This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

Eisenberg and Segel. Image by Jakob Ihre/AP

I recently saw “The End of the Tour,”  the movie about Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) interviewing writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segal) shortly after Wallace’s landmark novel Infinite Jest was published in 1996. Lipsky travels to Wallace’s modest rented home in Bloomington, Illinois, then accompanies him on a trip to Minneapolis for the last stop of the book tour. The movie is a long conversation between two intelligent men in their 30s, one probing, the other alternately spilling out his thoughts and lamenting the artificiality of their interaction. These seem to be two men struggling with despair, only one of whom realizes the struggle is occurring.

In alluding to despair, I’m thinking of the way that Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the term. In his Sickness Unto Death, he describes despair as a condition of the self. Here’s how I recently summarized the ways Kierkegaard thought we despair:

“We can despair in two ways, according to Kierkegaard. First, a person can wish to be rid of  him- or herself, that is, can be unwilling to be oneself, a condition that Kierkegaard calls “the despair of weakness.” Second, the person can despair to be a self, that is, can despair because one desires to be a self that one cannot be, a condition referred to as ‘the despair of defiance.’”

It doesn’t take much effort to see that David Foster Wallace (the Wallace of the film, that is, who might not have resembled the real man) was well acquainted with despair. He tells Lipsky that he is addicted to junk television (we see one TV-watching binge during the movie). Any addiction, TV included, can be considered either an attempt to escape from oneself or an attempt to be a self other than who one is (or both). Of the two possibilities, Wallace seems mainly to have been trying to get away from himself.

Wallace seems quite aware of his propensity towards despair. In 1988, eight years before Lipsky’s interview, he was hospitalized and put on suicide watch. He says to Lipsky (all quotes are my best attempts to transcribe the dialogue from the movie, but I can’t vouchsafe their accuracy), “I was a 28 year old who had exhausted a couple ways of living.” After describing the experience in the hospital, he added, “and when that happens you become unprecedentedly willing to explore some other avenues of how to live.” I haven’t read Infinite Jest, but I understand that it can be considered just such an exploration of ways to live. Wallace isn’t so sure his search has unearthed a workable solution. Looking back to the time he fell apart, He tells Lipsky, “I don’t think we change. I think I still have the same parts of me. I’m trying hard to find a way to just let them live.” He was well aware that despair still lurked within.

Wallace sees contemporary culture as making it particularly difficult for him (or anyone else, for that matter) to be a self capable of wholeness. That culture produced the endless flood of TV shows constantly available to soothe his angst. He foresees a time in which the internet and virtual reality become even more insiduous pathogens capable of infecting and  destroying the self. He says at one point that his writing is about “how easy it is to be seduced off your path because of the way the culture is.” He then mentions what he fears: “What if I become a parody of that?”

Wallace seems to have thought that a genuine connection with another human being would aid him in his struggles. He opens up to Lipsky with that end in mind. That effort proves fruitless, since Lipsky has no intention of being genuine. He would rather present a counterfit self in order to charm Wallace and thereby obtain material for his Rolling Stone article. Wallace at one point says that literary success has made him feel like a whore, but Lipsky is the real whore here, prostituting his humanity in an attempt to gain success.

Lipsky wishes to be a self he can’t be–he wishes to be an acclaimed author like Wallace–but, as portrayed by Eisenberg, anyway, doesn’t have the insight to realize that this striving is a form of despair. As Lipsky prepares to drive away after the interview is completed, Wallace leans into his car window and says, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” Good words of warning for those times when we start thinking that we will be at peace if only we manage to be someone other than who we are.

A recent New Yorker article titled “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy” actually describes research findings indicative of greater unhappiness AND greater happiness among Facebook users, depending on what they did on the site.  Several studies were summarized, including a recent study by a team of researchers led by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan.  Those researchers sent text messages to research participants five times a day for two weeks, asking about Facebook use and emotional status.  The more the Facebook use at the time of one text, the worse these participants felt at the time of the next text.  Greater Facebook use was associated with decreased well-being over the course of the two-week study.  Another study found that looking at Facebook posts made by others was associated with increased envy, a phenomenon thought to be the result of social comparison. How can social comparison have this effect? Within the last 24 hours, friends on my Facebook feed have posted pictures from Hawaii, a college football game, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, and a street festival.  Meanwhile, I’m sitting in my bedroom writing this post.  Am I envious?  No, actually, since I’m still getting over jet lag from a great trip to Washington and don’t want to be anywhere with more sizzle than where I am right now, but you get the idea.

Not all studies find that social media use puts us in the doldrums.  Some studies have found such use to be associated with increased happiness, social trust, and engagement.  Even the thought of sharing something via social media increases activity in the pleasure centers of the brain.  Why have the findings about social media use and emotional states been so inconsistent?

