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Cracker Barrel: Ultimate satisfaction

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I know what you’re thinking. Having read the title of this column, your mind has turned to thoughts of physical pleasure. The joy of sex, perhaps, or eating a delicious meal, or buying something you’ve been craving for months and months.

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Or possibly something as fundamental as slipping into a comfortable shirt, or taking a nice warm bath, or sipping a really good wine, or hearing the call of returning geese.

All of these things produce happiness. Many of our greatest pleasures come to us via our senses and deserve our respect and celebration. As one who has spent a sizable chunk of his life indulging in exactly such enjoyments, I would never discount their importance.

But as the years roll by I’ve come to notice how short-lived such pleasures are, precisely because they’re so physical.

In a way, their very fleetingness adds to their value. The quicksilver glimpse of a migrating warbler or the overheard sound of a toddler’s first words add to the preciousness of the event itself. We’re quite right to celebrate firsts: our first kiss, our first steps, our first job, our first car.

But none of these moments, by definition, can be repeated and made to last (other, perhaps, than a job).

To qualify as anything close to ultimate, a pleasure needs to last, which is probably why we humans have come to value works of art. A beautiful painting, an intriguing sculpture, a Bach cantata — all have the power to mesmerize us over and over. Because the pleasure they bring is more mental or emotional than physical, we can indulge ourselves in them to our heart’s content, never fearing that we will strain a limb or imbibe too many calories.

From here it is but a short step to what I consider, after many years of thought, to be the province of ultimate satisfaction: learning. It is my firm belief that nothing else holds a candle to our remarkable capability for lifelong expansion of understanding, and that nothing else comes close to bringing us more satisfaction.

Consider, by way of contrast, how quickly our physical powers wane. By age 30 most of us have begun to suffer aches and pains after doing something as simple as splitting wood or raking leaves. Only a handful of athletes remain competitive after age 40.

But our ability to learn continues unabated our whole life long. Granted, we may grow slower at mastering a new language at 60 than we were at 20, but master it (or at least learn the rudiments thereof) we can.

Buckminster Fuller spent most of his later years inspiring college kids with the exciting message that “you can’t learn less!” He spun this thought into a gleaming ornament of hope, one that we might well keep focused on. The best antidote we have against the ravages of aging is to keep our minds and our emotions limber and alert by looking ahead and not behind.

Instead of falling prey to the pains and limitations of growing old, we can elect to walk down new paths, taking daily delight along the way. We can study a new language, get a degree on the Internet, learn to bake bread, undertake to play an unfamiliar musical instrument, start collecting agates, commence growing orchids, join a singing group, begin practicing yoga, try our hands at sign language, try our feet at ballroom dancing, expand our knowledge of world religions, experiment with crocheting, plant a garden, build a bunch of birdhouses, maybe even learn how to cook!

The only end to learning is when we choose to quit.

Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at www.CraigNagelBooks.com.

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