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The Way of Hedone

painting by Sophie Anderson

This summer, I'm practicing mindful hedonism as a parent. Hold on, don't think of Tinkerbell having fairy orgies in Neverland or satyrs gulping grapes. The meaning of the word "hedonism" has changed as much over time as that of "Epicureanism" (created by a real Debbie Downer of a guy who thought delicious foods should be avoided lest you crave them later). Hedonism is named after an infant goddess in a Hellenistic myth that is at least 2,500 years old. The goddess's name, Hedone, means simply "Pleasure," or more broadly interpreted, "Happiness."

I adore the myth of Psyche and Amor (a.k.a. Cupid or Eros), which is at the root of many familiar fairy tales such as Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. Hedone's family tree is basically this: Amor (Love) existed at the beginning of time, as a primordial force of creation. After the creation of our world and a bunch of godly sexual and asexual proliferation, Aphrodite (also called the Goddess of Love but really the one all about vanity, rape, vengeance, and all manner of f**king) gave birth to a child who was (maybe) fathered by Ares, God of War.

That child was also Amor, reborn as an anthropomorphic god--again, of Love, but this time a more sophisticated romantic kind. As human children do, Amor rebelled against his parents and had his own personality. He often resisted or refused to help his powerful mother wreak revenge upon those who had insulted her or made her feel envious. He was all, "Let's make love, not war!" His little crush-arrows might as well have been tipped with daisies.

As human teenagers do, Amor fell passionately in love with a girl his mom hated--a mortal of such beauty that people spread rumors that she was Aphrodite's own daughter. Aphrodite, not remotely flattered at being cast in the role of "hot girl's mom," sent Amor to destroy Psyche. So of course he rescued Psyche instead and made sweet love to her in his secret cave mansion every night.

After a whole lot of exciting drama (for all the juice, read Apuleius), Aphrodite was forced to accept Psyche as a daughter-in-law, and Psyche was made a goddess so that she and Amor could be married forever. (Like Twilight, with less vampire fetus!) There was much rejoicing, as shown below in a 16th century illustration.

Banquet of Amor and Psyche by Giulio Romano
detail of Amor and Psyche

In traditional images of Love's Family, Amor is depicted with feathered wings, while Psyche and their daughter Hedone sport butterfly wings.

The union of Amor and Psyche is richly symbolic. Psyche means "soul," "spirit," or "breath," but those words have very Christian connotations to us now. In antiquity, the word implied concepts like "mind" and "consciousness," thus the modern word "psychology." So the lovers' tryst in the story symbolizes the union of body and mind, heart and brain, blood and breath, sex and spirit. In a very yin/yang sort of way, each of them starts out with a little bit of the other inside--Amor is a sex god born of lust and violence, but he craves relationships that are deeper, kinder, and more thoughtful. Psyche represents a pure mind, but she desires and then thoroughly enjoys physical love.

The child born of this union of the heart and mind is happiness.

What could be more perfect?

Buddha decorated by Nux Gallica with lilacs and bleeding hearts

Like most human children, my daughter Nux Gallica is both spiritual and self-centered. She's curious, imaginative, thoughtful, impulsive, creative, affectionate, and pleasure-seeking. None of those are traits I want to repress--not even those that some people fear, including self-centeredness, cat-killing curiosity, wild imagination, spontaneous impulse exploration, or the pursuit of simple pleasures. As her mother, all I try to do is add to that list of personal qualities more sophisticated skills for a high-functioning life such as empathy, critical thinking, logic, and intrinsic motivation toward complex goals.

Self-centeredness in children is natural and does not metastasize into narcissism if it's not crushed. In a non-anxious, healthy environment, children's self-centeredness can blossom into self-awareness, confidence, social grace, and self-control. Curiosity can change the world. Creativity breeds success. And everyone is motivated toward pleasure and away from pain--everyone. That's basic hardwiring and doesn't vary among individuals.

What does vary are skills like emotional intelligence and self-regulation. Smarter, more complex types of happiness, like long-term satisfaction and altruistic fulfillment, are more motivating than a handful of marshmallows to a person with emotional maturity. A child who truly learns to love herself for the sacred part she plays in the ongoing creation of our world doesn't grow up needing to prove her self-obsession to everyone every minute on Instagram.

The Dalai Lama famously declared that in reality, everyone is selfish. He explained, "It is important that when pursing our own self-interest we should be 'wise selfish' and not 'foolish selfish.' Being foolish selfish means pursuing our own interests in a narrow, shortsighted way. Being wise selfish means taking a broader view and recognizing that our own long-term individual interest lies in the welfare of everyone. Being wise selfish means being compassionate."

Along those lines, I'm declaring that everyone is a hedonist. We're either foolish hedonists or wise hedonists. The Puritans were just hedonists with a long view--that a life of self-deprivation leads to eternal pleasure in the afterlife. Even ascetics are hedonists--the lowly kind, whose only valued pleasure is the conquering of desire.