One possible way of accounting for the different results comes from a 2010 study by Moira Burke of Carnegie Mellon University and colleagues.  Among those who actively interacted on Facebook by posting themselves, commenting on others’ posts, or even liking those posts, loneliness was decreased and feelings of bonding were increased, particularly bonding with those who live in close proximity.  On the other hand, passively consuming content posted by others was associated with more loneliness and decreased bonding.  Thus, perhaps it is not the amount of Facebook use that matters, but whether the user is participating actively or only passively.

So, the following rules for increasing happiness (or at least minimizing misery) among those of us who use Facebook seem consistent with the research to date:

  1. Use sparingly.
  2. Have as friends those to whom you aren’t particularly likely to compare yourself (I manage to follow this rule, since I use Facebook largely to keep up with former students, my kids, and my nephews and nieces, all of whom are at very different stages of life than I am).
  3. Don’t just passively scan your feed.  Comment, like, and post things yourself.

The last rule may make you happier, but, to the extent you are creating more content for your friends to passively scan, it might have an adverse effect on them.  Ah, the ethical dilemmas of Facebook use!

I’ll conclude this post by sharing some great pictures from my trip to Washington.  Research indicates it will give me great pleasure to do so.  Beware, though: looking at them without liking or commenting on this post may be hazardous to your emotional well-being!

Lighthouse Park, Vancouver

Lighthouse Park, Vancouver

Elliot Ritzema by the Swinomish Channel, La Conner, Washington

Elliot Ritzema by the Swinomish Channel, La Conner, Washington

Mary Ritzema at the Greek Festival, Bellingham, Washington

Mary Ritzema at the Greek Festival, Bellingham, Washington

Me at Picture Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

Me at Picture Lake in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

I recently received an email that read, in part, as follows:

“Our Webmail Database that records your webmail data and profile has just been contrasted by a serious circulating internet virus. As a result we are upgrading to a new email version to help increase the storage megabyte and are therefore deleting all unused emaill account as a result of the nonexistence of users.

“To confirm the your account is currently in use and to integrate the recent maintenance carried out in e-mail system and also help in resetting your space in our database and erase the virus circulationin our webmail. Reply back with the information as required below. . .”

A request for username, password, and other identifying information follows.  It’s obviously a phishing scam.  My first reaction is that scammers need grammar lessons—using plurals when called for, having subject and verb agree, and eliminating sentence fragments would make the pitch much more plausible.  Also, though, I’m concerned about one of the problems the author cites as necessitating deletion of email accounts, namely the nonexistence of users.

Question-mark-faceI wonder, do these users know they don’t exist? Why are non-existent users being singled out?  Is it because they’ve been neglecting their email accounts?  If their email accounts get deleted, won’t that be a further blow to their already-fragile identities (not only do I not exist, but now I’ve lost email privileges as well)?

If the non-existent are losing their email accounts, what other indignities might they be suffering?  I understand that there has been a major effort to delete the non-existent from the rolls of registered voters.  (It’s been Republicans who have been particularly intolerant of non-existent voters.  Democrats are said to be more accepting.)   There are also reports of the non-existent losing their welfare benefits or Social Security pensions.  In the workplace, the non-existent aren’t likely to gossip, embezzle, show up late, or take overly long coffee breaks, yet employers are very hesitant to hire them.  They can’t buy a house or get a driver’s license.  And how many of them have good credit scores with the rating agencies?  Very few, I’d wager!

The non-existent are clearly the victims of discrimination.  I, for one, think that this mistreatment has gone far enough.  Let them keep their email accounts!

Ann Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton and former director of foreign policy for the State Department, published an article in The Atlantic this past summer which she provocatively titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  She wrote that she had been telling women that they didn’t have to compromise their goals for both career success and a fulfilling family life, but realized this wasn’t really the case.  She left her State Department job after two years and returned to Princeton because she concluded that “juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.”  Thinking about what she had told her students through the years, she concluded “I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”

Ann Marie Slaughter

Slaughter thinks that the problem is not with women themselves but with the nature of society.  In her view, women need to recognize more clearly these societal structures that have halted progress towards the feminist ideal of fulfillment in every area of life.  She is optimistic in the long run about women achieving the feminist vision, but thinks that society needs to change first.  She puts it as follows:

“I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time.’ But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured.”

Slaughter lists several “half truths” commonly believed by and shared among women that interfere with forthright discussion of the structural problems that women face.  These half truths are that women can have it all if they are just committed enough, they can have it all if they choose the right mate, and they can have it all if they sequence family and career events properly.  Slaughter thinks that, instead of focusing on these myths, women should work for systemic changes that would make combining family and career more feasible; most of these have to do with changing workplace norms.

Slaughter isn’t the only successful woman mulling about these issues.  The October 1 & 8 issue of Newsweek contains an article by Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, titled “American Women Have It Wrong.”  Despite the tremendous progress women have made in the workplace, she notes, women are still under-represented in the higher echelons of most professions.  The headwinds women face aren’t, in her view, due to government policy or overt discrimination directed against women.  “Instead, the problems we face are subtler. They come partly from the media, partly from society, partly from biology, and partly from our own vastly unrealistic expectations.”  Like Slaughter, Spar has a variety of prescriptions aimed at making the path to the top easier for women.

