter the sexual space when the word pleasure is on the table. Sexual satisfaction is an important, and perhaps foundational, piece of the puzzle, though true stimulation of the senses is not a gift only achieved in the sack.
The holistically liberated human is the most exact picture of a pleasure-rich life. Unbound by societal conventions, they walk through life with little regard for tradition or expectation. They not only seek pursuits in alignment with their fulfillment sexually but also adorn their body as they wish, explore humor in the places that bring them to belly-shaking, teary-eyed howls, approach health and wellness thoughtfully and uniquely to their body, mind and what feels right for them. They do the things that bring them genuine and authentic joy and simply don't do the rest. The liberated person knows what is in service to them, and they pick themselves first, always and always.
Capitalism muddies the waters as well, suggesting that pleasure comes from things: bubble baths, pedicures and boojie self-care products made of fair-trade, organic, moon-blessed elements making claims to nurture, heal, and pave the way to our highest good. We exist in a time of bullshit stories that declare the answers we seek for our tired, lost souls can be achieved with cash: my ability to buy x,y,z is synonymous with my happiness.
Perhaps some of what we desire does come at a cost, but to say a life with limited finances cannot be abundant in pleasure is absolutely false. Just as to say a life with abundant finances is immediately blessed with nothing but authentic joy.
The simple truth is that we know what we want, no different than we did as a child. However, many of us have hushed that knowing voice in an attempt to build a life that looks pleasure-filled, whether it feels that way or not. We've collectively abandoned ourselves and subconsciously force-fed the narrative that we do not deserve to have what we want, but rather, must work to have and do what we must do or are obligated to perform.
It is once we fully give ourselves to the pursuit of pleasure that it becomes simple to nurture a life rich in holistic bliss. The labor comes in peeling the layers back until we find the real, raw version of ourselves that holds the truths we need to hear.
What is it that I truly want?
What is it that I truly feel?
What is it that I truly think?
And once we answer these, the ease comes in an unshakably true knowing of who we really are.
The blessing and the curse is that once that awareness is present, it's near impossible to mask it away again. Once you have a knowledge of who in your life isn't in alignment with your desires, what work doesn't ignite you the way you wish to feel, or how the reality of your environment doesn’t feel safe and supportive of the human you authentically are–you can't unlearn it. You can't confidently charge ahead without knowing in every fiber of your being that you're opting to abandon, abuse, and consciously withhold joy from yourself. And you can't possibly make a choice to turn this blind eye unless a part of you truly believes that joy is something you do not deserve to have.
After my divorce, I groveled the deepest and clutched my chest the tightest, questioning why the Universe seemed to find such pleasure in watching me squirm in matters of the heart. I habitually made the choices in alignment with society's steps to success, flogging myself for not possessing a traditional job, lifestyle, or man. I compared my life to the lives of my peers noting everything they had that I did not, totally ignorant to the fact that, beneath the layers of my costumed performances, no part of me actually wanted what they had.
It was with each exercise in peeling my layers back, through experiment, exploration, and what felt like graceless stumbling, that I found each priceless, telling nugget of my unique truths.
I find pleasure in being untethered.
I find pleasure in dive bars in new towns where no one knows my name.
I find pleasure in red wine and deep baths and kissing boys I have no intent to make mine.
I find pleasure in driving to the coast just to watch whales and stand in the rain.
I find pleasure in my empty womb and my quiet home.
I find pleasure in saying no to the job with the big check and yes to writing, with my heart on my sleeve, for a humble wealth of dimes.
I find pleasure in putting my needs first, and the rest second, in pursuit of my very best life, committed to nothing more than me.
No differently than my grandma’s booklet dedicated to lost, juvenile, scared little newly-wed me, I dedicate this to your approaching nuptials to self, with the hope that you may find and live the full expression of your ‘happily ever after.'
Each of us deserves a life abundant in boundless, bone-shaking, soul-igniting pleasure, and it is each of our sole responsibilities to scrap the standards and write our unique rulebook needed to gift that life, with every good wish for present and future happiness, to ourselves.
Jessica Brauer is a Wyoming-based freelance writer with a passion for living, learning, and storytelling in pursuit of the full expression of the human experience. She travels often, talks to her dog and never met a brunch she doesn’t like. You can read more of her work on relationships, mindfulness and the pursuit of her best life at medium.com/@jessicaebrauer and watch her circus in real-time on Instagram at @jessicaebrauer.