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,
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.