Boats Against the Current

I hesitated to make this post for fear that I would come across as selfish. I am always dealing with my worry that I will offend and trying to balance it out with my need to say what’s on my mind. Saying what’s on my mind appears to be winning more and more often as I grow older. There are some really good things about aging.

A friend sent me a NY Times article today about students’ reaction to reading The Great Gatsby. He felt that the kids didn’t really get it and wrongly viewed Jay Gatsby as an inspirational character, far from Fitzgerald’s intent. We’re both former English teachers and these types of discussions fascinate us. I agreed with him that Fitzgerald didn’t create a figure of inspiration in the character of Gatsby, the poor farm boy who achieved the success that he thought would bring him love and happiness, and didn’t. What I didn’t agree with him on was his analysis of the comments from the young students. I didn’t view them as seeing Gatsby as inspirational but aspirational. They got it that Gatsby’s obsession with material success and all its trappings ultimately destroyed him, but they still aspired to achieve their own version of the American dream. I think that believing in possibilities is the essence of youth.

The interchange with my friend got me to thinking about our generation and why so many of us wear a mantle of misery and self-absorption. I look at my parents’ generation and they don’t take Paxil. I’m not against medications for clincal depression, but when I look at my parents and their contemporaries, it doesn’t appear that their generation is as beset with depression, anxiety, and other emotional and psychological disorders as my own. At any given gathering of baby boomers, there are some of us who regularly take antidepressants and various other mood altering prescription medications (a few non-prescritption as well, but we won’t talk about that today).

Maybe we chase after happiness too much. I’ve read a few articles recently suggesting that our pursuit of happiness is what’s making us unhappy. I sort of buy that. I think that to appreciate happiness, you have to be willing to experience unhappiness. I also think that you have to be bold enough to unencumber yourself of the things that weigh you down and sap your joy. That’s where the selfish stuff comes up.

One of the most difficult challenges is getting rid of the things and/or people in our lives that are sucking the life out of us. Our baby boomer generation was raised to believe that responsibility was our god; suffering and misery are the altars upon which we worship; and self interest is not only selfish, it’s the pursuit of evil. What a load of crap, but most of us succumbed to it. I think that our generation is beset by angst because we have convinced ourselves that it is an inevitability to be unhappy.

I’m not pollyannaish enough to believe that happiness, as in joy every day, is possible. But I do believe that a sense of well being and contentment is doable, making some sense of your life so that discontent and sadness are passing stages. You find some space within that gives you what you need to survive unhappiness because it doesn’t define your life; it’s just a part of living. I don’t think that it is the pursuit of a goal and disappoint upon achieving it that destroys us; I think that it is looking for meaning and fulfillment outside of ourselves that turns it all to ashes. We become swept up in our sense of responsibility to work, family, friends, to the extent that we feel as if we are like the speaker in Stevie Smith’s poem, “not waving, but drowning.”

I’m not certain what comes after this life, but I don’t think that this is a dress rehearsal. Like the commercial says, we have to grab all the gusto that we can in this round. I think that means that we can’t settle and resign ourselves to lives of “quiet desperation.” We have to give ourselves permission to give ourselves the same care and kindness that we extend to others, to indulge in a bit of selfishness, and we have to refuse to judge ourselves as lacking for doing so.

A poem by Stevie Smith:

Not Waving But Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.


5 responses to “Boats Against the Current

  1. as i age, i am learning that happiness is honestly NOT outside myself. i keep returning to that mindset, but i have to continuously let that go and come back to the idea that freedom and happiness are within, that the beauty of life is the travels and not the destination, and that i need to find fulfillment in my daily toils in order to taste satisfaction.
    it’s only taken me 50 years to get to this realization. i suppose more will be revealed.

  2. I’ve re-read Sheria’s post a few times and can’t offer any insight on attaining happiness. I do agree that our generation, in this country at least, seems more susceptible to re-enacting Jay Gatsby’s drama, failing to achieve happiness despite being materially better off than our ancestors. In fact, whenever I look at family photos from my childhood, I’m struck at how little we had.

    So, no solutions here. But as a biologist, I’ll offer a theory on why it seems so pervasive. In short, television and the credit card. Unlike previous history, over the past thirty years, everyone of us, regardless of our income, has spent our nights with our noses pushed up against the ‘you can have it all’ box. The we spend our days surrounded by our peers who have succumbed to that siren song and draped themselves with clothes, cars and toys all bought on borrowed money. In short, we are a nation of dogs running after a car that very few of us will ever catch.

  3. I should add that, in addition to being titillated with the material things that we can’t possess, probably more importantly, we’re also being constantly reminded of the ‘person’ we’re supposed to aspire to be. Yeah, the youthful, fit, sexy, smart and funny one. The drop dead gorgeous brain surgeon who can only manage four hours of sleep each night because she’s dancing the night away with the equally stunning hedge fund manager……

    Sound like anyone in your world?

  4. Oh the Great Gatsby. Hadn’t thought of him in years until a week ago. In a writing class I am enrolled in. The majority of students being half my age. After a good dose of life has passed by me, Gatsby has become the hollow character he was ment to be. I hated it in high school for that reason. but now it’s just good writing.

  5. I don’t think pursuing happiness is the problem rather than the sense that one is entitled to it and the resentment one can feel if it doesn’t eventuate. I reckon that it’s wiser to aim for what you mentioned: a sense of well-being and contentment, with an understanding that at times there will be unhappiness but to create the space to live with it and survive. (As far as I know, your country’s constitution guarantees the right to pursue happiness; it doesn’t guarantee one will achieve it nor does it warrant that one will never experience unhappiness.)

    As for the things and people that suck one’s energy and soul away, I agree we need to let ’em go. And I don’t think that’s selfish, just completely sensible.

    Sheria, you’re a wise woman and your words are often a salve for the soul.

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