Happy, Part Two

Jezebel recently posted an article about marital happiness that scared the shit out of me.  I would like to be married again.  I would like to be happily, permanently married this time.  But if I want him to be happy (under the supposition that, in a happy marriage, *both* parties have to be happy) he’d better be five years older than me.  If I want to be happy, he’d better be five years younger than me…

Two husbands, then?

As usual, there are a bunch of things wrong with studies like this.  First, is the more fundamental question of expectations.  Dissatisfaction (because the researchers look at satisfaction, not happiness) happens in the gap between what you expected and what you got.  Second is the assumptions about what makes for emotional well-being.  The biggest of which have nothing to do with who you married.

Let’s start with this: the purpose of marriage is not to make you happy.  Perhaps, to quote Mr. Collins, the purpose of marriage is to add very greatly to one’s happiness, but marriage is not there to make you happy.  If that is why you are getting married, reconsider.  If you are unhappy unmarried, you are going to be unhappy married.  You can’t eliminate one by getting rid of the other.

Many things go into a sense of personal well-being.  Work hours, a sense of purpose, balance of work and life, fitness, diet, feelings of accomplishment, gratitude, community, connection, sleep…  Our cultural narrative wherein our spouses are the one source for everything that makes us either happy or unhappy is bullshit, and a lot of marriages are ruined on those expectations.  Our social need for connection was once met by an entire community, and now we put that all on one person.  It is too great of a burden to bear.  The expectation that one person will make us happy is unrealistic.  And the dissatisfaction that festers in the gap between this unrealistic expectation and the immutable reality that this is impossible…  let’s just say that divorce grows there too.

Which isn’t to say that we can’t help create an environment where both parties can thrive.  We can look out for one another.  But no one can be grateful for you.  No one can select your attitude but you.  No one can create an activity level that promotes your sense of well-being for you.  No one can interrogate your thoughts but you.  All of those unhappy people, would they be any happier divorced?  Married to someone older/younger/more attractive?  What would happen if they all wrote down three things they were grateful for every day?  What if they wrote down three things they like/love/appreciate about their spouse every day?

We research and report on this shit breathlessly, as if some grand discovery has been made of marriage or as a cautionary tale not to take that leap (it isn’t marriage one way or the other, but the ride or die* partnership that marriage implies).  So if you asked me if I am *happier* post divorce, the answer is yes.  Not because of the marriage in particular, or even my former spouse, but because I had so much growing to do.  I expected him to make me happy and he couldn’t.  He expected me… well, I’m not sure what he expected.  He’s probably happier too.  If he’s partnered up again, do I think he’s got a better partnership?  Only to the degree that he’s a better person himself.

I read this stuff and get scared that the whole partnership thing is doomed.  I really need to believe that it is possible to be happily married to a man I’d pick up and carry across the finish line if I had to, because I’d rather be late or not finish at all than go without him.  I want to be married to the man who feels the same way about me.  (Note: I am not remarried, so we see how that project is going.)  I’m a die-hard pragmatic romantic.  And if I sit still and think about it, I remind myself that these studies are deeply flawed.  So maybe they found out that smokers and non smokers don’t get along so well over time.  Fair enough.  That doesn’t mean they asked the right questions.

*Ride it out or die trying.

Happy, Part One

Switzerland is the happiest country in the world, according to the headlines.  Headlines like the word happy, but if you get into the report, the word the researchers use is satisfied.  Happy implies Disneyland and sleeping in (because, many pardons to Disneyland, my bed is actually the happiest place on earth).  Satisfied is something else.

What does happy even mean?  I’m happy riding one of those concussion-inducing rides at the county fair.  I’m happy–irrationally, irrepressibly so–every time I hear Raspberry Beret.  I’m happy when I turn a corner and see my house and think “mine” like Golum and his precious.  I’m happy when the DMV comes to my work.  I’m happy in the water.  And these are all very different feelings.  They happen, at least for me, in bursts.  Bursts that come and go.  The background, the majority of the time, I’m alright.  I have some things that are going great.  Some things I’m working on .  A handful of frustrations.  But overall, I’m okay.

Maybe being 100% happy, 100% of the time is the equivalent of eating ice cream for every meal.  Do I love me some ice cream?  Sure.  Ben and Jerry make up two parts of my favorite threesome.  But I’d stop wanting ice cream if that was all I ate.  Maybe wanting to be happy all the time would ruin happiness.

