A World of Words

A colleague began her Bible as literature class quoting a rabbi who said of reading Torah, “These words are my very life.” The connection between words and life energy, blessing, and well-being crosses traditions; as far as I know every tradition preserves sacred words, sacred texts, and some sense of the sacramentality of words, themselves. Linguist Barry Sanders points out that for the ancient Hebrews, utterance—forming a word from the breath of life—was a form and likeness of divine power.

Watching a child begin to speak is among the most awe-inspiring moments of parenting. Most children are awed, themselves: they say the word “light,” they point to the light, wide-eyed, and then laugh in surprise and delight. Watching a child begin to read is similarly stirring. When I sat down recently to read to little Hannah, she firmly took the book into her own lap and said, “No. I want to read to you.” And she did—slowly and proudly, having something of her own to offer in an empowering and exhilarating exchange.

I’ve also sat with children who were illiterate, or virtually so. The pain of staring at a word, knowing it means something, not knowing what, the humiliation and the hunger and the shame are heartbreaking. Some fake it as well as they can. Some go sullen. Some ask for help over and over, repeating the words provided then asking again.

I’ve also sat with college students whose literacy, for all their hours in school, is largely limited to reading what’s on the page and making literal sense of it. There is a kind of deep illiteracy that remains undiagnosed because it is masked by an ability to read that stopped with phonics. Just as vibrant health is more than survival, life-giving reading practices involve far more than word recognition and correct inflection.

To read well is to play what’s on the page the way a musician plays the written notes, interpreting, nuancing, feeling one’s way into the text with a keen awareness of the many hermeneutic choices being made at every turn. It involves identification, empathy, imagination, a capacity to see and tolerate ambiguities, the authority to infer and interpolate. It’s joyous, inventive work.

And, as Larry Dossey, MD points out, it bears a direct connection to health of body and spirit. One of my favorite childhood memories is of sitting wrapped in a blanket in my father’s big recliner reading Gone With the Wind for three days straight while I skipped school, recovering from tonsillitis. It was healing. It was life-giving. It gave me access and energy. I would wish an experience like that for every kid, and for every adult—to get lost in words and find a way. To know one’s own journey as story. To let words heal, by distracting and redirecting and inviting the mind and heart to the other side of the looking glass.

Refusing Invisibility

I remember a moment of pure, loyal, sad, focused outrage the first time I saw someone treat my mother—my lovely, smart, resilient, adventuresome, generous, imaginative mother—like a little old lady. The man at the customer service counter looked at her—or rather just past her—and spoke to her without seeing her. She was another inconspicuous woman of a certain age, rather sweet looking, ready to be friendly, but whose friendliness was likely to be a bore, and whose questions were likely to take up too much time, and be about matters that, if she thought at all, or had a husband at home to do her thinking for her, wouldn’t have had to bring her in here. He was short with her. He answered her questions in technical terms that seemed designed to intimidate. If I hadn’t intervened, she would simply have gone away, disheartened and a little humiliated.

She was a “little old lady.” Littler than I am by quite a bit–I got my height from my dad—and old—in her eighties—but of sound mind, sound sense of humor, rich in memory and observation. Only she was of a generation that had learned to be kind and courteous and—since she was female—compliant. I could see how “generic” she looked; her hair was grey and permed in a way no one under 60 would consider. Her dress was a modest print. She wore a cardigan over it, and nylons with sensible walking shoes. She carried a purse on her arm. She wore slightly glasses.

That she could also raise begonias in soil no one else thought would work, and make a jacket with covered buttons from scratch, and recite long passages from the King James Bible, and tell stories that spanned most of the century with delicious detail and still inspire roomsful of fifth-graders, not to mention adults who tagged along to listen, with her mission talks from India were things he couldn’t possibly have imagined.

I’d heard women observe before that at a certain age, women become invisible, but I hadn’t actually seen the moment of magic—the moment when, poof, they exited the field of vision. I’ve known women who have internalized that message—that you no longer matter, that you are no longer interesting, that you’d do best to stay home and watch Jeopardy and make tuna casserolds. They are hesitant and too pleasant. They defer in general conversation. The become, in fact, a little less interesting.

I like the bumper sticker that reminds me regularly, driving around the East Bay, that “Well behaved women seldom make history.” It’s a good message to offset several generations of conditioning. But the curious thing is that well-behaved women actually have made history. My mother’s best friend was just as lovely and smart and congenial as she; she was also a research biologist at Baylor and spent, for reasons still unclear to me, several inexplicable seasons in Brazil studying the 3-toed sloth.

I don’t intend to be invisible.

What Are We Willing to Know?

