Houdini Nation

An acquaintance of mine recently came back from a medical mission in the Dominican Republic.  What caught his eye and what he wished to impress upon me was the abundance of poverty and squalor.  “But how are the people?” I asked.

“Surprisingly, they seem pretty happy,” he said.  “But they wouldn’t be so happy if they knew of all the things they didn’t have.”  Funny that this comment was coming from a man who drinks himself into oblivion at least twice a week to escape his loveless marriage and angry clients.

I’m not going set out to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness.  That argument has been made and pounded into our brains through literature, television, movies, and our own anecdotal experiences.  What I am curious about is why, when we live in such an advantaged society, we feel such discontent and a need to escape.  This need and revolt against the self has less to do with class than it has to do with being American.

You could say escape is part of who we are.  Most of us descend from people who fled their homelands for a better life in America.  When confronted with problems, like Huck Finn, our first instinct is to get away.  In fact, much of our culture is about getting away: going away to college, moving out after graduation, taking that transfer for the better job.  But whereas it once was external forces that prompted us into action, now we are escaping from ourselves.

We find escape from the confines of our marriages through affairs, escape from the stress of our jobs or joblessness through drugs and alcohol, escape from mundane drudgery through our virtual lives, escape from obligation through resignation.  We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that we can tolerate anything because relief has always been so instantly accessible.  Too bad relief is only temporary.

What the enlightenment taught us was an ability to look inward for strength, but this reliance on looking within has made us culturally narcissistic.  Consider some of the clinical characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder:

-The individual has a grandiose sense of self-importance

-The individual is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success

-The individual believes he or she is special and unique

-The individual requires excessive admiration

-The individual has a sense of entitlement

-The individual is interpersonally exploitive

-The individual lacks empathy

-The individual believes that others are envious of him or her

-The individual shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Not only does this characterize our brand of patriotism where national interest is front-center, but also our own practice of directing our life’s purpose towards serving the self.  Is that how we define success?  By the fruit of our careers?  By sexual fulfillment?  By attaining enviable status within our communities?  It’s our own version of the Greek areté, or all-around excellence.  Unfortunately, we are poor judges of the things that make us happy.  We become paralyzed by the duality of the mind, and have a tough time reconciling our narcissistic tendencies with our Christian virtues of humility, empathy, and charity.  Steinbeck nailed it on the head through his character Doc in Cannery Row.

“It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

Just as a nation divided against itself cannot stand, an individual divided against himself cannot stand either.  We teeter on the brink of insanity, balancing opposite extremes.  The political polarization in our country actually reflects quite accurately the “schism of the soul” we are experiencing as individuals.

Generally speaking, we are a nation governed by a conservative conscience that is just an annoying voice set against our liberal vices.  We are outraged at the split-second sight of a female nipple on network television, yet we are the world’s biggest consumer of porn.  We condemn affairs and premarital sex but have our own.  We detest drunk drivers yet we frequently drink and drive.  We are walking contradictions.  It’s no wonder we’d want to get away from ourselves.

It’s like we live each day with so much regret for who we are and the things we have failed to do or the things we have done.  We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that happiness is one wish, one dollar, or one lover away.  What if instead of looking forward to what we hope could be, we looked around and reflected on what we have?  During my travels of through South America, while I did see a lot of poverty, I also found a lot of happy people.  It was refreshing.  The one thing they had in common was a tie to each other.  Family.  Community.  In our Houdini nation of escape artists, we are becoming lonelier.  In the end, isn’t that what we fear most?  In the end, will we realize, as Christian told Jack in the final episode of Lost, that “the most…important part of your life, was the time that you spent with these people…You needed all of them, and they needed you.”

Freedom’s Just Another Word

Consider Bob.  Bob wakes up at six a.m. when his alarm goes off.  He doesn’t want to wake up.  He stayed up all night playing poker.  He was up a hundred bucks at the beginning but ended the night with pretty much the same amount he brought to the table.  Kind of the story of his whole life.  It’s the price to pay for friendship.  His wife will later accuse him of being greedy and trying to win it all, but there’s no way she’ll ever understand the social taboo of winning your friends’ money then leaving without sharing a few drinks.   They would deride him for putting money over friendship, as if money had nothing to do with poker night.  The point is, he’s pretty bitter about not being a hundred dollars richer, and now the alarm is hammering into his head.  He has a choice.  He can go back to sleep and miss work, or he can get up and get ready.  Or he can take the middle rode and hit snooze, making a sacrifice with each press of that oversized button: first the breakfast, then the coffee, then the relaxing shower, then the careful shave. And if his flailing arm becomes so automatic in its slap of the snooze that he’s not even consciously aware of it until it’s 7:25 and he has to be at work at 8, then he might have to skip the shower and shave altogether and opt for a greasy swipe of deodorant instead.  Today he gets up on time as if he’s a puppet of obligation.

