unhappiness


I have been writing about themes that stood out to me when I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Most recently, I discussed the importance and challenge of being genuine with oneself and others. Why do the characters in the book find it so difficult to be genuine? As I read IJ, it seemed to me that one reason for this difficulty was that characters were uncomfortable with being a self, at least a reflective, internally aware self. I wrote in the last post about Hal Incandenza’s lack of genuine inner experience. What causes him to shut himself off from his inner life to such an extent? Possibly because he recoils at what he sees within:

“One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.” p. 695

It’s tempting to skate on the surface, pretending we are just the image we project, with none of the struggles or shadows of the inner self. As Kierkegaard explained in The Sickness Unto Death, we want to be a self, but don’t want to be the self we are. As with Hal, to many of us that inner self seems hideous.

What makes Hal’s reaction “really American,” though? Kierkegaard was of course talking about a universal discomfort with the self, not an American one. DFW might agree that such discomfort crosses cultural lines, but he seems to think that aspects of American society make it particularly difficult to be a genuine self. Sometimes that connection to the American context is made explicit, as in the following discussion of American involvement with “recreational substances:”

“Like who isn’t, at some life-stage, in the U.S.A. and Interdependent regions, in these troubled times, for the most part. Though a decent percentage of E.T.A. students aren’t at all. I.e. involved. Some persons can give themselves away to an ambitious pursuit and have that be all the giving-themselves-away-to-something they need to do. Though sometimes this changes as the players get older and the pursuit more stress-fraught. American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels.” (p. 53)

Giving oneself away is probably not quite the same thing as trying to escape oneself, but there’s certainly overlap between the two. The “virtually unlimited” need to give oneself away is apparently a particularly American experience, associated with “troubled times” as well as with “stress-fraught” endeavors.

There are two types of giving oneself away alluded to here: via the pursuit of excellence and via substance abuse. DFW seems to see both of these avenues as endemic in the U.S. Regarding the first, an entertainment cartridge by Mario Incandenza (like his father, Mario was interested in making films) about the daily routines of E.T.A. students includes the following narration:

“Here is how to avoid thinking about any of this by practicing and playing until everything runs on autopilot and talent’s unconscious exercise becomes a way to escape yourself, a long waking dream of pure play.” (p. 173)

Turning oneself into a tennis playing robot is one way to get away from oneself. Viewing films or videos, often referred to as “entertainments,” is another. This viewing is done mostly at home, in private, via “pulses, storage cartridges, digital displays, domestic decor–an entertainment market of sofas and eyes.” (p. 620)  It is “A floating no-space world of personal spectation.” Immersion in this world is a way both of avoiding others and avoiding oneself. One of the book’s plots has to do with an entertainment cartridge so enticing that those who have viewed it will do nothing (even eat) except view it again and again. It is the next-to-the most-radical way of  escaping from oneself.

The ultimate escape from the self, both extreme and permanent, is suicide, referred to paradoxically as “that most self-involved of acts, self-cancelling.” James Incandenza killed himself, as did Eric Clipperton, a junior tennis player. As mentioned in an earlier post, Joelle Van Dyne attempted suicide to escape from her addiction to cocaine. Kate Gompart, another Ennis House resident who, like James I, is clinically depressed, has had three suicide attempts and continues to have suicidal thoughts.

Unless the person actually dies, it’s impossible to completely escape the self. For example, immersing oneself in competitive tennis may be a way of giving oneself away, but, from the perspective of Schtitt, the head coach, this exit will lead right back to what the player is running from:

“The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe; he is more the partner in the dance. He is the what is the word excuse or occasion for meeting the self.” (p. 84)

Similarly, substance abuse only allows temporary escape. Eventually the user has to quit in order to stay alive, at which point the self intrudes more intensely than ever. One thing learned in recovery is that the addict will “find yourself beginning to pray to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you.” (p. 201) I think the mind here is pretty much the same thing as the self that the user has been trying to evade all along.