Knowing enough to act responsibly as citizens and consumers depends on our answers to seven questions. The first of them in a sense includes all the others:

 

1) What am I willing to know? Am I willing to know things that impose new political or economic responsibilities on you? That make me feel less safe? That complicate my decisions? Am I willing to know things that make me feel guilty? My carbon footprint? What the companies I buy from may be doing to child laborers? Under what conditions my meat was processed? Jonathan Foer’s Eating Animals is a compelling story of his personal journey from ignorance to awareness of abuses and sanitation violations in factory farms. It’s a story about willingness to find out and change habits on the basis of new information.

 

2) What am I willing to ask? It is fatally easy to fall into patterns of accepting as “normal” practices that in fact are doing great harm. Our use of plastics is an easy case in point. Common sense tells us that if certain plastics cannot biodegrade even when ground into small nurdles—if the plastic bottle from which you drank your pint of water at yesterday’s picnic will be here 500 years from now—we are using up a limited resource and filling land and water with undigestible fragments of material when we dispose of it. But it takes a certain initiative to step back, hold that bottle at arm’s length, and ask, “Why are we making plastic bottles, using them once, and throwing them away?” If you ask that seriously, it may lead you actually to do the homework, whereupon you may find out that it takes three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water, and that more than 17 million barrels of oil are required to produce the bottles Americans use and throw away in a year.

Asking questions like this may lead us to feel guilty. It may lead us to change our habits. It may lead us to worry about things we were blissfully ignorant of before. It may lead us to pray for guidance toward better stewardship.

 

3) What possibilities am I willing to consider? If I want to know what I need to know, I may have at least to listen to information or arguments that lead me well outside my comfort zone. Am I willing to consider the possibility that the 9/11 attacks involved inside collaboration? That my child’s textbooks are censored by people who have a political agenda? That GMO foods aren’t as safe as the food corporations would have us believe? That even my worst enemies may be able to teach you something?

 

4) Whom am I willing to trust? The government? My pastor? The pharmaceutical companies? NPR? MSNBC? The vendors at my local farmer’s market? Independent scholars? Some questions that can help clarify who is trustworthy are: who is benefiting from this process or practice?   How transparent is their self-disclosure? Who is funding them? Much scientific research on new drugs is funded by large pharmaceutical corporations and on milk products by the dairy industry. This should at least raise some questions about the integrity of that research. (Conflicts of interest like this occur pervasively in war efforts that are supported by those who profit from war.)

 

5) What am I willing to risk? Am I willing to risk having to change opinions I’ve held publicly? Am I willing to risk friends’ disapproval? Am I willing to risk my own disillusionment or discomfort? Am I willing to risk being identified as an outsider or troublemaker or threat? Am I willing to risk being targeted for speaking out?

 

7) What am I willing to argue for? Some people find a “good argument” stimulating—even exhilarating. But a lot of us don’t like to argue. It’s strenuous. It creates tensions. It requires homework. Argument that aims to persuade is an art form as well as a matter of moral conviction. Aristotle devoted a copious book to the matter of argumentative strategies, since he regarded them as a basis for functional civil discourse and viable public life. It takes careful, strategic thinking to discern when to appeal to reason, to authority, to precedent, to emotions, to imagination in order to persuade others to see—and even more careful self-examination to determine what we ourselves may not be seeing. There’s not much point in thinking about what needs to be said unless we’re really willing to consider other points of view, and how to enable others to hear ours without feeling condescended to, judged, or simply trumped. Richard Mouw’s Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World surveys the varieties of incivility that gum up the gears of public discourse, and issues a call, not to bland courtesies, or to political neutrality, but to seek the sources of disagreement and enter “tough conversations” that might lead to more fruitful negotiation. We need to care about when and how to speak to those we hope to persuade and (this may be the hard part) listen carefully for counterarguments that may inform or modify our own.

 

8) What am I willing to act on? Knowing generally imposes a moral obligation to act—to change habits, to share information, to protest, to participate in change. To do the homework is also to accept the responsibility that comes with information. Once you know a company is polluting local streams or exploiting children or engaging in false advertising your support of that company is reframed as participation in their practices. (Amit Srivastava at indiaresource.org and Ray Rogers at killercoke.org have reported on Coca Cola’s serious human and environmental abuses in India, Columbia, Guatemala, and elsewhere. To read their material requires that one reconsider the consequences of buying and drinking one of America’s most popular soft drinks.)

Positive actions that go beyond protest are happening all over the world—the Slow Food Movement, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Rainforest Network, the League of Conservation Voters, the Union of Responsible Scientists, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Evangelicals for Social Action, The Simple Way, and countless other groups have been formed to inform the public, encourage alternatives to poor choices, and promote innovation, peace, and cooperation.

But one of our basic tools for good–language itself–is under siege: coopted by commercial interests, many words are now laden with associations that make them hard to use in neutral or historically accurate ways. Words like “freedom” (whose?) or “democracy” (practiced under what economic system?) or “acceptable” (to whom?) or “standard” (set by what body?) are moving targets.