By 7:30 he’s on the road.  It takes him longer than he thinks to get out of his neighborhood because there’s only one way in and one way out.  But since he’s moving at the speed limit he doesn’t get the absurdity that even though the main road passes directly behind his property, it takes him seven minutes to exit the neighborhood, loop around the block, and make it to the main road.  While another access point to the main road would open his neighborhood up to thru traffic, that’s the last thing he needs when he has two kids who like to play outside.  Once he meets the main road, rush hour traffic is a bitch.  There are no shortcuts.  Apparently, others don’t like thru traffic through their neighborhoods either.  The city planners are idiots, he thinks.  And does every mom need to spoil her kids by driving them to school instead of making them ride on the buses, which are running half empty?  He convinces himself that if he lets that red Mazda cut in front of him, that that is going to make the difference on whether he is late or not.  He squeezes the gap, but damn that bitch to hell, she cuts in front of him anyway.  Everyone seems to be conspiring against him to make him late.

Didactic aside.  The truth of the matter is that commute times to and from work have been consistently about 30 minutes on average for the last 4000 years, as if that’s the threshold to which humans can endure without going insane.  Once, Prehistoric Joe probably thought it would be much easier to live right next to the river, but after one good flood washed away their clubs and hides and especially after the subsequent tongue lashing from Prehistoric Jane, Joe knew better than to settle so closely to their water supply.  Even Roman planners built their cities with a 30-minute commute in mind.   The outskirts of a Roman city could not be more than 30 minutes away from the center.  As we move faster our cities have grown bigger.   When that interchange Bob and three hundred other angry motorists complain about is completed, it will only facilitate more growth in the area and traffic will swell once again.  The half hour commute is here to stay, but we won’t tell this to Bob.

He gets to work, which, even though it makes him stressed by the end of the day, isn’t that traumatizing in the grand scheme of things.  He likes to flirt with Wendy.  Of course, his wife wouldn’t approve, but it’s not like she (his wife) can see him.  He’s a free man when he’s at work, unless he slaps Wendy on the butt, which he’s really itching to do, but he’s worried doing that might get a sexual harassment claim levied at him.  Damn those frivolous lawsuits and feminist laws that prevent him from just being a man.  Once a year, he and every other employee at the office have to attend sexual harassment awareness meetings and sign off that they’ve read the information pamphlet carefully and promise to abide by company procedure or else face disciplinary action or even termination.  Rules, rules, and more rules encroach on his freedom to reach out and meet that sumptuous tush.

Meanwhile, Wendy is the first of three generations of female workers in her family to be able to go to work free from the abuse and degrading behavior of her male coworkers.  She’s not a liberal feminist and hates when people label her as such.  Nevertheless, she goes home angry that her boss can be so hardheaded and that she’s been passed over for a promotion when she’s clearly more qualified.  She knows the real business, as far as the internal politics is concerned, goes on after work when the men hit up the neighborhood bar and share a few drinks before going home.  She’s never invited…anymore.  She was invited once, but since she’s not a drinker, she ordered a lemonade.  The others teased her before settling into an uncomfortable period of awkwardness where they weren’t willing to relax and talk until she took a swig of some real stuff.  A co-worker tried to buy her a shot.  She politely pushed it away, and he reacted as if she’d just slapped his momma on the face.  Damn social entrapments.  But she’s an independent woman, thirty-five, and still in her entry-level job.  Today on her way home, it’s Rush hour—Rush Limbaugh.  He’s making her angry—in a good way, she thinks.  She’s being enlightened.  She works her ass off and these socialists in power want to give her hard-earned money to people too lazy to work.  Her husband calls just as the show is getting interesting.

“Hey, hon.  I’m just getting off of work, but I’m going to stop at the supermarket before I get home.  How was your day?” he asks.