What interested me about the articles is that both Slaughter and Spar question the feasibility or wisdom of women’s pursuit of “it all,” at least in the current milieu.  Spar puts it as follows: “The only way that American women will ever fully solve the ‘women’s problem’ is by recognizing the quest for perfection for what it is: a myth. No woman can have it all, and by using all as the standard of success, we are only condemning ourselves and our daughters to failure.”  Or, if not failure, using such a yardstick condemns them to misery.  Spar cites the case of a young former student who seemed to be doing everything well.  The young woman saw herself differently, though.   “’Each time someone commented on how I’m always in a good mood or smiling, I felt more and more like a phony,’ she confessed. ‘If only they knew that, behind closed doors, I cried and crumbled under unrealistic expectations set not by peers or professors, but by me.’”

Slaughter, too, came to the realization that working at a high-status, high pressure job while at the same time participating in her family was not so much impossible as unsatisfying.  She considered various ways to make the combination work, but finally decided that wasn’t what she wanted to do:  “I realized that I didn’t just need to go home. Deep down, I wanted to go home. I wanted to be able to spend time with my children in the last few years that they are likely to live at home, crucial years for their development into responsible, productive, happy, and caring adults. But also irreplaceable years for me to enjoy the simple pleasures of parenting—baseball games, piano recitals, waffle breakfasts, family trips, and goofy rituals.”  Slaughter thinks that as a nation we should focus more on happiness than on achievement: “Last I checked, [Thomas Jefferson] did not declare American independence in the name of life, liberty, and professional success. Let us rediscover the pursuit of happiness, and let us start at home.”

So, perhaps the question shouldn’t be, “Can women have it all?” but “Is it good for them to try to have it all?”  Even better, let’s ask “Is it good for anyone to try to have it all?”  Women in our society still have more obstacles to achieving their goals than do men—a situation that we need to address more than we have thus far—but life is always lived within limits, and striving to do everything perfectly comes dangerously close to denying that we have such limits.  Kierkegaard said that nearly all of us are in despair because we want to be a self but can’t accept the self we are.  One form that such despair takes is the “despair of possibility”—a lack of recognition that our capacities are limited and what we can do pales in comparison to what we would like to do.  I’ve not had to juggle the multiple demands that many women try to keep aloft (except for a few years after I was divorced).  Nonetheless, my experience is of having repeatedly tried to take on more and more commitments and interests, until I realize once again that I can’t do everything and whatever satisfactions my accomplishments bring me are outweighed by the stress of trying to keep it all going.  Then, for a while anyway, I go back to being the self that is a good fit for me rather than the self I would like to be, and am relieved.  Why strive for having it all when that striving in and of itself takes away our peace and contentment?

Early in March, I went to London with a group from Methodist University. It was a marvelous trip; I hope to write blog entries about a few of the highlights.  One thing I did while there was attend the play End of the Rainbow at Trafalgar Studios in the West End.  The plot concerns Judy Garland’s personal and professional struggles near the end of her life.  The audience first sees Garland (played by Tracie Bennett) entering a hotel room accompanied by Mickey (Stephen Hagen), her recently acquired fiancé.  She is in London for five weeks of shows at the Talk of the Town club.  Waiting for her at the hotel is Anthony (Hilton McRae), and old friend who is to be her accompanist for the performances.  She is a wreck: broke, hungry for drugs and alcohol, even more hungry for attention, and emotionally labile.  

Photograph by Robert Day

Much of her neediness is directed at Mickey.  We learn that she met him while performing six weeks earlier at a club he managed.  He had initially supplied her with drugs, but now imagines himself as her protector, and, in that role, tries to keep her sober.  Those who promise to protect often desire to control, though, and Mickey is no exception.  The script portrays him as something of a thug.  Anthony accuses him of using Judy as his meal ticket, and he confirms this judgment near the end of the play by reversing course and foisting drugs on her when that seems to be the only way to get her to continue to perform.  Judy alternately dotes over Mickey and tantrums when he doesn’t give her what she wants. 

In the hotel room rehearsing with Anthony for the engagement, Judy insouciantly dashes through the lyrics, at one point crossing out a few lines with the comment, “They’ll be applauding then.”  Her mood bounces from elation to despair.  Some of the professed despair is in fact manipulation—she threatens to jump from the balcony as a ploy to avoid paying the hotel bill—but from time to time her inner emptiness is evident.  It’s ironic that someone who received such adulation during her life could still be craving more.  In his conversation with the woman at the well recorded in John 4, Jesus contrasts ordinary water with living water, the drinkers of which “will never be thirsty.”  Public acclaim is the former sort of liquid—temporarily satisfying but over the long run intensifying rather than sating thirst.  

