You’d cry too if it happened to you
We have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated.
Forbes Magazine: September 14, 1992
Well, so much for Camelot.
When Allen Drury wrote those words—they set the scene for his classic political novel, Advise and Consent—he was trying to capture the mood of America in 1959, as the peaceful and composed Eisenhower era receded, John Kennedy geared up for the presidency and the go-go Sixties waited to be born. We remember those days as innocent and hopeful; Drury recorded them as anxious and depressed. Which demonstrates a small but not insignificant point: It is writers—journalists, screenwriters, novelists, newswriters—we turn to more than anyone to tell us exactly how. our country is doing, and they are precisely the last people who would accurately point out that in the long tape of history this is a pretty good few inches.
There are many reasons for this—catching and tagging whatever angst is floating around is their job—but the biggest is simple. Writers always see their time as marked by pain because it always is. Children die. People lose their homes. Life is sad. To declare the relative happiness of your era is to sound stupid and uncaring, as if you don’t know people are suffering, when people always are.
I am inclined toward the long view. The life of people on earth is obviously better now than it has ever been—certainly much better than it was 500 years ago when people beat each other with cats. This may sound silly but now and then when I read old fairy tales and see an illustration of a hunchbacked hag with no teeth and bumps on her nose who lives by herself in the forest, I think: People looked like that once. They lived like that. There were no doctors, no phones, and people lived in the dark in a hole in a tree. It was terrible. It’s much better now.
But we are not happier. I believe we are just cleaner, more attractive sad people than we used to be.
There are serious reasons members of my generation in particular are feeling a high level of anxiety and unhappiness these days, but first a word about how we “know” this: the polls.
I used to like polls because I like vox pop, and polls seemed a good way to get a broad sampIing. But now I think the vox has popped—the voice has cracked from too many command performances. Polls are contributing to a strange new volatility in public opinion.
A year ago, at the conclusion of the Gulf war, George Bush’s approval ratings were at nearly 90%. As I write, they are 30%. This is a huge drop, and in a way a meaningless one. President Bush didn’t deserve 90% support for having successfully executed a hundred-hour ground war; Abe Lincoln deserved a 90% for preserving the nation. Bush didn’t deserve 30% support because the economy is in recession; John Adams deserved a 30% for the Alien and Sedition laws. It is all so exaggerated.
The dramatic rises and drops are fueled in part by mass media and their famous steady drumbeat of what’s not working, from an increase in reported child abuse to a fall in savings. When this tendency is not prompted by ideology it is legitimate: Good news isn’t news. But the volatility is also driven by the polls themselves. People think they have to have an answer when they are questioned by pollsters, and they think it has to be “intelligent” and “not naive.” This has the effect of hardening opinions that haven’t even been formed yet. Poll questions do not invite subtlety of response. This dispels ambiguity, when a lot of thoughts and opinions are ambiguous.
And we are polled too often. We are constantly having our temperature taken, like a hypochondriac who is looking for the reassurance that no man can have, i.e., that he will not die.
I once knew a man who was so neurotically fearful about his physical well-being that in the middle of conversations he would quietly put his hand to his wrist. He was taking his pulse. When I was seven or eight years old, I became anxious that I would stop breathing unless I remembered every few seconds to inhale. This mania was exhausting. At night, on the verge of sleep, I would come awake in a panic, gulping for air.
People who take their pulse too often are likely to make it race; people obsessed with breathing are likely to stop. Nations that use polls as daily temperature readings inevitably give inauthentic readings, and wind up not reassured but demoralized.
There are reasons for our discontent. Each era has its distinguishing characteristics; each time a big barrel of malaise rolls down the hill there are specific and discrete facts rolling around inside. Here are some of ours:
Once in America if you lost your job—if you were laid off from the assembly line at Ford, for instance—you had reason to believe you’d be rehired. Business cycles, boom and bust—sooner or later they’d call you back. There was a certain security in the insecurity. Now it’s different. Now if you’re laid off from your job as the number two guy in public affairs at the main Jersey office of a phone company, you have reason to fear you’ll never be hired back into that or any white-collar job, because employment now is connected less to boom and bust than to changing realities, often changing technologies, in the marketplace. The telephone company doesn’t need you anymore.
You are a boomer, and obscurely oppressed.
But there is nothing obscure about your predicament. So many people are relying on you! You and your wife waited to have children, and now they’re 8 and 10 and you’re 48—too late to start over, to jeopardize the $75,000 a year you earn. And if you tried, you would lose your medical coverage.