“Fine,” she answers, as if she could say anything else.  She’d like to tell him how crappy her day was—he’s her husband for God’s sake—but the times that she’s tried this, he’s slowly retreated into a secret tunnel inside that cave that is phone silence.  Neither of them feels free to ask anything that might penetrate their wall of security.  She can’t ask him where the money goes, because he might take it that she doesn’t trust him.  They don’t trust that the other can handle inquiring questions without becoming defensive.  So, they don’t talk anymore.  Really talk.  To each other, they’re just safety belts that come into use only in case of an accident.  One day, unless an accident saves it, their marriage will collapse on itself.  Maybe she secretly hopes for this.  Bob at work seems to be interested in her.  “Damn those lazy socialists!” she yells after she hangs up the phone.  She’s almost home when she remembers that she’s out of dog food and she’s mad at herself for not telling her husband to pick up some at the store.  Whatever.  Let them eat steak, she thinks, but Steve her husband will volunteer to go back to the store and buy some food, making her feel guiltier in the process.  She turns around and detours to the pet store.

Steve returns from the supermarket, and his wife is still not at home.  Did she go drinking with the guys again?  He went to a company party once and saw how Bob looked at her.  Is something going on?  Is she with him?  He can’t stand the thought.  At first he’s saddened, then he’s angered.  He calls her again, but she doesn’t answer.  Since he lost his career job when his company went belly-up, he’s been working at the Shoe Palace selling ladies’ shoes.  Doesn’t pay well.  Better hours though.  But he senses Wendy’s resentment at their lower lot in life.  He’s tried to be a better husband.  More helpful.  But the truth is she’s the breadwinner, and that’s just not acceptable to his family, especially his brothers who tease him mercilessly.  He’s also ashamed when they go out with her friends from the office.   He feels small.  Each day that he tries to be a little more helpful to his wife, he feels a little more empty and depressed.  This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.  “The man is the head of the household,” his pastor said, but he sure doesn’t feel like it.  What else can he do?  Where is she?  That slut.  Oh, the love of my life, he thinks. We were happy once, right?  Stupid banks.  Stupid financial crisis.  Stupid deregulation.  Why doesn’t Wendy see that it was the Republicans that caused this?  She’s so cold-hearted and fixed in her ways.  Maybe Bob’s a Republican and is in to that free trade crap.  Free trade my ass.  It had a lot of costs.  Opened the doors to cheaper imports costing American jobs, my job.  Why doesn’t she answer the phone?  He’s feeling desperate.  He was going to cook dinner, but now he doesn’t feel like it.  He goes to his bedroom, but their happy wedding pictures on the wall make him feel even more depressed.  He goes into the bathroom.  Locks the door.  Here, he’s free.

A moral?  In our day-to-day lives we are free—and responsible—to make choices and accept the consequence of these choices.  We isolate ourselves in protected neighborhoods.  We hide in the anonymity of our cars where we feel free to unleash our anger.  While we are bound by some rules that are intended to protect the freedom of others, we are free to attack these rules as being to loose…or too strict.  We are free to tangle ourselves in our own abstract fantasies until we become victims of our own minds.  We are free to blame the government, though it has always struck me as odd that in one string of thought we can view the government as hopelessly dysfunctional yet still believe that this same government has the ability to manipulate our lives as if it were their personal agenda to make us miserable.   We are free to let our own fears and suspicions get the better of us even after we experience time and again that the cost of distrust is greater than the pain of betrayal.  Yet, we also are free to choose the things that will fulfill our lives.  We are free to consider that perhaps the things that anger us most are the things that really affect us the least.  Or we can stay angry.  We are free to embrace humanity, including our faults and missteps, instead of running from it.  We are free to perceive the world as we wish.

We are free to enslave ourselves.

We are free to escape.

Why I Don’t Hate Casey Anthony

“What do you think of the Casey Anthony case?” the barista asked me while I waited for my pineapple smoothie.

“I feel bad for her.”

Inside the tiny coffee shop, heads turned and jaws dropped. The barista seemed stunned. “You’re the only person I’ve talked to that feels this way, and I’ve talked to a ton of people about this.”