Though the play is set mainly in the hotel room, at times the back wall is raised to reveal a small orchestra.  The play’s audience then becomes the audience at the Talk of the Town for Judy’s shows.   In contrast to her desultory singing during rehearsal, the musical numbers at the Talk of the Town are marvelous; Ms. Bennett is certainly a wonderful singer.  After the success of opening night, though, Judy’s psyche, loosely wound to began with, unravels further.   She keeps absconding from Mickey’s supervision to drink and seek drugs, claiming that that’s the only way she can continue to perform every night.  We eventually learn reasons why she’s struggling.  For one thing, she fears abandonment, pleading with Mickey at one point,” Don’t give up on me, the men I love tend to leave.  They go when I’m not looking.”  Shortly thereafter, she sings, poignantly, “The Man That Got Away.”  She also confides to Anthony that she is terrified of going on stage, saying, “it’s a terrible thing to know what you’re capable of and to never get there.” 

Anthony is Judy’s encourager and confidant, a safe person amidst the sharks surrounding her.  He is gay, something that plays a major role in the play’s humor.  Predictable and humdrum jokes about his lack of heterosexual interest are the show’s the weakest element.  When Judy reveals her fear to Anthony, he replies soothingly, “we all are frightened, like little children.  The best that we can do is find someone to go through it with us.”  He says he will be that someone; he invites Judy to move into his house, where she will be safe from the world’s menace.  We learn at the end of the play that Judy instead went on to marry Mickey.  I’m not sure that any choice she made at that point would have saved her from herself.  At one point, she asks Mickey, “Do you love me, or do you love her,” referring to Judy Garland the singer and public figure.  He professes to love Judy the person, but even if he were telling the truth, which is doubtful, she doesn’t seem to believe that she can compete with the persona she’s created.  All of us have difficulty at times accepting and living as the self we truly are rather than the self we pretend to be, but at least the rest of us don’t have thousands of people idolizing our false self.  Perhaps taking drugs, including the barbiturates that killed her, was Judy’s desperate attempt to escape from both the star she had created and the frightened soul that she was convinced would never match the brilliance of that personage.

I recently saw the movie The Social Network, based loosely on the founding of Facebook.  The story is an ironic one: as screenwriter Aaron Sorkin put it in The New Yorker, “It’s a group of, in one way or another, socially dysfunctional people who created the world’s great social-networking site.”  The movie isn’t intended as a factual account; it is based on known facts, but is a dramatic retelling. 

We first meet Mark Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg), Facebook’s creator, as a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore talking with his then-girlfriend Erica.  He alternately seeks to impress her with his knowledge, yearns for membership in one of Harvard’s final clubs, and shows barely concealed distain towards her.  She breaks up with him, not for his being a geek, she says, but “for being an a–hole.”  Hurt, he goes to his dorm room, gets drunk, writes a nasty blog entry about her, and hacks into the Harvard computer system to create a website inviting Harvard males to rate the comparative attractiveness of Harvard coeds.  The overwhelming response to the site crashes the Harvard server by 4 the next morning.  Mark, it seems, is insensitive, desirous of social acceptance, vengeful, and terribly capable. 

Mark’s escapade with the coed ranking site attracts the attention of Harvard seniors and identical twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer), who are members of the social elite that Mark aspires to.  They ask Mark to join them in creating a social networking site for Harvard students.  He agrees, then strings them along while he creates his own site (initially called thefacebook) with the financial assistance of his closest friend, Eduardo Saverin (played by Andrew Garfield).  The twins soon learn of the betrayal and, after their attempts to resolve their complaint with Mark and the Harvard authorities fail, they sue.  Eventually, Mark, having fallen under the influence of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), betrays Eduardo by diluting Eduardo’s shares in the corporation down to almost nothing, and he sues as well.  Much of the movie cuts from the principals and their lawyers sitting in depositions for these lawsuits to the actions being described in the depositions.  The social relationships of these social network builders are irreparably broken.  Mark seems incapable of establishing a meaningful emotional connection with anyone.

The movie suggests that Mark’s main motivation is acceptance by the social elite, especially by members of the final clubs.  As the fledgling Facebook starts to grow, Eduardo but not Mark is selected for possible membership by one of the final clubs.  Mark professes indifference to Eduardo’s acceptance, but there is a strong suggestion that Mark betrays Eduardo over envy.  What makes the movie so dispiriting is that Mark is driven by desire for something without value.  The members of the club to which he aspires are arrogant, condescending towards nonmembers, misogynist, and hedonistic.  Augustine wrote that we are defined by our loves, and that happiness is only possible if the object of our love is conducive to enhancing our well-being.  Even had Mark been accepted in the social circles he aspired to, it seems unlikely that he could have been happy.

