When I found myself hastily preparing for a last-minute trip to see my grandmother earlier this semester—a trip that would involve mostly sitting with my family and navigating grief—I packed the softest and most comfortable things I own: my Duke English major shirt, my favorite cotton pants and the least sexy underwear of all time. My brain had unconsciously decided to prioritize physical comfort in anticipation of an exceedingly uncomfortable few days.
When I looked down at my suitcase, I wondered: why would I give myself this level of comfort only for such an uncomfortable time? Do I not deserve to feel good in my body even on the days when I’m not hurting?
This question is important to me because I live with chronic pain. My body is and will always be physically painful. Why would I ever do anything to make this body hurt more?
The immediate answer to this question is that much of what is required of me, day-to-day, makes my body more uncomfortable than it already is. For example, sitting for long periods of time, especially in chairs without adequate back support, is one of the most common culprits of increased pain in my life. Yet I need to be seated for the duration of each of my classes, usually more than once a day, in whatever seats are available in whatever classroom I’m assigned. The same truth—that experiencing increased pain is built into my daily life—can be applied to big heavy doors, to my backpack, to my bras. I interact daily with things that turn tolerable pain intolerable.
But it's not just obligatory activities that cause me more pain. Often my back hurts more after sitting, not because I picked an uncomfortable chair, but because I found myself leaning forward, excited by a conversation or enthralled by a class discussion. Singing in choir, dancing my heart out, baking cookies, making out in the car, taking airplanes to exciting places—all of these joyful things cause me more pain. If I were to orient my life toward reducing pain at all costs, would I not have to give up these joyful, painful moments?
And what about bigger, more life-changing, joyful, painful things, like being a pastor or social worker or writer (or all three)? What about being a parent?
What is the balance, in a life of chronic pain, between a livable life and a joyful one?
Luckily, the work of social justice facilitator and author adrienne maree brown (name intentionally uncapitalized) came into my life recently to offer me some answers to these questions. brown’s latest book, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good is inspired by the work of black feminist poet and activist Audre Lorde’s seminal work, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” brown adapts Lorde’s idea of the erotic as an internal sense of satisfaction, felt and understood only when a person is fully in touch with their deepest feelings and desires. brown uses Lorde’s work to construct the idea of pleasure activism as “the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy… we all need and deserve pleasure and… our social structures must reflect this.” Her anthology of essays, excerpts and interviews explores multiple valences of how we can orient our lives toward pleasure, making “justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet.”
brown offers many examples of what this pleasure can look like. She talks about sexual pleasure in liberated, healthy relationships, as well as other, less evident pleasurable activities like fashion and adornment, dancing, drugs and eating good food. Ultimately, brown wants the reader to notice what in their lives gives them pleasure—not in a cursory, fleeting way, but in a deeply satisfying way—and work to integrate that pleasure into their practice of activism.
Pleasure activism sounds a lot like self-care, but it goes deeper than that. It’s not just a practice, it’s a way of living—one that does not necessarily rely on economic investment or normative ability status in the way that conventional, Instagram-worthy, commercialized self-care measures so often do. Pleasure activism can apply to people of any and all intersecting identities, because it is about finding what gives you, the individual, a sense of deep satisfaction and joy. And pleasure activism also recognizes how privilege and pleasure intersect, and works to dismantle any social structure that would deny the right to satisfaction, joy and self-determination to all people.
For me to live as a person with chronic pain, and also as a person interested in spending my life fighting oppressive structures, seeking deep pleasure is a much more sustainable and ultimately beneficial way of living than seeking a life of as little pain as possible. I will never not be in pain, so if I can shift the goal of my days away from lessening pain and toward pleasure, I may be able to find a life both livable and joyful.
Orienting my life towards pleasure certainly doesn’t mean ignoring the ways that I live with pain. Pleasure activism also means saying “no” to painful activities that don’t satisfy this a desire within me, that will hurt more than they heal. It means listening to my body, giving its pain the room to take up however much space it requires, and forgoing the shame and guilt that I feel when my body’s limitations are different from the limitations of the other bodies around me.
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Pleasure activism makes room for two things to be true at the same time: for this body of mine to be the site of pain, but also the site of joyful and liberatory pleasure. Singing, dancing, baking, traveling, wandering around museums, sitting in classrooms, chatting with friends, lying in the sunshine, stretching on a yoga mat, marching at protests, pastoring, parenting, living: all of it will hurt. But these pleasures will also feel good in the place in my soul where the erotic “yes,” the most whole part of myself, resides.
I am still learning how to do this, to answer my body’s constant pain with space and time and good things rather than shame and strictures and frustration. In truth, I haven’t gotten much further than opening big heavy doors with the automated button and wearing more Comfort Colors.
But I do know that my idea of the future—something that often simply looked like pain to me—now includes pleasure, too.
Liddy Grantland is a Trinity senior who hopes her mom and dad didn’t read the part where she talked about making out in the car. Her column, “feel your feelings,” runs on alternate Mondays.