This sounds like a departure from my normal topics, but it isn’t, really. Hear me out. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and the reason has a lot to do with Olive Garden.
Yep, Olive Garden. Here’s where I’m coming from. I moved recently, from one unreasonably cold Midwestern city to another slightly more unreasonably cold Midwestern city with a significantly higher number of Walgreens. In my new neighborhood, there’s an Olive Garden across the street from my apartment. When driving past with a friend who came into town to visit, he pointed out the restaurant and said, “I see you’ve got the height of class in this city.”
I looked at the off-yellow stucco, then back at him. “What’s wrong with Olive Garden?” I asked.
“Well, you know. It’s not exactly high Italian cuisine, is it?”
High Italian cuisine? What was this, an episode of Chopped? Was I going to be docked points for inappropriate plating?
“I,” I said, drawing myself up to my full (seated) (not very impressive) height, “love Olive Garden.”
Maybe it doesn’t have the makings of the Next Great American Novel, but this micro-conversation made me think. Should my ever-abiding love for Olive Garden be a “guilty pleasure”? Is there such a thing as a “guilty pleasure”? Is anything that makes us happy really anything to feel guilty about?
In my personal history, the answer has generally been “yes.” Of course we should feel ashamed about the things we like. Isn’t the fact that we like them a marker of our own poor taste, the signature on the death warrant of our worth as human beings? I could be immersing myself in hour upon hour of of The Roosevelts or sitting down to read the copy of Infinite Jest that has been collecting literary dust on the bottom of my shelf for months now.
But what am I doing? I’m watching back episodes of New Girl and reading 1500 pages of Game of Thrones in three weeks. I don’t even like Game of Thrones that much. I don’t think it’s well-written, and the intersectional feminist side of my brain is having a small aneurism every single time Melisandre appears (because come on guys, hasn’t the evil demon seductress with a mystical pregnancy been played out enough?). And yet, I’m midway through Clash of Kings and I’ve had that book since New Year’s Day.
Isn’t all this just a demonstration of my poor taste? Shouldn’t I hold myself to higher standards than this? Shouldn’t I at least make an effort to like authentic Italian food and David Foster Wallace?
Because why is it anybody’s business what I enjoy? The point of pleasure is that it’s supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to feel good. I can like crappy food and poorly written novels and TV shows without any semblance of a plot. It’s not a reflection of my worth as a human, or a being who enjoys culture. It’s just something that I like … because I like it.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to come around to this conclusion. And I think the reason for it is that pleasure, in and of itself, is something we’re conditioned to frown upon. Think about it this way: If you let your reptile brain take over for a day — side note, I hate the phrase “reptile brain” because it is gross — what do you think you would do? For many of us, the answer probably follows the “eat, sleep, and have sex” kind of model. (I recognize that for the asexual community part of this may be inaccurate, but forgive the generalization for the point.)
Now consider how we’re told to think about those instincts.
You like to eat? Selfish. Greedy. Lazy. Unhealthy and worthless. We’re in the middle of “New Year, New Pointless Diet” New Year’s resolution season, we shouldn’t have to stretch to think about how food and immorality are linked.
You like to sleep? Lazy. Unmotivated. Never getting anywhere. Get up and do something productive. Go to work. You’ll get a jump on that useless competition who’s asleep while you’re already at the office plugging formulas into an Excel spreadsheet like a madperson. You want to win, sleep when you’re dead.
You like to have sex? Slut. Whore. Straight to Hell for you. Have fun burning, lascivious monster who enjoys making your body feel good. Explain that to the Devil for me.
It’s odd, isn’t it? That the things our bodies naturally want are the very things we’re shamed for enjoying? That we’re bombarded with guilt for “indulging” in these things, even though we’ve been programmed to want or need them? Odd to say the least.
We’re told we’re supposed to want things that are difficult. Taking the easy way out is for people who won’t ever get anywhere in life. Why go to sleep at 10pm when you could stay up all night and get a little bit more work done? Why flip through a magazine when you could pour over Grey’s Anatomy or every individual paragraph of The Goldfinch, regardless of whether or not you like it? Why make yourself a grilled cheese sandwich with the kind of cheese that’s individually wrapped in plastic when you could do something fancy with gruyère and chèvre and other words containing the letter è?
It’s another version of the “not good enough” mentality that hounds us every single day. It hounds us about our bodies – not thin enough, not fit enough, not tall enough, not pretty enough, not anything enough. It hounds us about our minds — not smart enough for this job, not hardworking enough for that promotion, not worthwhile enough for a raise, not worth anything to anyone.
And I want it to stop.
Once I finish writing, I’m going to open up Netflix and pop on the next episode of whatever show is at the top of my list. It will, doubtless, be rated one or two stars. It may actually be targeted toward five-to-eleven-year-olds (you do know about my Disney thing, right…?). And I’m learning to be okay with that.
As a side note: I had Olive Garden leftovers for lunch at the office yesterday.
And they were delicious.