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Overcoming the "meaning melancholy"

Κυριακή 26 Απριλίου 2015

Wistful Don Draper of these last episodes of the Mad Men saga, has made us feel a little heavier, a little older this season. Don is no longer a grade A asshole—why even Meagan got him apologizing to her (“for what exactly?” even feminists tweeted, ranting against her, devious seductress that she is) and after he handed her a million dollars for no apparent reason. He is wiser, sadder, more human, vulnerably loveable. We all know this cannot end well. 

Truth is, Don evokes the zeitgeist no longer of the Mad Men era, but of our times. We are all kind of sad these days, this year, 15 years into the once-new millenium. Through different paths, for different reasons, but in much the same way. Contrary to the trope “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, in our post-ironic, meta-content way, our private griefs have transmogrified into a generic melancholy spreading over the country like a wistful fog.

Ironically, this “non-happiness” is equally present in the lives of people with families, as well as those who do not and will probably never have them.

A recent slew of essays and books (e.g. the new anthology “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Kids” edited by Meghan Daum, and Kate Bolick’s “Spinster”) reveals that making the “right” (for each person, this is a different thing) choice does not, alas, directly translate into happiness.

At the same time, families are definitely not a font of unfettered joy for most people. We expend an inordinate amount of our lives working at loving/avoiding/hating/detaching from/forgiving our parents; then working at forgiving ourselves for everything we could have forgiven but didn’t, and everything we should not have not forgiven, but did.

Then we become parents ourselves, our entire life’s perspective shifts radically and becomes attenuated to our kids’ every breath and step in life. Helicopter parenting is now often criticized, as is the level of frenzy and sheer craziness involved in getting their children into those nursery schools that prepare them for those schools which have become select highways to the Ivy League, which in turn defines everything: whether you will become part of the entitled 1%, part of the large increasingly poorer, sadder, murkier sea of “mass middle class”, or-god forbid-part of neither of the two previous classes. Two recent books on this phenomenon are Frank Bruni’s “Where you go is not who you become” and Robert D. Putnam’s “Our Kids”.

Yet no one seems to have come up with a better way of doing things. And until some brilliant disruptor and innovator comes along and does just that, the rat-race for parents and their kids will go on pretty much as it is doing so already.

At the end of this race, sometime in the spring of our kids’ senior year, when college admissions are through, we know if we have won or lost. Either way, that is the moment we embark upon the small death that is called “transitioning into a separate life and identity”, which leaving for college signifies.

This reality which is celebrated as a result of successful parenting, leads many people in their mid 50s flocking to shrinks for help with their “empty nest” sad syndrome. Paradoxical yes, inevitable too, or so it seems anyway.


It’s not just in family life though. A feeling of unfulfillment seems to permeate the pursuit of everything else too: power, money, accomplishment, love. In seeking an elusive, ever-mutating “meaning” which we cannot adeptly pinpoint yet whose absence we feel intensely, as distress, even grief, the “no ones” of our world unite with the most important “somebodies”, in solitary, parallel harmony. (David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and author of the “Road to Character” writes interestingly about this http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/06/opinion/david-brooks-the-problem-with-meaning.html )


The Have-nots are sad because… they do not have what makes most people (if temporally) happy: money, success, content personal lives. 

The Haves are sad because they have it all and yet their insides emanate grief because they often perceive of their lives to be devoid of meaning. Why sadness claims victims even amongst the scions of absolute privilege and entitlement, the kids of those “in whose favor the cards are stacked” as Hillary Clinton diplomatically put it in her official announcement video. Frank Bruni wrote about this movingly in his most recent article http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-best-brightest-and-saddest.html?_r=0


We become sad when we feel our potential going to waste. Sad too, if we feel so trapped into a Sisyphean state of constant transient “arrival”, that even if we have seem to have acheived and possess everything, we can credibly feel we have nothing. People use clinical terms like “depression” to explain what happened to exceptionally gifted, creative, rich, and successful individuals such as Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, L’Wren-Scott, Dr Frederick Brandt. Psych terms help us feel insulated from such conditions; as if defining something as a mental condition conjures a threshold we will never transgress. Yet feeling unfulfilled and lost is a feeling we all share from time to time, so we are all equally at risk.

  Stressed and weighed down by the norms our society lives by; sad when we see values replaced by situations reliant on money alone. Each of us, according to the class we belong to, the money we make, the dreams we had/have, the lives we lead, are sad about something we have too little or too much of.


And as any marathon-runner can attest: when you’re running, it all becomes about speed, constant motion and acceleration required to acheive a transient win. Yet what happens when we stop? Because at some point, we all have to. Faced with the omnipotent continuity of online life—Facebook, Twitter and the entire Web—it is hard not to feel alone, small, at a disconnect from everyone else, and even the person we were before we stopped.


That’s why no one really stops. Ever. Even for those few who defy the mainstream, in order to pursue more “meaning” in their lives, it’s anybody’s guess whether they will find what they are seeking. There are no guarantees and everything comes at a cost.


Yet even those who objectively lead lives that transcend the rat-race most of us are currently involved in, and whose lives are meaningful to humanity (like the doctors who left the US to volunteer in Africa, saving Ebola patients) can fall prey to the same sadness of those of us pursuing more individualistic lives. Meaningful rarely coincides with happy, scientific research has recently proven.  Making other people happy doesn’t always translate into becoming happy or feeling meaningful ourselves. We are all our own greatest paradox: solipsistic, parochial, far-sighted, generous, parlous and exemplary, individualistic and humanitarian.

That we know we are all this tangled mess, and we have enough intuitive intelligence, cognitive and verbal erudition to see that we share this condition with most of the everybody else, and talk about it, makes things even harder. Even politicians can become forgivable recast in this recalibrated perspective. 

Both love and hate become hard to do. We have become so knowledgeable and evolved, being happy seems out of our reach.  


It is true I guess, evolution is ultimately sad. It’s glorious and uniquely hopeful when we’re talking creation. It’s profoundly sad like only the unknowable darkness can be, when we’re talking sickness, aging, death.

The more a person matures, grows inside, learns to understand himself and the thread of common destiny uniting us with the rest of humanity (everyone beyond ourselves!) the less limbic we become. Sadly though, this entails distancing ourselves from what is our primaeval life-force.


Last time America was so great and its power in the world undeniable, Graham Greene wrote the “Quiet American”. Today, arguably the most powerful country in the world, yet also a force for good, peace, freedom, and a cultural power-house to boot, the name of the game is the “Wistful American”.

This can be manifested in the content we watch. From Don Draper on this last season of “Madmen”, to almost every character in Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece “The Heidi Chronicles" now breaking hearts on Broadway (starring Elizabeth Moss-also of “Mad Men” fame-and Jason Biggs.)


What to do about this incipient melancholy casting its shadow over us? I hope some TED-speaker will come up with a solution before too long. Until then, YOLO I say, following the hashtag trending on Twitter any given day. Yolo, people. Keep it in mind: You Only Live Once. Some days, remembering this is all that is needed to get us through the day.

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