Your mother and father are going to live longer than parents have ever lived and will depend on you to take care of them as they (as you, at night, imagine it) slide from mild senility to full dementia. Your children will have a longer adolescence, and expect you to put them through college just as mom and dad are entering a home.
Your biggest personal asset is your house, which has lost value. You have a hefty mortgage, your pension fund is underfunded, you don’t think your social security benefits are secure and you do not trust the banks.
The last may be the most serious in terms of how people feel. In the years since the Depression we have been able to trust that the institutions we put our savings into would be there tomorrow and pay us interest. We don’t know that anymore; most of us are afraid that all of a sudden a major bank, strained from its own feckless investments to middle-aged mall builders who make political contributions, will fold, taking the other banks with it.
We wonder, “in the small hours of the night’s cold terror,” if there is another depression and the banks fail, how will I and my family live? How will we buy food and gas and pay for electricity? We don’t know how to grow things! What will we eat if it all collapses?
I think the essential daily predicament of modern, intelligent, early-middle-age Americans—the boomers, the basketball in the python—is this: There is no margin for error anymore. Everything has to continue as it is for us to continue with the comfort we have. And we do not believe that everything will continue as it is.
It is embarrassing to live in the most comfortable time in the history of man and not be happy. We all have so much!
Think of the set of “The Honeymooners.”
What did Ralph and Alice have in 1955? A small rented apartment with a table, two chairs, a bureau, a picture on a faded wall. The set designer was spoofing the average.
Think of the set of “Family Ties”: the couches, the lamps, the VCRS, the color TVS. There is art on the walls. The children had expensive orthodontia.
You will say, one show was about the working class, the other the middle class. But that’s the point: The average couple was working class then and is middle class now.
We have so much more than mom and dad that we can’t help but feel defensive about feeling so bad, and paying off our charge cards so late, and being found in the den surfing from channel to channel at 3 a.m., staring back at Brian Lamb’s eyes.
And there’s this: We know that we suffer—and we get no credit for it! Sometimes we feel the bitterness of the generation that fought World War I, but we cannot write our memoirs and say “good-bye to all that,” cannot tell stories of how our boots rotted in the mud, cannot deflect the neighborhood praise and be modest as we lean against the bar. They don’t know we’re brave. They don’t know we fight in trenches too.
I find myself thinking of Auden’s words about the average man in 1939, as darkness gathered over Europe—the “sensual man-in-the-street,” barely aware of his emptiness, who promised that he will be “true to the wife,” that some day he will be happy and good.
Auden called his era the “age of anxiety.” I think what was at the heart of the dread in those days, just a few years into modern times, was that we could tell we were beginning to lose God—banishing him from the scene, from our consciousness, losing the assumption that he was part of the daily drama, or its maker. And it is a terrible thing when people lose God. Life is difficult and people are afraid, and to be without God is to lose man’s great source of consolation and coherence. There is a phrase I once heard or made up that I think of when I think about what people with deep faith must get from God: the love that assuages all.
I don’t think it is unconnected to the boomers’ predicament that as a country we were losing God just as they were being born.
At the same time, a huge revolution in human expectation was beginning to shape our lives, the salient feature of which is the expectation of happiness.
It is 1956 in the suburbs’ in the summer. A man comes home from work, parks the car, slouches up the driveway. His white shirt clings softly to his back. He bends for the paper, surveys the lawn, waves to a neighbor. From the house comes his son, freckled, ten. He jumps on his father; they twirl on the lawn. Another day done. Now water the lawn, eat fish cakes, watch some TV, go to bed, do it all again tomorrow.
Is he happy? No. Why should he be? We weren’t put here to be happy. But the knowledge of his unhappiness does not gnaw. Everyone is unhappy, or rather everyone has a boring job, a marriage that’s turned to disinterest, a life that’s turned to sameness. And because he does not expect to be happy the knowledge of his unhappiness does not weigh on him. He looks perhaps to other, more eternal forms of comfort.
Somewhere in the Seventies, or the Sixties, we started expecting to be happy, and changed our lives (left town, left families, switched jobs) if we were not. And society strained and cracked in the storm.
I think we have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated—that, in a way, life is overrated. We have lost, somehow, a sense of mystery—about us, our purpose, our meaning, our role. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short one. We are the first generations of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such-unhappiness. The reason: If you do not believe in another, higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe that this is your only chance at happiness—if that is what you believe, then you are not disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are despairing.
