Vicarious Pleasures


“You’re only as happy as your least happy child,” is a quote often attributed to Michelle Obama without much supporting evidence. Whoever first said it spoke for all parents who have stood by helplessly while their child weathered a crisis in their personal, school or work lives. Rosellen and I have been through those dark periods which are particularly painful when they occur simultaneously with some small successes in our own lives which were drained of any pleasure they might provide by the struggles of one of our offspring.

The good news is that the opposite statement is also true, something like “Your child’s happiness has the power to make you happy.” Readers of recent blog entries know that we cancelled a trip to Puerto Rico with our daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter during winter break because of Omicron but encouraged the rest of the entourage to proceed without us. Sad though that was, we were rewarded with a week of delightful photos of Old San Juan, the flora of the El Yunque rainforest, the uncapturable wonder of a bioluminescent bay and an excursion on horseback which Dalia described as like riding on a unicorn, one of many notes from the travelers recounting their adventures.

Although we would certainly have preferred to be there in person, there was a deep sense of vicarious pleasure that fed on the pleasures our family was experiencing two time zone and 50 degrees Fahrenheit away. We’ve been fortunate enough to have had many more of those vicarious experiences of pleasure than their opposites – college acceptances, engagement announcements, Elana’s notice of pregnancy, Adina’s book publications. I think Rosellen would agree that these latter have been the source of as much joy as her own milestone accomplishments. Looking back a generation, Rosellen remembers the shopping trips where her mother bought nothing but considered the excursion a success if her daughter came away with a purchase she was happy with. It’s only now, as a parent herself, that she can make sense of her mother’s reaction.

I think most of us can point to experiences of vicarious pleasure derived from happenings in the lives of friends – those who have become grandparents for the first time, those who have had a story, an article or a book accepted, those who have finally scored a trip to someplace on their bucket list. I don’t think the intensity of delight in these situations can match what you feel for your own child, but it is real nonetheless, even though sometimes complicated by a touch of jealousy. Unless one is more driven by competitiveness than I, these darker feelings can be held in check while the second-hand happiness holds sway.

There’s an odd and amusing twist to the Puerto Rico story which made our vicarious experience less passive than it would normally be. In the course of renting the Airbnb which was intended to be our home in San Juan for six of the seven nights of our stay, I discovered that the contact person I was dealing with, a very personable and efficient Puerto Rican young man, was actually not on site but in rural Oregon. Because the reservation was in my name, his communications went to me to pass on to our daughter whose family was actually using the apartment. Similarly, when they had a problem – a flickering light bulb in the bathroom, a leaking soap dispenser, where to dispose of their trash, those communications had to pass through me to bring to the attention of Ezra, our man in Oregon. In the course of doing business, Ezra and I struck up an interesting friendship of sorts – memories of visiting his father who was part of the sizeable Puerto Rican community in Chicago, our shared basketball interests, accounts of snowfalls around our respective homes. It’s the kind of small talk you getto engage in with innkeepers and apartment owners when you’re traveling, except in this case neither of us was in residence at the home base. Having to deal with all the mundane details which are part of the fabric of the travel experience even though we were not traveling made it possible for us to create the illusion that we were directly involved in that experience. Maybe someday we’ll be able to drop the word vicarious from this conversation and appear at Ezra’s apartment in San Juan in the flesh, even though he won’t be there.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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