I wrote earlier about the modern malaise of loneliness.  I suggested at that time that social networking sites provide only a thin veneer of community and may intensify loneliness.  Similarly, in a Newsweek review of Social Network, Jeremy McCarter suggests “A site that began as a response to modern loneliness looks, after the film, like a record of our own struggle with that condition.”  Our Facebook connections are superficial largely because we have a narcissistic turn when we sign on; that is, we tend to portray ourselves as more clever and important than we are, and we look to others for affirmation of that inflated self.  As portrayed in the film, Mark Zuckerberg certainly is somewhat narcissistic, and we become more like him when we enter his creation.  Narcissism is only part of the story, though. The Zuckerberg of the film has narcissistic elements, but I view him as being more autistic than narcissistic.  I’m not referring to the psychiatric diagnosis of autism but to the original meaning of the term.  My 1966 edition of the American College Dictionary defines autism as “fantasy; introverted thought; daydreaming; marked subjectivity of interpretation.”  Though he wanted acceptance, in the film Mark always took an inward turn; how he imagined the world and recreated it in his mind and in cyberspace was more important to him than how others actually viewed him.  Might not Facebook be autistic in the same sense: each of us creating our own fantasy, each pleased with the world we have made?

I recently read Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 by Frederic Morton.  I was fascinated by the confluence of the decrepit Habsburg monarchy, the entrenched aristocracy, the socialist and communist revolutionaries, and the psychoanalytic establishment all within the confines of prewar Vienna (the book concludes with Austria and the other European powers going to war in August, 1914).  In a passage I found thought-provoking, Morton describes Viennese political writer Karl Kraus’ analysis of the assassination of Austrian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip.  The assassination, thought Kraus, was not the work of a single man, of a subversive organization, or even a nation, for: “No less a force than progress stands behind this deed—progress and education unmoored from God. . .”  

Morton thinks that the progress that Kraus was alluding to was the progress of modernization and industrialization.  Princip’s ancestors had lived for centuries in a zadruga, a Bosnian farming community.  His father, displaced from the land, had earned his living as a postman.  Thus, the family was dislocated not only from farm and community but from the spirituality of nature.  The next generation was even more estranged.  As Morton puts it:

 “His son Gavrilo, more educated than his father, more sensitive, more starved for the wholeness that is holiness and thus more resentful of the ruins all about him, had to seek another garden.  He sought something that would satisfy his disorientation and his anger; something which, as his readings of Nietzsche suggested, would restore the valor of the vital principle that his race had lost.” (p. 319)

 Princip found as his guiding principle hatred of the Austrians who occupied Bosnia.  He sought to drive out the Austrians and reclaim Bosnia as a Slavic land.  Even if this enterprise had proved successful, though, it could never have restored his grandparents’ Eden, for that had been lost to modernity.

 I was particularly struck by Morton’s diagnosis of Princip’s plight: he was “starved for the wholeness that is holiness.”  What is the connection between holiness and wholeness, and how does modernity deprive of that wholeness?  Kraus seems to have believed that God is experienced via the natural world, and the mechanization and industrialization of modern societies exclude God and thereby the holy from our lives, leaving us fragmented.  Were he to see our lives today, I imagine that he would think that the alienation of the spirit that was already proceeding rapidly in 1914 has not slacked its pace since then. 

 My thoughts about the modern diminishment of both holiness and wholeness were given additional impetus by a posting on a listserv for therapists to which I subscribe.  Dr. Mark Stern, the author of the post, expressed concern that modern technology has changed psychotherapy, intruding on the “sacred Sabbath of the psychotherapy hour.”  He described the resulting loss in exactly the same language of wholeness and holiness that Morton uses:

 “I’m not at all sure the ways in which the paradox of wholeness/holiness has become distanced from these times. Personally, I fear that the robotization of what is still referred to as therapy (though, in reality, behavioral manipulation), has placed some closure on the sacredness of the individual. In place of depth affirmation of inner life; of embodied vision and of the practice of delving into the richness of latent knowledge, the standards of manualized techniques have moved away from the mysteries.”

 gearsThe therapist’s office no longer serves as a sanctuary from the ruin wrought by the machine; it has largely been mechanized itself, so that the refugees seeking solace there are simply subjected to one more technology.

 We live in unholy times—times when the sacred is given short shrift.  Many still have a yearning for holiness and wholeness, as evidenced by the popularity of seeker-friendly churches, religious ritual, and new-age spirituality.  Like Humpty-Dumpty, though, we aren’t put together again very readily.  I hope to reflect in a later post on what is conducive to the wholeness that stems from holiness.

Recently I wrote a post on Dorothy Day’s quasi-autobiography The Long Loneliness.  A few days later, I ran across this Newsweek article on loneliness in American society.  The news on the loneliness front is bad:  we’re getting more lonely all the time.  For example, over a twenty-year period, there was a three-fold increase in the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters. 

Loneliness is not the same thing as being alone.   The definition of loneliness given by the article is the same one used in most psychological research on the subject, namely that it is “an aversive emotional response to a perceived discrepancy between a person’s desired levels of social interaction and the contact they’re actually receiving.”  I have thought about whether the definition fit me.   I live alone and spend quite a bit of time by myself but am seldom lonely.  I actually would like somewhat more social interaction than I have, but not with the people readily available for that interaction.  (What I would like is to have more contact with people who live some distance away.)   It never made much sense to me to lament not having more interaction with others, and I do manage to fill much of my time alone with things that I either enjoy or think are useful.  My experience suggests that it is possible to have the discrepancy that the definition refers to without also having the “aversive emotional response.” 

