The Good Life – The Necessity of Contrasts

There are two particularly strong and pleasant memories I carry around with me from my childhood. One of them involves spending the day at the toboggan hill near our house in southern Alberta. We would set out early in the weekend morning, with our blue plastic sliders and clunky wooden sleds in tow. For hours on end, oblivious to the wind and cold, we would zoom down the slopes at what seemed like wild, breakneck speeds. After several hours, we would stop to fuel up on lunch (no food since has ever tasted better than those ham and cheese or egg salad sandwiches followed by homemade chocolate cake, eaten in the falling snow).

Eventually, completely exhausted and frozen to the marrow, we would trudge the several blocks (they seemed like miles!) back home. We would sit around the kitchen table and exchange our stories, drinking cup after cup of steaming hot chocolate. To this day, I can remember almost exactly the delightful feeling of my numb fingers slowly thawing out, of the sweet warmth seeping back into my cold, tired body.

The other memory involves those occasions when I would find myself alone in the house. As part of a family of six children, and living in a house that was routinely filled to the rafters with friends, relatives, and out-of-town visitors, these times of solitude were rare and quite precious to me. I remember sitting in the overstuffed corduroy chair in the living room, reading books or writing letters. I recall that sometimes, I would just sit there and daydream, listening to the sound of the house rafters creaking, or watching rain cascading down the windows. I would imagine that I was a lonely hermit woman living in the deep, dark woods. Eventually, of course, the spell would be broken, as my family would come exploding through the front door. But then, recharged by the silence, I was always glad to see them.

It seems to me that there is a profound life lesson wrapped up in my memories of those childhood days of icy slopes and silence. The warmth and light of my parents? kitchen would never have seemed so wonderful to me if it hadn’t been for the hours of freezing cold that preceded them. The stillness and solitude of the empty house would have been just boring, or even depressing, if they hadn’t been contrasted with the three-ring circus that was the normal state of my girlhood family life.

The lesson I try to keep in mind from this understanding is that experiences in life should be savoured and enjoyed for their unique and specific qualities. All the states of experience we find ourselves in are subject to change. All things, including our emotional states, are shifting and temporary. Likewise, all our states have their own unique beauty, and this beauty can only be understood when it is experienced in contrast to other, very different states. Just as the feelings of warmth and stillness are nothing unless they are contrasted with cold and chaos, happiness and pleasure can only be truly savoured when we have known what it is to be sad and in a state of discomfort.

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