So willingness to know—to do the reading, have the conversations, compare sources, question our own experience–takes courage, humility, discernment, sometimes sacrifice. It leads us into new communities, which we’ll need, because knowing can be lonely. It can realign our interests and relationships, sometimes putting distance between us and people we love. Once you know a new thing, the kaleidescope shifts; there’s no going back to ignorance or innocence. A door closes behind you. The next door may not open immediately, either, because knowing takes time. One statistic, one new fact, one story can change the way you see a practice or policy, but facts are trailheads. To follow the implications of a new fact (say, once you find out that 48 million Americans are uninsured, or that the Amazonian rainforest is disappearing at twice the rate of earlier estimates) takes some reading around, getting a bigger picture, following the story. Knowing takes time.

In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More says to his daughter, “God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” He knew what political consequences he faced for taking a stand on a belief he could not compromise. Hundreds of thousands of people now face political consequences for challenging authority, speaking truth to power, making public the results of careful investigations that challenge carefully orchestrated propaganda. Being willing to know what they know and act on it has made them vulnerable, has subjected them to ostracism, loss, even torture. But they still commit to serve their God, their families, their fellow citizens, consumers, patients, students, believers, wittily, in minds they have trained to link question to question until verifiable answers emerge from the tangle.

This kind of courage is the true aim of education—certainly of Christian education—willingness to know and act on what we know humbly but confidently, alert always to how new information can modify what we think we know. To sustain each other in this we need life-giving conversation—the kind that takes whole evenings—and we need to care. Being willing to know is a way of loving our neighbors, ourselves and God, one of the highest commands under which we live.

When the Moment Comes

Think what you missed while you were doing what you were supposed to do.

I often think of the moment when I first let go of the side of the pool.  It wasn’t when my brother (who was teaching me to swim) told me to.  It wasn’t when I screwed up my courage and decided to.  In a sense, it let go of me.  Suddenly I was floating, and ecstatic—but the feeling wasn’t one of triumph, because I hadn’t really “done” anything—certainly not made a decision.  I just, as they say, “found myself” free-floating in the water.
On many other occasions I’ve “found myself” doing something that involved a kind of consent or courage or acquiescence that had nothing to do with my conscious, often resisting mind.  Once, as I was lecturing to about 35 students I found myself walking over to a woman in the front row who appeared to be in acute pain and lightly massaging her shoulder, continuing the lecture as I did so.  It seemed the most natural thing in the world, though as I looked back, I realize it was very odd classroom behavior.  More oddly, though, no one seemed to object, or even take note, and I remember that she visibly relaxed.  So it was a good thing to do, but not a good for which I take any particular credit for “being kind” or even “sensitive.”  I just registered her pain and acted in response.
I’ve made major decisions without much attention to the long pro and con lists someone always recommends—so many that it almost seems to me sometimes that a criterion of a valid and right-minded decision is one that comes from somewhere beyond the mind, takes you by surprise, and is already effectively made by the time you realize you’ve made it.
It’s a subtle process—the movement from perception to action that takes a route through the heart rather than the mind.  It has a certain gift-character; control and planning seem beside the point when I’m in the midst of a situation that evokes a vivid and immediate intuitive response:  “Yes, I’m on my way.”  “No, I’m not going to walk into that conflict.”  “This is dangerous.”  “I was on the way somewhere else, but I’m stopping here.”  I went through a day once practicing the mantra, “Say yes.  Whatever it is, say yes” as a way of trying to allow myself to notice these invitations.  It was a mindful day.  I can’t claim that I make it a consistent practice, but whenever it occurs to me to say that “yes,” the frame shifts a little, and I am brought again to the present—always the best place (and really the only place) to be.

What Do You Mean?