To sum up, then, there is a general tendency among Americans–represented in IJ by the residents of E.T.A. and Ennet House–to try to escape the self. DFW seems to be suggesting that this desire to escape is exacerbated in American culture, and that that culture provides a variety of strategies that seem to promise relief from one’s inner self. Ultimately, though none of these strategies deliver on that promise. I think Wallace’s cultural critique is as valid now as when he penned it. Does Wallace offer any hope for accepting oneself rather than being driven to escape from it? As I’ll discuss in a later post, I think he does.

Competitive tennis, a way of escaping oneself. Image from http://www.brickjest.com.

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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.

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When we first meet Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck)  at the start of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea, it’s evident that something isn’t right with him. Lee, an apartment building janitor, goes about his work without complaint–shoveling snow, fixing faucets, and the like–but won’t supply even the slightest social lubricant to grease interactions with the residents he encounters. In fact, he seems to deliberately provoke one woman who is a bit obdurate about the matter of a leaky tub. He lives by himself in a basement room and spends his evening drinking by himself in a bar, where he ignores a flirting woman but takes offense when a couple of guys  look at him from across the room, picking a fight with them. Lee is troubled, but there is no indication of what might be troubling him. That makes him enigmatic. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe describes the movie as “a ghost story about a man who’s still alive,” and that’s about right.

In Lee’s case, it turns out that the ghost is himself haunted, as we learn from a series of flashbacks that are intercut with Lee’s response to a family crisis. He receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler)  is hospitalized. Joe dies while Lee is en route from South Boston to Manchester, on the North Shore. Joe’s will names Lee custodian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s spirited, temperamental teenage son. Joe’s plan was that Lee would move back to Manchester to care for Patrick, something Lee emphatically doesn’t want to do. About an hour into the film, we learn why: he had experienced a devastating tragedy when living there. It’s no wonder that he wants to be far away from reminders of what happened.

As a psychologist, I deal regularly with people who have suffered from trauma, usually either wartime combat or childhood abuse. Many of them are like Lee, trying to distract themselves from what happened but nonetheless pursued by it, easily swept into the maelstrom of memory. Scenes of past interactions between Lee and a younger Patrick show that Lee once had a playful, lighthearted side. As with some of my clients, that playful self has been lost. Like them, Lee’s interactions with others produce not joy but awkwardness, irritation, and withdrawal.

Lee tries to do the right thing. He delays his return to Boston and moves in with Patrick, driving his nephew to school and band practice, He doesn’t know quite what to do with a teenage boy: when Patrick indicates that he wants one of his two girlfriends to spend the night, a puzzled Lee asks, “Am I supposed to tell you to use a condom?” Sometimes he is arbitrary, as when he decides he doesn’t want Patrick’s other girlfriend to visit, announcing “I don’t like her. Sorry.” He is cross and uncommunicative, as might be expected of someone who is trying his best to suppress the feelings constantly churning within. Looking out over Manchester in one scene, he is suddenly moved to frenzy, putting his fist through a window. Later, Patrick notices his bandaged hand. Their exchange goes like this:

Patrick: What happened to your hand?
Lee: I hurt it.
Patrick: (Smiling) For a minute there I didn’t know what happened to it.

Patrick sees the ludicrous side to Lee’s strained reticence, but Lee is too caught up in his struggles to notice the humor.

We like our stories to be redemptive, for healing to occur and people to grow as a result of their tragedies. Movies often cater to such desires. There is such a thing as post-traumatic growth–positive psychological change resulting from negative experiences. The mistake we make is to think that good always comes from adversity. Manchester-by-the-Sea reminds us that not every calamity has a happy ending. Lee never recovers his playful, buoyant self; we see only a faint echo of that self at the very end.  When his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) attempts to reach out to him, he can’t connect meaningfully with her. He appears to be permanently impaired.

Sometimes, as with Lee, the best we can manage is to soldier on courageously, doing what we think is required of us without any hope of receiving any joy or comfort in return. Here’s to the thousands of those for whom pain has become a way of life but are still trying to do what’s right. May they find peace.