***

There is this idea that we are supposed to be happy.  The pursuit of happiness is written into the Declaration of Independence.  It might as well be constitutional.  But it doesn’t say that we ought to achieve perfect, everlasting happiness.  Just that everyone should be free to chase it.

A while ago, Louis CK had this bit about how everything is amazing and no one is happy.  You can buy a computer or a smartphone for what my dad spent on his first calculator and connect to anywhere or find any bit of information available.  And yet no one seems to be any happier.  It seems like our favorite topic of conversation is when that really annoying thing happened and ruined our day.  Well, since when was I promised that nothing annoying would ever happen to me?

Where is the study linking satisfaction (or happy for the headline) to expectations? Can we look at the broadening gap between happy and expectations.  What do I think my life is supposed to be like?  Seriously?  I’m sponsoring a kid in Sierra Leone.  What does she think her life is supposed to be like?  Subsistence farming.  Early marriage.  Genital mutilation.  That’s about standard for a 4 year old girl in Sierra Leone, assuming she misses out on the myriad of childhood diseases that have a good chance of killing her.  What do I think her life should look like?  Education.  No mutilation.  The option to choose who and when she marries.  Food.  Water.  Do I think she should have two cars?  Do I think she should have Prada shoes?  (Okay, but these are kind of awesome.)  Do I think she should have 1,000 thread count sheets?

So why do we think we should have those things?  Or maybe it isn’t that we should have them, it’s that we *could* have them.  But why should the distance between me and owning Bill Gate’s house, or Mariah Carey’s shoe closet, make me dissatisfied with the world?

In relationships, if Titanic is the ideal…  remember the part where Jack dies?  Yeah, it is easy ot have an epic love when no one has to wash the dishes.

No, I take that back.  One half of the relationship would have to be dead.  Look at celebrities.  I bet Ivana and Donald Trump never argued about who was going to wash the dishes, and yet unlimited resources and 1000 thread count sheets didn’t make that work.  Or any other “fairy tale” marriage of the rich and famous.

I’m wandering here.  The point is this.  Happy is a rotten goal.  If that’s what I’m chasing, I’m never going to get there.  Satisfaction is doable, but it seems like this country has, starting with the Declaration of Independence, gotten some fundamental things mixed up.  Somewhere along the line, we started associating happy with stuff.  Big house, fancy speakers, loads of money.  And because the pursuit of happy is written into our cultural DNA, we think that chasing the big house, fancy sound systems, and loads of money is going to get us where we want to be.

But you look at what makes up satisfaction: stable employment, allowing yourself to feel awe, connection to friends and family…  Qualifying for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous isn’t on that list.  Frankly, I’m lucky.  I have strong, meaningful connections to friends and family.  I have a steady job.  And there is Raspberry Beret any time I want to listen to it.  I’m about as happy as it gets.  At least as long as I refrain from telling myself that Mariah Carey’s closet would make my life better.

It wouldn’t.  In fact, it might make my life worse.

The Weeknd

The Weeknd makes me existentially uncomfortable.  Who could deny the craft behind I can’t Feel My Face.  Hell, even the video is a bit of genius.  I’m reading it as a commentary on the relationship between performer and audience – no one gets up to dance until they’ve set fire to the object of their attention.  Seems an apt metaphor for what happens when you’re famous: no one dances until you’re melting down.

At the heart of just about everything I’ve ever heard of his music is this toxic ambivalence.  Drugs and sex, loathing for the women who crawl into bed with him.  And it isn’t misogyny (well…  “I just fucked two bitches before I saw you” isn’t exactly feminist-friendly).  Still, I don’t think the lyrics have anything to do with anything outside the relationship with himself.  He’s in the public eye for consumption with his outside face on and hating anyone who takes the representation as the real thing (or doesn’t care enough to parse the difference).  Not that he disrespects women, but that he can’t respect anyone who can’t see past the representative he sends into public.

Maybe that’s too gracious.