Perhaps it’s the writer in me that keeps my harsher emotions at bay. In fiction, for characters to be believable, they have to behave a certain way and are not allowed to defy the logic of their being. I have a deep sympathy for these villains who are unable to escape their own limitations. But Casey Anthony is not a fictional character, yet I wonder why it should be unnatural to feel bad for a woman who may or may not have killed her child. Even if she committed a heinous act, isn’t she a fellow human being. If religion does not beg us to care for all men, doesn’t civilization? Do we not feel compassion for those who slip and fall? I have heard my church pastor say that there is no man or woman so lost to be undeserving of our love. Do we begin to qualify this statement? It’s the same reason we don’t hate those who hate us or try to harm us. We may disapprove of one’s actions or disagree with one’s opinions, but to hate? Hatred has a way, once you let it in, of making itself comfortable and spreading like a virus, manifesting on the surface as anger and fear.

The gushing vitriol towards Casey Anthony is what is more unsettling to me than anything and reflects something about who we are as a country. We have become a country that lusts for opportunities to exact revenge, revenge against terrorists, revenge against ex-spouses, revenge against former employers, revenge against the utility or cable companies, revenge against opposing political parties. People will cite the “eye for an eye” aphorism, but it’s this type of thinking that we exchanged for what we call civilization. What if Casey Anthony were your sister, the one you grew up with playing with Barbie dolls or My Little Ponies? Or what if she were the next-door neighbor who helped you move in? We don’t know who she was nor can we determine the angle of reflection that shapes her perceptions of the world. We have a limited portrait, two-dimensional, painted largely by the media, of a woman whose entire life is now defined by one event. No man or woman is without redeemable qualities. No one but her knows if she feels pain or remorse. Something led her astray in life, but shouldn’t we be trying to steer her back on a path more agreeable to a civilized society? Hating her does not accomplish this. Neither does banishing her. For that matter, neither does forgiving her (forgiving only allows us to get back on the right path). And revenge doesn’t undo what was done. The best we can do is forget and move on…and allow her to move on.

If, however, we should insist on being angry, shouldn’t our anger be directed at the judicial system? Should we now condemn our founders’ ideal that it’s better to let nine guilty men go free than to send one innocent man to prison? Do we really want to reconsider this philosophy? I get a sense that as a society we already have. I think there are many now who would argue that it’s better to send nine innocent men to prison than to let one stinkin’, son-of-a-bitch, no-good criminal go free. It is reflected in our tendency to get the evildoers out of sight, out of mind, even if there is some collateral damage along the way. It is reflected in our urge to wipe Afghanistan off the map after we were attacked, even though it was a relatively small group that wanted to do us harm. It is reflected in our suspicions towards Hispanic minorities who might be here illegally. It is reflected in our attitudes toward criminals in general. In 1950, roughly 70 percent of the population believed the role of prisons was to correct behavior while 30 percent believed it was to punish. In a recent poll, those numbers have flipped.

We are dangerously veering away from what it means to be civilized. We are more concerned with forging a unanimity of opinion than welcoming opposing views not just for the purpose of debate but for deeper illumination. We live in an op-ed world where the news is no longer the news but endless commentary passed onto us as news. We are told what to think, how to feel. Instead, we should treat each suggestion with suspicion and ask questions. At one time, we had to guess at the opinions of our news anchors, but now their alliances are firm and conspicuous. And now, since we can broadcast our opinions on social media and message boards, it is no longer just the media stoking the flames of fear and hatred; we are cultivating our own mobs!

And here I am doing the same thing, using social media to opine with no authority to do so. But as a writer of fiction, I am feeling boldly uninhibited, which tends to happen to people who dance along the line dividing fantasy and fact. When I write, I feel obligated to explore deep inside the core of characters, extracting enviable qualities that are sometimes embedded within a coarse rind. I think a writer must willing to turn a villain into a hero or to find the darkened heart within a pleasant man because to do otherwise would be to imprison characters and to shield them from the life-shaping encounters with chance. I do this also because I am acutely aware of my own defects. I am defined by my limitations. Anytime I have a gut reaction, I check it with skepticism. I don’t believe any writer is so arrogant as to refrain from doubting every word set to paper, so our work is a result of wrestling with ideas and philosophies that never quite get resolved. As Anton Chekhov once said, a writer’s responsibility is to offer questions, not to answer them. The only point I feel I can definitively make is that it’s difficult if not impossible to be definitive about anything. It’s why writers often linger in shadows where forms are without absolute color or contour, and it’s why I resist my primal urge to hate Casey Anthony.