But there are so many wonderful levels and depths and varieties and spectrums of pleasure to be found in human life! And most, if not all, can be enjoyed wisely.

There's the thrill of discovery when we do real, four-year-old-friendly science experiments on the kitchen table. There's the brainy glee of mastering a logic puzzle in the My Little Pony game on the LeapPad. There's the goosebump tingle you get from listening to a haunting melody. There's the warm glow kindled by Nonna's gratitude when she receives your gift. There's the powerful pride in enduring two shots at the doctor's office without shedding a single tear!

I help Nux to notice when pleasures are enhanced by struggle, challenge, even pain that leads to gain. "You made a mistake!" I say cheerfully. "That's good for your brain. It's how you learn."

And rainy days make puddles for splashing.

I try to fill Nux up every chance I get with appreciation for the pleasures found in kindness, courage, skill mastery, introspection, physical wellness, and creative expression. That way, I don't feel pressured into the pitfalls of shaming or moralizing or lying about certain pleasures that could possibly lead to suffering later on. Instead of saying, "Candy is bad," I say, "Mmm, I know that candy tastes good. We'll have just a little so we can keep our teeth healthy."

I try to give attention to moments when Nux has caused someone else a good feeling, reminding her of the power she has in relationships, and I guide her in developing control of her own feelings, reminding her of the power she has over herself. We do guided meditation for relaxation and deep breathing. We reflect on how it makes us feel.

When Nux gets angry or very frustrated, she usually does the same thing. She lifts up one foot as high as it can go--up over her head, she's very flexible--and stamps it as hard as she can on the floor, one time. Then she runs into her room, slams the door, and stays inside quietly for a minute or two. When she emerges, she tells me, "I took deep breaths, and now I feel better."

It's so cute that I kind of love it when she gets mad.

And she has developed this routine of self-soothing probably because, to the horror and disgust of many, this hedonistic mama does not punish. I've never stained the happiness zone of Nux's bedroom--or anywhere else in our home--with time-outs, let alone anything worse. Punishing is not my cup of tea. It's not my jam. It's not my toast. I don't find it pleasurable, and better yet, I am proud of the long-term results of my positive discipline.

Guess what else gets the strictness police's bloomers in bunches? I figure I have many decades of life ahead of me in which to enjoy tidy, neutral home decor, so for now...

I love letting her color on the walls!

And the bathroom mirror and tiles!

And herself!

I encourage Nux's fascination with the difference between pretend and real so that she can let her imagination run free! No topic is forbidden to question or explore. When Nux knows that she's in control of the game and I'm not afraid of anything her mind can dream up, nothing is too scary--not people-eating giants, not sword fights with super-villains, not horse-thievin' bandits!

Cavities, though, are no joke. We take our dental hygiene seriously around here.

We also eat our vegetables. Not "because I said so" or "because you should," but because vegetables help us grow strong and beautiful and wise. And they taste really good fresh, on the grill, with butter.

And we never forget that some of the finest, tastiest, most luxurious desserts--like Pascha dark chocolate bars--are good for our brains and hearts as well as our moods, savored in just the right portion. Give me s'more health benefits of chocolate any day.

We love the hell out of the world around us--not to save it, but because every living thing is fragile and fleeting, and its presence right now is a gift. We lie in the grass and feel hot sun and cool breezes and watch the clouds and the gradient of the light. We pick flowers just to scatter the petals in fairy paths. We identify birds and deer and foxes. We thank the sky for rain and the trees for wood to burn.

As Nux grows, I hope I can share with her my love of poetry, myth, and transcendence. When we can see life as art, there are no taboos that can break the innocent wonder of youth. I ban nothing in play. When it's time to pretend, my daughter can fight with weapons, turn into a zombie, destroy cities, marry a prince she met that very day, or worship a fairy queen. And each day, I see her growing in compassion, wisdom, and courage, because she plays out so many roles and dramas.

As she grows, I hope Nux will take pleasure in so much of the world that she will not be kept long under the spell of any addiction--to drugs, to foods, to cosmetics, to charming princes, or to shiny new things. Let none of her playgrounds become prisons. 

My favorite kind of hedonism is called, oh so poetically, "psychological hedonism." Mother, daughter. Get it? Anyway, psychological hedonism is different than philosophical hedonism (fragmented, all over the place from asceticism to nihilism) or ethical hedonism (redundant nonsense, in my opinion) because it describes not how humans should behave but how humans do behave, in observable reality.

I don't think it's healthy, as a parent, to raise my child based on who I think she should be. I'm watching every day, with delight and unconditional love, as she reveals to me the kind of child she is, at her best and at her worst. I'm nurturing her on the seeds of intrinsic motivation, deep thinking, emotional intelligence, and empowerment so that when the day comes for her to open her wings and fly, she'll have the strength to rise.


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