The Newsweek article makes a number of fairly obvious points about loneliness persisting for many in our society despite increased electronic connections with others.  Facebook and MySpace provide only a thin sense of community.  Looking at Facebook can be the occasion for comparing one’s pathetic social involvement to the great relationships that everyone else seems immersed in, thereby evoking increased loneliness.  Sure, we know that Facebook Walls just present the most superficial of facades—they really do serve as walls that hide more than they reveal—but the stories they tell at least contain actors and scenes that seem much better than anything going on in our lives. 


On the other hand, perhaps the problem isn’t so much that social network sites are the relational equivalent of junk food as that, in both online and face-to-face interactions, we aren’t looking for what is most sustaining–a genuine encounter with another human being.  What Dorothy Day did much better than I or most people I know was to get outside the confines of self and take interest in others.  Her descriptions of the people that flowed through the hospitality houses, farms, and factories she frequented are the richest chapters of her memoir.  Exploring and cherishing the uniqueness of each person was an effective salve for her loneliness.  It’s a prescription that perhaps could benefit many in our age of isolation.

The magazine Business Week recently tried to determine the most unhappy cities (among the 50 largest) in America.   To make their estimates, they combined several measures that they judged would indicate misery among the populace.  The factors weighted most heavily were depression level, suicide rate, crime rate, and economic factors.  The first three of these certainly make sense; though income level is a fairly weak predictor of unhappiness, the economic indicators that were chosen–unemployment and job loss–may be a better predictor.  Attention was also given to divorce, the amount of green space, and number of cloudy days.  So, what rust belt city came out on top . . . er, on bottom?  None of them did!  Number one in misery was instead awarded to:


That’s Portland, Oregon, with Mt. Hood in the background.  Portland residents have achieved their lofty rating by having the highest depression rate of any of the 50 cities.  They also divorce a lot (ranking fourth in that category) and have plenty of cloudy days (220 a year).  Second prize goes to St. Louis largely by virtue of having the highest crime rate of any of the cities studied; third was New Orleans and fourth was Detroit.  More dreary Midwestern cities made the top ten, but so did sunbelt havens Las Vegas and Jacksonville, Florida.  The entire report can be found here. 

I wonder about the methodology of the study.  Though some of the measures at least have good face validity, others are more arguable.  How sure can we be that the clouds over Portland actually make its residents more unhappy?  Green space is nice to have, but does it really contribute substantially to happiness?  Depression estimates were based on doctor/hospital reports and insurance claims.  Maybe Portland’s high depression rating is an artifact of more people in Portland than elsewhere discussing their mood with their physician.  Or it could be that Portland doctors are more prone to use the mental health codes from the diagnostic manual when billing insurance providers.

Regardless of how accurate the specific rankings are, it does make sense to think that some cities have more unhappiness than others.  Though factors such as those examined by the Business Week writers may start the unhappiness ball rolling, it probably acquires a momentum of its own.  I blogged earlier about the contagion of happiness–happiness, like the flu, seems to pass from one individual to the next.  It makes sense to think that unhappiness works the same way.  So, Portlanders, watch out for those depressed neighbors!  Washing your hands often and sucking up zinc capsules may ward off colds, but they won’t keep you from catching this form of dis-ease!

Here’s the second of the responses to the paper I presented at the Stone Lyceum last week.  Kelly Walter Carney faults the virtue ethics tradition for not being a suitable perspective for women, and suggests that the concept of happiness that I used is not applicable cross-culturally and focuses on the individual at the expense of community.  I appreciate the points she made.  The concept of happiness that is prevalent in our society is pallid and truncated.  I suggested that there’s little point in chasing after that sort of happiness, and presented alternate ways to live our lives.  Dr. Carney’s comments further enrich that discussion.


Here’s what she had to say:


Reply to: “Happiness: Let’s Stop Pursuing it” by Dr. Robert Ritzema


I’ve been thinking about this evening for months. For the past few weeks, especially, I’ve been formulating a series of replies to Dr Ritzema’s paper. Every day or two I’d have a completely different plan for what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I’d get the idea in the evening, after the kids had gone to bed; by lunchtime the next day, it would be brilliant. By the time the kids were in bed again, it would be terrible – two days later, it would be brilliant again.

So, I’ve chosen not to choose. I’m bringing you all my responses. Well, many of them. If you want to be postmodern, you can call this a pastiche of replies; if you want to be feminist, you can call it a quilt of conversations; if you want to be political, you can call it a stimulus package of scholarship; if you want to be Methodist, you can call it a covered-dish supper of responses. If you don’t like the fried chicken, perhaps the mac and cheese will satisfy.


My mind tends to wander down a few familiar paths; I like to go down those paths with new eyes, looking for new things. Prepare yourselves; a literature professor is going to respond to almost everything with, “Hey, that reminds me of a book I read….”