In a Catholic childhood in America, you were once given, as the answer to the big questions: It is a mystery. As I grew older I was impatient with this answer. Now I am probably as old, intellectually, as I am going to get, and more and more I think: It is a mystery. I am more comfortable with this now; it seems the only rational and scientific answer.
My generation, faced as it grew with a choice between religious belief or existential despair, chose ... marijuana. Now we are in our cabernet stage. (Jung wrote in a letter that he saw a connection between spirits and The Spirit; sometimes when I go into a church and see how modern Catholics sometimes close their eyes and put their hands out, palms up, as if to get more of God on them, it reminds me of how kids in college used to cup their hands delicately around the smoke of the pipe, and help it waft toward them.) Is it possible that our next step is a deep turning to faith, and worship? Is it starting now with tentative, New Age steps?
It is a commonplace to note that we have little faith in our institutions, no faith in Congress, in the White House, little faith in what used to be called the establishment—big business, big media, the Church. But there’s a sort of schizoid quality in this. We have contempt for the media, but we have respect for newscasters and columnists. When we meet them we’re impressed and admiring. We respect priests and rabbis and doctors. But we are cynical about what they’re part of.
It’s also famously true that we hate Congress and keep reelecting our congressmen. I don’t know how to reconcile this. Sometimes I think there is a tinny, braying quality to our cynicism. We are like a city man in a Dreiser novel, quick with a wink that shows we know the real lowdown, the real dope. This kind of cynicism seems to me ... a dodge. When you don’t believe, you don’t have to take part, invest, become part of. Skepticism is healthy, and an appropriate attitude toward those who wield power. But cynicism is corrosive and self-corrupting. Everyone at the top is a moral zero, I’ll be a moral zero too.
But our cynicism is also earned. Our establishments have failed us. I imagine an unspoken dialogue with a congressman in Washington:
Voter: “Do what is right!” Politician: “But you’ll kill me!”
Voter: “Maybe, but do it anyway! I hired you to go to Congress to make hard decisions to help our country. Take your term, do it, and go home. Kill yourself1”
Politician: “But I have seniority and expertise and I’m up to speed on the issues. Replace me and it’ll be six years before he knows what I know.”
Voter: “Well maybe we don’t want him to know what you know. Maybe we want someone dumb enough not to know what’s impossible and brave enough to want to do what’s right.”
Politician: “But I love this job.”
Voter: “But we never intended Congress to be a career. We meant it to be a pain in the neck, like jury duty. And maybe I won’t kill you. Maybe I’ll respect you. Take a chance!”
The biggest scandal of the modern era, and the one that will prove to have most changed our politics, is the S&L scandal, in which certain members of both parties colluded to give their campaign contributors what they wanted at the expense of innocent taxpayers who will pay the bill, in billions, for generations.
Watergate pales, Teapot Dome pales. It is what was behind the rise of Perot. The voters think Washington is a whorehouse and every four years they get a chance to elect a new piano player. They would rather burn the whorehouse down. They figured Perot for an affable man with a torch. They looked at him and saw a hand grenade with a bad haircut.
Finally, another thing has changed in our lifetimes: People don’t have faith in America’s future anymore.
I don’t know many people aged 35 to 50 who don’t have a sense that they were born into a healthier country, and that they have seen the culture deteriorate before their eyes.
We tell pollsters we are concerned about “leadership” and “America’s prospects in a changing world,” but a lot of this is a reflection of a boomer secret: We all know the imperfect America we were born into was a better country than the one we live in now, i.e., the one we are increasingly responsible for.
You don’t have to look far for the fraying of the social fabric. Crime, the schools, the courts. Watch Channel 35 in New York and see your culture. See men and women, homo- and hetero-, dressed in black leather, masturbating each other and simulating sadomasochistic ritual. Realize this is pumped into everyone’s living room, including your own, where your 8-yearold is flipping channels. Then talk to a pollster. You too will declare you are pessimistic about your country’s future; you too will say we are on the wrong track.
Remember your boomer childhood in the towns and suburbs. You had physical security. You were safe. It is a cliché to say it, but it can’t be said enough: We didn’t lock the doors at night in the old America. We slept with the windows open! The cities were better. A man and woman falling in love could stroll the parks of a city at 2 a.m. Douglas Edwards, the venerable newscaster, once told me about what he called the best time. He sat back in the newsroom one afternoon in the late Seventies, in the middle of the creation of the current world, and said, “New York in the Fifties—there was nothing like it, it was clean and it was peaceful. You could walk the streets!” He stopped, and laughed at celebrating with such emotion what should be commonplace.