But the problem is that, unless seriously motivated to push beyond it, we’re all more or less enthralled by our own interior landscape.  Our sexual expressions are too often masturbatory, the other body is just a prop to getting off.  In our sexual culture, each party in the act is a fetish.  Sex as a way to confirm your deep and tragic, an empty act that has to be empty to satisfy. Because if it offered a meaningful connection, if you approached the other body as an object of worship, an instance of the divine fire made corporal…  If sex were an occasion for gratitude…

I mean, think about it.  Here is someone who is willing to risk the vulnerability of nakedness, the ridiculous faces you make, the funny noises, the inarticulate – well, it should be ecstasy, but what is it when there is no compassion, worship, gratitude?  And I don’t mean that the feminine ought to be worshiped exclusively, I mean that the bodies there and present are equally worthy of worship.  Why wouldn’t you take the rare opportunity to worship?  Do we blame the prevalence of porn for this?  I mean, I’ve always been able to tell the difference between what happens on screen and what I experience.

In the lyrical narrative, sex isn’t about sharing joy with another person.  Hell, it isn’t even about the other person.  It’s a body for what that body says about me.  I can pull a hot chick, but it doesn’t mean anything because my self-loathing means I must also loath her for letting me have her in this way.  Sex has to be empty, because if it isn’t, if it offers you joy and connection, then what do you do with your nihilism?  Evolution demands that we satisfy our urge to procreate (or at least go through the motions aided by birth control).  Posturing demands that we reject the joy inherent in the act.  It only counts if we hate ourselves and the act is an act of loathing.

Not to over-share, but the best sex I’ve ever had has had nothing to do with the big o.  It wasn’t even important.  It was good because I needed him, and he needed me, and in that moment of connection it wasn’t about my fetish for my interior narrative or his fetish for what I represented.  It was an act of profane worship, a gesture of visceral connection and trust and necessity.  The Weeknd is talented, there’s no doubt.  And I love his music, even if it is shamefuck music.  But I’m telling you, if I listen to him too much, I start feeling infected…  I just don’t want to risk ruining my capacity for amazing, connected sex.

Religious Freedom

Religious multiplicity is a function of politics and power, not faith.  There was once a point in time when, if you were Christian, you were Catholic. The Anglican Church happened, not because Henry the Eighth had a revelation from G-d, but because he didn’t like answering to the Pope.  Martin Luther, who sparked the Reformation, did so in larger part because he objected to the politics of paying for indulgences.  Yes, there were 95 thesis, but money was the spark.  Where there is faith, there is money and an inordinate level of influence.  So of course, there is motivation to splinter some of that off of the whole to claim some of that money (through tithe) and influence (from the pulpit and new doctrine) as your own.

If you are in to someone telling you how to do about the business of faith, have at it.

So here come the Puritans, followed by the Quakers.  They start in England, a thoroughly Christian state with a state church and no separation between the dominant church and the governing state.  So Puritans, also Christian, were persecuted because what the believed was a few shades off from what the state church taught.  They jumped on the Mayflower because they wanted to practice their take on Christianity in peace.  Massachusetts to the Puritans.  Pennsylvania to the Quakers.  Maryland (eventually) to the Catholics.  When the founding fathers got around to outlining a government for the people by the people, they knew they had a lot of people who didn’t all believe the same thing, so instead of saying “we will be a government intertwined with a church,” they said “how about we just let everyone decide what church they want to go to, and keep the government out of it?”  It was a good idea.

Otherwise, who decides?  Do the Quakers get to make all the rules? What about the Baptists?  The Anabaptists?  The Catholics?  Sure, the basics are pretty much the same.  One G-d, Jesus dies for us, believe in Jesus and be saved.  But after that…  The squawking.  Like G-d has the kind of time to get worked up about angels dancing on a pin.  Well, technically, G-d has all the time in the world, by nature of being G-d, but really.  The Baptists don’t want the Anabaptists telling them they can’t dunk the saved in a body of water.  The Quakers don’t want someone to tell them they have to have an officially designated pastor.  On and on.

Because the idea of the laws of the land being aligned with a religion is only comfortable if you happen to be a member of that religion.  The Taliban was fine for anyone who happened to both agree with them and not accidentally cross them by stealing bread to keep from starving to death.  You have plenty of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia if you are Muslim.  If not, well…

So the religious freedom of the founding fathers, who were, by and large, a bunch of Deists, not a collection of Evangelicals, was basically the freedom to be left the hell alone to believe what you wanted to believe.  The cost of that freedom being that you don’t get to tell your neighbor how to believe or how to live out that faith.  That is the price of owning the territory between your ears. You don’t get to police someone else’s thoughts.