My first reaction was: “Oh no, not virtue ethics again.” I am wary of virtue ethics for lots of reasons. One of the major reasons is that “virtue” isn’t usually defined the same for women as for men; women can be virtuous, but mostly by helping men attain their (more interesting and socially esteemed) virtues. When we finally start to talk about virtues everyone can aspire to, we use the “male” virtues. Generally, virtue leaves me with the choice:  I can hope to fulfill a second class type of virtue or become an honorary male. Gee, thanks.


Maybe literature can help me here. Remember the final climactic scene in Henrik Ibsen’s play, “A Doll House.” Nora is explaining to her husband Torvald why she’s leaving him, after eight years and three children, saying, “I’venever been happy, only light hearted,” which shocks him. She explains that she has accepted, unexamined, her social role as determined by the government, church, and husband. He objects to her hope that he might sacrifice his reputation as bank manager to keep her from jail (Nora has a little problem with having fraudulently obtained a loan from a loan shark). Torvald argues, “No man sacrifices honor for love!” to which Nora retorts, “Thousands of women havedone just that” (Ibsen 2232). His inner sense of masculine virtue preserves him from sacrifice in this case, but she sees that her ‘virtue’ is located in one place only; she is defined by what she hasn’t done with her body. She saves her virtue – her sexual virtue, that is – and gives it to him when they are married. When a term like virtue has a different meaning for men and for women, that makes me sit up and take notice. It should be noticed that this doesn’t lead to anything resembling happiness, accidentally or intentionally.


Clearly, I’m drawing on Carol Gilligan here, who critiques the notion that “the very traits that traditionally have defined the ‘goodness’ of women, their care and sensitivity to the needs of others, are those that mark them as deficient in moral development” (18). She sees a female model of moral decision-making which “arises from conflicting responsibilities… and requires for its resolution a mode of thinking that is contextual and narrative rather than formal and abstract” (19). Women’s continued adherence to the “ethics of care” leads to an internal “conflict between rights and responsibilities” (130) familiar to all of us who have spent time grading, or, say, writing presentations, rather than tending children or laundry.


I thought about nature writing, and began to ask what we would find if we looked for happiness – the subject, not the thing itself – in nature writing. It seemed to me that I might find something resembling Dr. Ritzema’s argument there. So I let my mind wander to Yi Fu Tuan, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Wendell Berry, Inger Christensen, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams. I paused for a moment over Wendell Berry’s “Sayings of the Mad Farmer.” But I was drawn to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Abbey is probably best known as the patron saint of the Earth First! Movement and the monkeywrenchers; his novel The Monkeywrench Gang ends with the explosion of Glen Canyon Dam, that most superfluous of western feats of engineering. But before he recorded the adventures of Hayduke and pals, Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire. Modeled on Walden (like so much of American nature writing), it describes Abbey’s seasons as a park ranger at Arches National Monument near Moab, Utah. I could imagine Dr. Ritzema and Old Ed sitting around the campfire, passing a flask back and forth. Your imagination can fill the flask however you like:


Ed: “Look here,….do you think it’s fitting that you and I should be here in the wilds, risking our lives amidst untold hardships, while our wives and loved ones lounge at their ease back in Albuquerque, enjoying the multifoldcomforts, benefits and luxuries of modern contemporary twentieth century American urban civilization?” (Abbey 198)

Dr R: “Our natures conspire against happiness…” (Ritzema 3)

Ed: “If industrial man continues to multiply his numbers and expand his operations he will succeed in his apparent intention, to seal himself off from the natural and isolate himself within a synthetic prison of his own making. He will make himself an exile from the earth and then will know at last, if he is still capable of feeling anything, the pain and agony of final loss” (Abbey 211).

Dr R: “We are built to do what aids reproductive success, not to seek happiness. The pursuit of happiness may have some evolutionary benefit, but being too easily satisfied may lead to an evolutionary dead end. For the sake of our future offspring, it’s probably best for us to be somewhat disenchanted…” (Ritzema 7).

Ed: “Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless” (158).

“Let (the people) take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches—that is the right and privilege of any free American” (69).

Dr. R: “The story of the Buddha suggests that awareness of deathdetracts from happiness – or at least a certain type of happiness…. Mental illness and human evil are the result of our terror of deathand our efforts to establish bulwarks against it. When our efforts to be happy lead us to live as if we won’t die, we are in fact living in a world not of reality but illusion…” (Ritzema 11).

Ed: “Alone in the silence, I understand … the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly … the other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse — its implacable indifference” (240).

“See those big black scrawny wings far above, waiting? Comfort yourself with the reflection that within a few hours, if all goes as planned, your human flesh will be working its way through the gizzard of a buzzard, your essence transfigured into the fierce greedy eyes and unimaginable consciousness of a turkey vulture. Whereupon you, too, will soar on motionless wings high over the ruck and rack of human suffering. For most of us, a promotion in grade, for some the realization of an ideal” (148).

Dr R: “The rest of us though are happy enough. Few of us will ever reach a state of perfect happiness, and our efforts to marginally increase our happiness are likely to distract us from other meaningful goals and be counterproductive…” (Ritzema 10).