 

I was walking on Bridge Street in Grand Rapids yesterday and was startled to see a huge banner under the US-131 underpass proclaiming “Shame on Ritsema.” It’s not every day that I see my name (or, in this case, a variant spelling of my name: Ritsema rather than Ritzema) openly shamed. What had the Ritsema in question done to deserve such approbation?

There were two people by the banner, a slight woman and a tall, muscular man, and I stopped to ask them what they were protesting. They said they weren’t permitted to discuss the matter, but they did offer me a flyer, which I later scanned into my computer. Apparently the Ritsema in question is a business named for some distant relative in the construction industry, whose alleged offense is failure to pay employees the area standard wage. The flyer is illustrated with a picture of a rat chewing an American flag, pictorially representing “desecration of the American way of life.”

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I am more amused than disturbed by having my name maligned publicly. I react as most members of modern Western societies probably would—that this matter has nothing to do with me, that I personally did nothing wrong. That reaction is characteristic of a culture that is much more guilt-based than shame based. In centuries past, and in some cultures to this day, such a public denigration of one’s name would have been much more distressing. In a shame-based culture, the possibility that others could see such a sign and think ill of anyone who bore that name would bring distress and a sense that one is somehow less than others. In such a case, to dishonor the name I carry is to dishonor me.

I’m glad that the sign didn’t cause me to feel shame or dishonor. I’m not sure, though, that indifference to such aspersions on one’s name makes life any easier. We are still being evaluated by others, though the basis for such evaluation is not what someone says about our names but our words and actions. The onus is then on us to create a positive impression. Just as we don’t bear much shame from the reputation of our families, we don’t get much benefit from their reputations, either. Few of us anymore get a pass for our transgressions because, after all, we come from a good family. We’re responsible for what others think of us. So we worry about how we’re coming across to others. We may not feel much shame, but we have enough anxiety to take its place.

A few years ago, described a report of the work of psychologist Cliff Arnall, who found that the third Monday in January is the unhappiest day of the year. According to that study, we have two weeks yet to spiral down to the nadir of happiness. Today I learned that there is apparently some disagreement about the most dolorous day. News organizations are describing today as the most depressing day of the year. Again, British researchers were involved (it seems the British are more interested than the rest of us in unhappiness). These researchers looked at the content of tweets each day over the past three years and identified January 6 as the low point. A common theme in the tweets for this day was guilt over broken New Year’s resolutions. Also, a British organization that helps people file for divorce (Britain again!) has designated the first Monday in January as Divorce Monday, the day that divorce filings are highest.

So, which day is really the lowest day of the year? I’m not too happy about the weather today (snow, with wind chills to 30 below), but otherwise I’m feeling pretty good. I neither made any resolutions nor will file for divorce, so I guess that makes me a misery laggard.

There are a couple ironies about this story. First, the British researchers in the recent study were commissioned by a firm that makes a high-protein dairy drink named Upbeat. Why are Upbeat folks interested in unhappiness? Also, today happens to be the feast of Epiphany, celebrating the wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus and ushering in the season of Epiphany, which will last until Lent. The term “epiphany” has to do with a manifestation or appearance of the divine, as in the manifestation of Christ’s divinity to the Magi. Thus, for me and millions of others for whom today is associated with God having become human, today is definitely day of joy.

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A recent article by Liz Kulze on the Atlantic website gave counterintuitive information about abuse of prescription drugs in America.  It’s not those who are seeking to escape the misery of poverty or discrimination.  It’s not older people who inadvertently got hooked on pain meds.  It’s not gang members.  The group who is far and away the most likely to abuse prescription drugs are young, white, affluent males.

oxycontinSubstance abuse of all sorts can be viewed as an attempt to deal with a problem.  Often, it is an escape from something intolerable.  So what’s intolerable about a life of privilege?

