This is a gorgeous essay to me. It has everything I love in content and style, and it’s quiet about the truth without faking it. I was a little girl in New York during the time Sante refers to, I’ve grown up with the music he refers to and collect Winston Riley-produced LPs, I’ve had relationships like the one he describes with E., and I know people who suffer as she did and hope they don’t share her fate. It’s not though that it’s all “relatable”—it’s how it’s all related to us. I once interviewed Luc Sante. He was a little difficult, but I didn’t mind at all and when we later met at a conference or writing thing of some sort, he acknowledged our dynamic and said I’d done a good interview. It was a great compliment, as I admire his work and his aesthetics very much and wanted my questions to show that I’d paid attention.
To that incredibly pathetic man who told me over and over I feel too much, who invalidated my feelings—love, anger, adoration, hurt—with a conviction that was directly proportionate to how much of a waffling entitled jerk he was being, for whom I was always too much or not enough, who blamed me and my oh-so-difficult emotions for his cowardice and disorder: uh, yeah. I’m just totally impossible and for no reason at all.
It’s good to know—to have known and to know again soon, I’m sure—that there are people out there calling out “positive thinking” for the phony nonsense it is. Positive thinking along with all its symptoms—throwing into question the validity of every fucking feeling that doesn’t radiate love and compassion, being evermore present… What can one possibly say? Positivity is an idiot’s prayer to stave off chaos. I associate its cult with that of presence (and so have some other people, at least that’s what the Atlantic article quoted below suggests).
If one more shallow person patly advises me to live in the present, I will strip them of all past and future tenses and that loss will be very difficult, just like life.
Phillip Lopate said it better in his essay “Against Joie de Vivre”:
The argument of both the hedonist and the guru is that if we were but to open ourselves to the richness of the moment, to concentrate on the feast before us, we would be filled with bliss. I have lived in the present from time to time, and I can tell you that it is much over-rated. Occasionally, as a holiday from stroking one’s memories or brooding about future worries, I grant you, it can be a nice change of pace. But to “be here now” hour after hour would never work. I don’t even approve of stories written in the present tense. As for poets who never use a past participle, they deserve the eternity they are striving for.Besides, the present has a way of intruding whether you like it or not; why should I go out of my way to meet it? Let it splash on me from time to time, like a car going through a puddle, and I, on the sidewalk of my solitude, will salute it grimly like any other modern inconvenience.
This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write.
And from the same Atlantic article:
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
If I had to choose, I’d take a meaningful life—with all its tensions and tenses—over a happy one.
My essay about trekking in Corsica (or sort of about that) won runner-up in Flyway‘s 2014 Notes from the Field nonfiction contest. Thank you Flyway and judge Christine Eisenberg. It was initially suggested (I’ll just keep to the passive voice here) that I “tone down” the essay’s racial content. I thought of that request today as I was discussing with students Hilton Als’ New Yorker profile of Richard Pryor. One landed on this Als insight into Pryor: “Being black has taught him how to allow white people their innocence. For black people, being around white people is sometimes like taking care of babies you don’t like, babies who throw up on you again and again, but whom you cannot punish, because they’re babies. Eventually, you direct that anger at yourself—it has nowhere else to go.” I could say this about a lot of mindlessly noxious people I’ve known, that they’re so impossible and damaging and unconscious, you end up hating you, not the bumbling fool. (That said, I’ve never really allowed the kind of innocence Als refers to; I’m not that good at suffering fools gladly.) I know what Als means with regard to all the impositions of race leading to a kind of anger with oneself. However the essay reads, I’m glad I didn’t “tone down” its racial contexts (more contexts than content). For those who aren’t white and for those who are (even when the latter don’t realize it), race is, very unfortunately, always a context.
Tags: Essays, New York, Reading
Come hear my friends Dustin Beall Smith and Kim Dana Kupperman, along with Best American Essays series editor Robert Atwan and me @ Cornelia Street Cafe in NYC — 6:00 pm on Wednesday, April 2.