You know what else I bet he thought, though he didn’t say it. It was a more human world in that it was a sexier world, because sex was still a story. Each high school senior class had exactly one girl who got pregnant and one guy who was the father, and it was the town’s annual scandal. Either she went somewhere and had the baby and put it up for adoption, or she brought it home as a new baby sister, or the couple got married and the town topic changed. It was a stricter, tougher society, but its bruising sanctions came from ancient wisdom.
We have all had a moment when all of a sudden we looked around and thought: The world is changing, I am seeing it change. This is for me the moment when the new America began: I was at a graduation ceremony at a public high school in New Jersey. It was 1971 or 1972. One by one a stream of black-robed students walked across the stage and received their diplomas. And a pretty young girl with red hair, big under her graduation gown, walked up to receive hers. The auditorium stood up and applauded. I looked at my sister: “She’s going to have a baby.”
The girl was eight months pregnant and had had the courage to go through with her pregnancy and take her finals and finish school despite society’s disapproval.
But: Society wasn’t disapproving. It was applauding. Applause is a right and generous response for a young girl with grit and heart. And yet, in the sound of that applause I heard a wall falling, a thousand-year wall, a wall of sanctions that said: We as a society do not approve of teenaged unwed motherhood because it is not good for the child, not good for the mother and not good for us.
The old America had a delicate sense of the difference between the general (“We disapprove”) and the particular (Let’s go help her”). We had the moral self-confidence to sustain the paradox, to sustain the distance between “official” disapproval and “unofficial” succor. The old America would not have applauded the girl in the big graduation gown, but some of its individuals would have helped her not only materially but with some measure of emotional support. We don’t so much anymore. For all our tolerance and talk we don’t show much love to what used to be called girls in trouble. As we’ve gotten more open-minded we’ve gotten more closed-hearted.
Message to society: What you applaud, you encourage. And: Watch out what you celebrate.
(This section was written before Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown, about which one might say he said a right thing in the wrong way and was the wrong man to say it. Quayle is not a stupid man, but his expressions reveal a certain tropism toward the banal. This is a problem with some Republican men. There is a kind of heavy-handed dorkishness in their approach that leaves them unable to persuasively address questions requiring delicacy; they always sound judgmental when they mean to show concern.)
Two final thoughts:
1. We might all feel better if we took personally the constitutional injunction to “preserve and protect.”
Every parent in America knows that we’re not doing a very good job of communicating to our children what America is and has been. When we talk about immigration, pro or con, there, I think, an unspoken anxiety: We are not inculcating in America’s new immigrants—as someone inculcated in our grandparents and great-grandparents—the facts of American history and why America deserves to be loved. And imperfect as it is, and as we are, we boomers love our country.
In our cities we teach not the principles that our country great—the worth of the Founding Fathers, the moral force that led us to endure five years of horror to free the slaves, a space program that expanded the frontiers of human knowledge, the free market of ideas and commerce and expression that yielded miracles like a car in every garage, and mass-produced housing. We are lucky in that the central fact of our country is both inspiring and true: America is the place formed of the institutionalization of miracles. Which made it something new in the history of man, something—better.
We do not teach this as a society and we teach it insufficiently in our schools. We are more inclined to teach that Columbus’ encounter with the Americas produced, most significantly, the spreading of venereal disease to their innocent indigenous peoples.
We teach the culture of resentment, of grievance, of victimization. Our children are told by our media and our leaders that we are a racist nation in which minorities are and will be actively discriminated against.
If we are demoralized we have, at least in this, demoralized ourselves. We are certainly demoralizing our children, and giving them a darker sense of their future than is warranted.
2. It’s odd to accuse boomers of reticence, but I think we have been reticent, at least n this:
When we talk about the difficulties of our lives and how our country has changed we become embarrassed and feel . . . dotty. Like someone’s old aunt rocking on the porch and talking about the good old days. And so most of us keep quiet, raise our children as best we can, go to the cocktail party, eat our cake, go to work and take the vacation.
We have removed ourselves from leadership, we professional white-collar boomers. We have recused ourselves from a world we never made. We turn our attention to the arts, and entertainment, to watching and supporting them or contributing to them, because they are the only places we can imagine progress. And to money, hoping that it will keep us safe.
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