Kulze suggests that privilege itself is the problem; having never been challenged, these teens and young adults haven’t developed any sort of resources to deal with even the ordinary struggles of high school and college.    She cites Dr. Madeline Levine, a psychologist who suggested in her book The Price of Privilege that an elite lifestyle is detrimental to character development.   According to Dr. Levine, “Indulged, coddled, pressured and micromanaged on the outside, my young patients appeared to be inadvertently deprived of the opportunity to develop on the inside.”  Research suggests that a childhood containing a modest amount of stress is associated with better long-term adjustment than childhoods with either severe stress or no stress.  For example, a study of Illinois Bell employees during a company crisis in the 1970s and 80s found that those who handled the turmoil well—staying healthy, keeping their jobs or quickly finding new ones—tended to have had fairly tough childhoods.  Indulging children doesn’t do them any favors; it leaves them ill-prepared for adulthood and, as often as not, perpetually immature.

Kulze also notes that, ill-prepared as they are for even average accomplishments, privileged children are often saddled with unrealistic expectations for success.  The gulf between capabilities and expectations seems unbridgeable; no wonder that anything that dulls awareness of this huge discrepancy is appealing.  I particularly like the following sentence:  “Bereft of any authentic sense of self and the grit it takes to form one, and relentlessly pushed to socially defined ends, a privileged adolescence becomes the consummate breeding ground for self-harm, however unintended.”  I wish Kulze had elaborated on her point about the deficient sense of self in privileged adolescents.   Selves are developed though such processes as consistently receiving accurate feedback, testing oneself against some challenge, or interacting regularly with those who are different from oneself.  None of these things are likely to happen regularly among those who are coddled, protected, and given a sense of entitlement.

As a psychologist, I haven’t worked very much with privileged children, but I have seen a number of parents who raised their children by giving indiscriminate praise, providing a surfeit of material goods, and foregoing any meaningful standards for mature behavior.  In nearly every instance, when grown the children coped poorly with college, work, or relationships; many were substance abusers.  Having been taught that they weren’t to blame for anything, most learned little from repeated failures.  We don’t do our children any favors when we treat them like little princelings.

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.

A few weeks ago, Forbes came out with their list of America’s most miserable cities.  This is an annual list, and so provides us with regular updates on the amount of misery in various metropolitan areas.  Forbes looked at the largest 200 cities, using a variety of measures.  Specifically, the researchers looked at unemployment, tax rates, commute times, violent crime, weather, corruption (measured by convictions of public officials), Superfund sites, and how the city’s sports teams fared over the previous two years.  According to these measures, the most miserable place in America is Cleveland, Ohio.  Five of the 20 most miserable cities were in Ohio, giving the Buckeye State an advantage over the rest of the country in woe.  I have connections to three of those cities: When I was in graduate school I did internships in both Canton and Cleveland, and my oldest son was born in Akron, which is just a few miles from Kent, where we were living at the time.

The word misery is derived from the Latin miseria, which means “wretchedness.”  Do the factors that the Forbes researchers assessed have much to do with wretchedness?  Unemployment certainly seems related, and violent crime often makes its victims wretched.  Are poor weather, long commutes, and losing sports teams more than annoyances, though?   Wouldn’t homelessness, bankruptcy, poor health, and divorce all produce more wretchedness than these factors?

If we look beyond our borders, it’s not hard to find places where conditions seem to provide much more fertile ground for misery than anything in Cleveland.  I’m thinking here of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the political oppression in places like Myanmar and Tibet, the hunger in North Korea and parts of Africa, and the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I’m not convinced that even such severe hardships produce more than momentary misery, though.  According to numerous research studies, our level of happiness tends to dip after negative events, but rebounds fairly soon thereafter.  Most of that research wasn’t conducted in situations of severe adversity.  Still, we humans tend to be fairly resilient even in very trying circumstances.  That bodes well for the residents of Chile and Iraq, and even more so for those of Cleveland, Canton, and Akron.

The Misery Capital of America

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