[This and the next two posts attempt to address the sense many people have that this life of plenty we lead, the richest and most comfortable in human history, somehow fails to make us happy.]
I always expect things to be easier than they are. I have a conviction, irrational but deep-seated, that things shouldn’t involve so much drudgery, repetition, confusion, and inertia. I shouldn’t have to slog through so much reluctance. Life ought to be like the triumph scene in movies: backed by an inspiring soundtrack, showing continuous and dramatic progress, and lasting about 80 seconds. Whether it’s Rocky running up the steps or Molly Ringwald sewing a prom dress, that’s the way things ought to be. It just seems right.
When I was seven or eight, long before I’d watched many movies beyond the soul-scarring Old Yeller, I wanted to learn to roller skate. I slithered around on the paved path in our yard, feet flying up and bottom hitting down every few seconds. It infuriated me. I screamed at my mother, “What’s the easy way? I don’t want to do it this way!” I was convinced she was holding out on me, that everyone else knew the trick and I alone had to learn the hard way.
I did learn to roller skate eventually, bruises and skinned knees and all. The work paid off; I still like skating. But I haven’t banished the suspicion that there has to be an easy way for everything and that the difficulty and drudgery I occasionally face are the result of – well, inefficiency; that if I just knew the secret, had the knack, I’d breeze through hard work.
Of course, sometimes it’s true that there are easier and more efficient ways to do things. I try to be organized and disciplined enough to avoid adding to difficulties by procrastination and chaos – not that I always succeed. But still, no matter how well I organize, eventually fortitude and perseverance will be necessary.
This is a hard lesson to learn for all of us in our culture of wealth and instant gratification. Much of the physical drudgery that our ancestors faced has been reduced or eliminated by our technology. We think that’s a good thing, and it’s true that no one, including me, wants to take an oxcart over the Rockies to visit relatives in California. But I suspect that there’s a part of us that doesn’t think that our easy life is always a good thing. Look at the stories we tell ourselves, the movies, books, and television shows. Some of them may illustrate instant success, but the other half involve extreme struggle. Whether we imagine facing a zombie apocalypse, surviving in a dystopian future, or squaring up against aliens, we seem to be hungry for challenge, something that means our immediate survival, not just who we go to the prom with.
So which do we want, the easy way or the hard way? Which do we need? In some ways it’s a waste of time even asking the question. The hard way is inevitable, no matter how much our society tries to avoid it. And that’s good for us. We may think we want things to be easy, but then we miss out on the sense of real achievement that comes from climbing the mountain, not driving up it, or growing food, not just buying it. The easy way doesn’t lead to any feeling of accomplishment or worth; it doesn’t give us any goals challenging enough to get us out of bed and into the bad weather of life.
Challenge is important to our species. We are designed to have reserves of strength and determination, and it seems that we suffer if we never get to use them. Doctors have known for years that the adrenaline rush we get when our fight or flight reaction kicks in is harmful to us if we don’t do something physical to dissipate it. I’m wondering, though, if the need for real challenge isn’t as much a psychological as a physical need. We needn’t face down a lion or defend our family against bandits, but we do need to have the sense that what we do every day is essential to our and our family’s survival.
But this comfortable, wealthy society tries to insulate us against challenge. It begins early. Children don’t grow up feeling as if their contribution to the world is important and valuable; instead, they are put firmly in the debit column, not the asset column. When our children were babies, my husband and I spent a lot of time trying to articulate our child-rearing philosophy. We were appalled to read that article that seems to make the rounds every few years, the one that says that raising children costs some outrageous sum. We knew many couples who had only one or two children because they “couldn’t afford” more. What does it do to a child’s sense of self to be a luxury, not an asset?
Children then go on to formal education, at which point they move from a luxury to an inconvenience. Schools reinforce this sense of uselessness by being warehouses where kids can be kept until there is someone home to look after them and by teaching them skills that for the most part don’t seem to relate to their survival in the real world. Yes, schools want students to know how to use computers at their jobs, but that’s not what I mean. How many students graduate from high school able to provide their own food, shelter, and clothing? But, people respond, students don’t have to know how to build or grow food. The way our society works nowadays, they just have to earn a pay check and buy what they need.
And apparently the way our society works nowadays is leading to increasing suicide rates. Suicide is almost non-existent in underdeveloped countries, but it is reaching epidemic rates in the Western world. One would think that people would despair when everyday survival was uncertain, when they couldn’t be sure that they had food for their next meal. But it seems that those who are genuinely struggling to live are willing to wake up every morning and try again, while many citizens of wealthy, comfortable nations can find no reason to carry on.
I’m not making light of people who consider or commit suicide. Nor am I looking down on those who don’t know how to “afford” children. I think these people are all facing a real crisis, a crisis of meaning. We seek comfort and security, naturally. These are good things. I like them myself. But we can’t convince ourselves that our choices of what clothes to wear, menu item to order, or sport to enroll our kids in matter in the most visceral sense. What really matters to us? What have we as a species evolved to be and do? What gives us the sense that we’ve really lived and used our specific strengths in the best way?
Meaning is tied to survival. Children used to be important to their parents’ survival, not just by carrying on their genes but by adding labor and creativity to the work force. It’s true that they were sometimes exploited; I don’t want that. But I want children to feel as if they contribute something to the world and are not just drags on the family economy. And I want adults, too, to feel as if the work they do and the choices they make perpetuate the survival of their families and communities. How many of us have jobs that we could say that about?
So if meaning is tied to survival, then education should reflect that. I don’t mean that every third-grader needs to learn how to kill and skin a bear, but still, schools are too distant from the basic human needs of food, shelter, and clothing, as well as a desire to create beauty, a sense of community, and an understanding of our place in the universe. Arithmetic is important, algebra less so. Ecology and horticulture are more important than astrophysics. Languages, our own and others, are important, as is history. Home economics and shop produce both tangible products – food, furniture – and intangible ones – self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment.
Employment, too, should be re-evaluated in light of its meaning. Trash collectors are pillars of the community, as are builders, plumbers, cooks, waitresses, gardeners, teachers, shopkeepers, and mechanics. Advertisers, on the other hand, like paper-pushers, second-, third-, and fourth-layer administrators, schmoozers, influencers, human resource officers, and those shills who keep trying to get everyone to upgrade their systems are parasites, not pillars. (You can see by comparing the pay scale of these two groups which our society respects more – until an issue of genuine survival comes up, and then the underpaid and under-respected people in the first group suddenly become important.)
We need to accept that doing things the hard way may be better for us, however contrary that seems to our culture: working hard, getting dirty, going outside, dealing with people and food and real things. Deep down, I think we know that. It’s just difficult to force ourselves to take the hard path when the amusement park of consumerism and technology is calling to us with its cheesy music and flashy lights.
Recently I went to the beach. The waves of the Atlantic were substantial. I had to struggle to get out into deeper water. I was pounded and sand-blasted and almost knocked over when the beach was sucked out from beneath my feet as the waves gathered themselves for another assault. I staggered and was pushed back; I felt like a fool. Finally I braced myself and dived head first into a breaker and came up in a rolling trough between two swells. For almost an hour I ducked and bobbed; I swam effortfully back along the shore when the current pulled me away. I made split-second decisions of whether it was safer to duck under or bob over the looming wave, and I didn’t always make the right one. It was glorious. I could have gone to a pool and paddled in the calm, predictable water. But I’m glad I didn’t.