Some years ago, I visited a man in the Dunn County Jail. He was serving time, again, for starting a fight in a bar. He shook his head, angry at himself and said, “It happens every time I drink too much.”
Knowing that a pastor should probably have a better, gentler way of asking a follow up question, I nonetheless said, “Well, then why do you drink too much?” I’ll never forget his response. Looking me right in the eye, he said, “You know, Father, sometimes I just need to feel good.”
My first reaction was compassion. I understand that experience. Fortunately for me, that need to feel good finds expression in less damaging ways. It’s why I too often add a cream-filled long john to my gasoline bill at the convenience store, or why I “reward” myself by finding my way to a bag of chips after getting through a stressful day. It’s why for years I was on-again/off-again with tobacco. I’ve done a lot of things because feeling bad—empty, stressed, alone—seemed too much to bear in the moment.
I’ve been remembering that conversation in the jail fairly often since our days of social separation began in March. It seems that much of the continuing spread of our COVID pandemic is due to the fact that people are emotionally sick and tired of not having fun in their usual ways and so we see scenes of maskless crowds of people in bars, on beaches, at a giant motorcycle rally. People want to feel good!
I understand the need to gather and be close. I have been feeling the pain of distance. I never knew that a simple affectionate elbow bump could feel so good! But it does, after weeks of no physical contact with anyone.
So, what do we do with the need to feel good, when often what makes us feel good puts others and ourselves at risk? It’s a question for our time, but it’s also a question for all times. Too often, what makes us feel good is harmful—satisfying our greed, our lust, our cravings generally provide us with short-term good feelings but long-term wounds and addictions.
A spiritual counselor once told me, “Everyone needs to experience pleasure, and so everyone will find a way to feel good. But we can choose whether to do it in a wholesome or an unwholesome way.”
One time I was driving to the home of a family who had kindly invited me for dinner. I was running a few minutes late and was almost there when one of my favorite radio shows began. I was conflicted! I really really wanted to hear the host’s monologue which often touched on spiritual topics with insight and humor. I knew it would make me feel good to drive around for another ten minutes soak in his words instead of pulling into the driveway. God’s grace held sway with me that night, however, and I was able to do the right thing by putting aside my need to feel good. While I felt the sting of loss when I turned my radio off, I was also surprised at how quickly that feeling of loss was replaced by wholesome joy. I knocked on the door with a light heart, lifted, I think, by the knowledge that I was acting in a way that made God proud of me. Overcoming selfishness can be a pretty good feeling, it turns out.
Sometimes spiritually-oriented people can convince ourselves that a selfish action is OK with God because God loves us and wants us to feel good. I would qualify that, however, by saying that God wants us to feel joy (John 15:11). What I learned that night in the driveway, and countless times since, is that joy comes not from doing something to make myself feel good; it comes with the effort of actually being good. Being good is harder than grabbing a beer or a bag of chips, but it gladdens the hearts of many, including our own.