In other words, this nonsense about the founding fathers and religious freedom being about your right to discriminate is pretty much bullshit.  The point of protecting true religious freedom is about realizing that you could just as well be in the minority belief system and what protections for your faith would you like to have in place to protect yourself?  Cause you better put them in while you are on top because, if history teaches us anything, it is that all hegemonies come to an end.

The funny thing is that the Christians who are squawking about religious freedom are trying to do exactly what they don’t want done to them.  The solution? Mind your business.  When G-d comes back, he is going to ask you about you. Your neighbor will have to answer for themselves.  Your only job is you, so get to work and stop worrying about other folks.

I should add a disclaimer here… I’m not Christian. I’m not anything else either.  My faith is so personally adapted it would be ridiculous to try and talk someone else into it.  I know this language and the mentality because I grew up in it, not because I claim it for any more than the sake of argument.  I believe in compassion.  I believe in minding your business.  And I believe in being able to account for yourself to whatever higher power exists with complete ownership over exactly and only you.  And if you can do that, you shouldn’t have any need to dictate what anyone else believes or does, most certainly not the stuff that involves consenting adults on the privacy of their own home.  Social order gets its own category because some people don’t know how to act.

1K

I’ve crosed the 1,000 follower mark here on WordPress, a milestone I never much considered, it being so far from my expectations as to be theoretical as opposed to real-world potential.  Thank you.  Welcome.  I’m grateful there are no trolls in the crowd to attend to, so thank you for being nice.

This blog started in 2005 after I’d left a particularly crazy company (well, in retrospect, about average crazy…  there is just a lot of crazy to be had).  A colleague and friend had started a blog about perfume and the only thing I really had to talk about was my ongoing sense of alienation in the workplace.  So that’s what I wrote about.  And then the husband turned into ex husband, and I just never ran out of things to say.  At first it was mostly to myself and because fore-mentioned friend wanted to see my take on the crazy people we’d both gotten away from at the company.  Then it was mostly to keep track of things I needed to remember.  That’s what it was until November of 2012, when a post I wrote called “A Theory of Love” came to the attention of WordPress curators and suddenly, it couldn’t just be about my internal dialogue anymore.

I don’t have a story with a capital S.  Loads of people are dissatisfied with their professional lives.  Too many of us have been through a divorce.  We can all claim at least a period of time in which we’ve been a romantic disaster.  I’m making something of a career of it, but even that isn’t unusual.  The *only* thing I’ve got that I am pretty sure no one else had, is Neal.  Neal’s legacy is this mix of muscular love, ferocious honesty, faith, compassion, and strength.  He was never mushy, but always kind.  Long after he passed, it was Neal’s letters that finally brought me to a place where I am okay with who I am, ruthless about protecting my umami, and perpetually striving to get a little closer to the bravery he demonstrated in life.  So I think I have something to say about rock bottom and getting through and loving fiercely because Neal had something to say about all of that.  He was a gift to me that I didn’t know how to ask for, and if I can spread just a little bit of that into the world, I think I should.  Because he was utterly amazing.

That stuff out of the way, I feel like I should mention my gratitude for TEC who is somewhat responsible for my output over the past 8 or 9 months.  First, he asked me why I wasn’t writing about what was going on with mom, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world that I should.  Second, he fussed at me with some seriousness when I said I was considering giving up on writing.  TEC doesn’t fuss much, but when he does, I am inclined to listen.  So thank you, TEC.

Feel free to talk back to me, just not on Facebook, which I’m convinced is run by the devil.  I never go there.  I’m @entrope on twitter, I think this will take you to my g+ page, and if you really have something to say, you can e-mail me at a.reid.williams (at) gmail.com.

Featured Narrative of Southern Identity

Today is a pretty awesome day.  Not only because I made progress on my painting project yesterday and am therefore miserably sore today, but because alabamaidentity.com pushed me over the precipice into the ranks of bloggers with 1,000+ followers.  Which is pretty damn exciting.

Also pretty damn exciting is what she’s doing with her PhD to use narrative to drive acceptance and awareness of a diverse southern identity that pushes expectations.  This is a recent post:

Featured Narrative of Southern Identity.