Ed: “I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities…. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate” (7).

Clearly, our philosophers find much to agree about; Old Ed has nothing but disdain for comfortable middle class notions of happiness. There are few things he hates as much as a paved road. Both Dr. Ritzemaand Ed Abbey worry that paying too much attention to this world leads to insanity (and not the healthy kind of insanity that comes from spending several months alone in the desert) or is at least counterproductive. Dr. Ritzemawishes we would pursue virtue rather than happiness, and Ed Abbey knows exactly where and how we should pursue virtue – getting lost, alone, in the wilderness, reaching the point where we welcome the buzzards circling above us.


Dr. Ritzema’s operating definition of happiness is “Subjectivewell-being based on a positiveevaluation of how one’s life seems to be going.” I thought I might take this definition withme into some Native American literature, to see if it is useful cross-culturally. Turns out, it isn’t. The isolation of ideas one from another – the good from the happy – doesn’t work if you think the good person is the happy person is the person who is best connected to the world around her. Consider this poem by Joy Harjo (Creek Muscogee):


To pray you open your whole self

To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon

To one whole voice that is you.

And know there is more

That you can’t see, can’t hear,

Can’t know except in moments

Steadily growing, and in languages

That aren’t always sound but other

Circles of motion.

Like eagle that Sunday morning

Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky

In wind, swept our hearts clean

With sacred wings.

We see you, see ourselves and know

That we must take the utmost care

And kindness in all things.

Breathe in, knowing we are made of

All this, and breathe, knowing

We are truly blessed because we

Were born, and die soon within a

True circle of motion,

Like eagle rounding out the morning

Inside us.

We pray that it will be done

In beauty.

In beauty. (85)


Here she references the Navajo Night Chant, a ritual which takes place over several nights. Its purpose is healing; different chants are understood to be curative of different illness, and the Night Chant is considered especially appropriate for “blindness, deafness, headaches, …and insanity” ( (Bierhorst288). It contains passages which are concerned withrepelling evil, alternating with passages designed to attract goodness, as physical problems are generally considered symptomatic of spiritual issues. Throughout the series of healing sessions, the patient reenacts the appropriate portions of the Navajo creation story, symbolically recreating themselves in right relation to the world (Bierhorst 281-283).. At the end, the patient emerges from the Hogan, remade, reborn, and singing:


Happily may I walk.

Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk.

May it be beautiful before me,

May it be beautiful behind me,

May it be beautiful below me,

May it be beautiful above me,

May it be beautiful all around me.

In beauty it is finished. (Harjo 213)

The word generally translated as “beauty” is “hozho,” which might be better translated as “blessed” or “harmonious” or “balanced” or “complete” or “peace.” It is a complicated word, especially in our context, for it suggests that virtue and awareness are not isolated from happiness, and that one who is disconnected from the world – the whole world, present, past, spiritual, material, human, nonhuman— will attain none of these qualities.


In the end, it may be easy to be happy alone, however one defines happiness, and it is definitely easy to be virtuous in isolation – as anyone who is married, or has children, or has parents or siblings or roommates knows, it is so much more difficult to be virtuous with all those people around, getting into your stuff and your space. This is the question I – and my literary friends – are asking: what about community? How can we be happy in connection to others? How can we attain self-awareness without an awareness of others? How can we be virtuous if we conceive of identity not as something we create alone, but as something shaped by the network of expectations, responsibilities, and responses around us? This is where my various responses have led me. Certainly my knee-jerk feminist anxiety about virtue ethics suggests that there are some limitations to isolationist notions of happiness and virtue.


The thought that these ideas might ring true for the isolated self often elevated in nature writing gives us trouble, for even Ed Abbey, desert rat that he is, can’t stop talking to the tourists, prying them out of their automobiles. He can’t find himself alone, he can’t be happy alone, he can’t be virtuous (and he seems contented with virtue ethics) alone – even if there are no people, there is the desert which gives him context. He knows that the desert is not empty, not really, and it doesn’t respond to him, but he responds to it.


Perhaps the failure of these ideas for a tribal culture can be dismissed; after all, that’s a different context with different issues and different assumptions. Yet I must confess it is this alternative I find myself most drawn to, personally and philosophically, and I must conclude that, if we can’t seek happiness, we ought to maintain hozho, balancing our rights and responsibilities to all our relations, and walk in beauty.


Works Cited

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.


Bierhorst, John. Four Masterworks of American Indian Literature: Quetzalcoatl, The Ritual of Condolence, Cuceb, The Night Chant. Tucson: U Arizona P, 1974.


Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.


Harjo, Joy. How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002.


Ibsen, Henrik “A Doll House.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, 9th Ed. Eds Alison


Booth, J. Paul Hunter, And Kelly J. Mays. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005. 2186-2233.


Ritzema, Robert. “Happiness: Let’s Stop Pursuing It.” B.F. Stone Lyceum, Methodist University, 7 April, 2009.

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