A two-page story “Caring for Strangers” raises a whole range of issues worth the conversation we won’t be able to have in our less-than-an-hour Monday seminar—patients’ fears, how doctors miss cues, how medical training can dehumanize, what love has to do with it.  Hearing it aloud adds a dimension to its drama.  It’s not only worth reading, but worth reading together, especially with doctors in training.  That part is a privilege.
But I find myself distracted by stylistic quirks in the story that bother me.  Imprecisions bother me (what the hell is “a chance of a missed occasion”?  What are “drooling dispositions”?)  Overstatement and poor verb choices bother me.  So am I just being a nit-picking English teacher?  The kind that kills “Ode to a Nightengale” at close range?
I don’t think so.  I love close reading.  I can be very forgiving if I see something of value in what people have bothered, bless their word-loving hearts, to write down.  Still, in the midst of the widening conversation about the value of writing in medical environments—poems by physicians, patients’ stories, cancer chronicles—I find myself wanting to say something about the value of writing well.
One student asked this morning about how to avoid falling into clichés.  I want to pat him on his lovely head for caring about the question.  The challenge of writing anything worth devoting a sentence to is finding a way to invite a reader back to a place she thinks she’s been for a second look.  “Words strain, crack break, Eliot wrote, strain with imprecision, will not … will not stay still, …leaving one always with the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings.”  I don’t believe as fully as I used to in the sheer value of writing things down, though sometimes it is, in itself a heroic act.  I think the value comes in the wrestling with words and meanings that makes the writing itself part of the arduous, demanding, surprising work of healing.
I’ve gone to websites where patients post their poetry, and am generally disappointed in the quality, though I applaud the impulse.  I wish someone could help them take it a step further, as my friend Vicki used to when I brought her a thought or a rough draft.  “What’s behind that?”  she’d say.  Where did this image come from?  Why did you start with this phrase?  Did you notice what you’re not saying?  Why did you pick that verb?
This kind of long look at unpolished sentences isn’t just the professional purview of English teachers—it’s human work.  “What do you mean?” is a searching, valuable question.  It’s a second draft question.  It deserves to be asked and answered.

Postponed Pleasures

Years ago, when I asked a clerk in one of Oakland’s independent bookstores for a book about migraine (since I’d been having them more often, and medication didn’t work, I thought, like a good academic, I’d at least read about them).  She rose from where she’d been sitting behind the counter—an older woman, a little bent, with the kind of rich voice that made me think she probably sang in the gospel choir at her church.  “You get migraines, Honey?” she asked, as though she really wanted to know.  I nodded.

“I used to get those,” she said.  “But then I just decided too many people think they need somethin’ from me.  So I got rid of some of those people.  Now I got fewer people.  And I don’t get headaches.”

I think I walked out without a book, but I went home with a piece of advice I revisit regularly.  Some days I wake up with tremendous gratitude for all my friends, for good colleagues, for children who like introducing me to their friends, for college roommates who stop by on their way through town.  Other days I remember that woman and wonder how to decide when the dance card is full and, what’s harder, how to tell the people who didn’t make the cut.

More and more, I neglect my friends.  I learned this morning that Heidi, who often tell us when she needs a ride to UCSF med center for another excruciating procedure, has been in pain for the past two weeks.  She evidently got a ride to her last desperate procedure—burning the sciatic nerves to disable the pain communications while trying to leave her motor nerves intact.  I’ll call her tonight.  I meant to call her.  She’s near the top of the priorities list, but not quite in the half dozen slots that occupy the hours of any given day.
I want to have been there for her.  I will be, now.  But it’s late, and I’m guilty, and again I wonder how many people it’s possible to extend lovingkindness, compassion, and attention to.  I don’t write Suzanne because it takes me ten minutes to write an actual card in human handwriting, and I know she loves those.  I don’t call Vicki, one of the wisest, funniest friends I have, because she loves to talk, and it’s hard to make a conversation with her shorter than 45 minutes.

My mother visited the sick.  She was a compassionate listener and people called her.  She sat by our beds when we were little, and by my grandmother’s when she was very old.  She worked full-time.  She made time.

She also didn’t live with the ratcheted up expectations most of us have of ourselves now—an ethic of staying in touch multiplied to impossibility by the technologies that extend our touch worldwide.  An ethic of loving one’s neighbor that stretches “neighbor” to a far-flung “network” of newly accessible people.

When I agonize about all the people I neglect, my husband smiles calmly and says, “You can’t do all the good things you want to do.  If you’re reading Dostoevsky you’re not playing the cello.  (He read that somewhere.  I don’t play the cello.  And I’d rather read Tolstoy.  But then, if I’m reading War and Peace, I’m not reading Moby-Dick.  And I’m not visiting Heidi with homemade soup.

What’s Mine?

“Spare change leads to spiritual change”

My mother worked at a school for orphans in India for thirteen years.  Those years profoundly shaped the rest of her life stories and much of mine.  In a simple way that was never offensively moralistic, she reminded us, even—or perhaps I should say especially—at the end of a month when grocery money reached a serious limit—to be thankful.  Gratitude was a way of life for her, and giving.
I’ve traveled a winding road since those lean years, and my mother is gone, but I think of her when I walk the streets of Berkeley and give money–or don’t.  I feel blessed to have her example so deeply branded in my memory—though the sense of not being able to live up to it remains uncomfortably with me as well.
I’m blessed not only by her example, but, more presently, by my husband’s.  As I wrestle with my own anxieties about money, ownership, the painfully visible inequities we all live with here in this polarized city, and at this time of rightful and vigorous protest, it helps me to watch him talk with the homeless people who stop us as though he was just hoping they’d stop him to ask for money.  “What’s your name?” he asks, as he fishes through his pockets.  “Where you from?”  “Tom.  Good name.  My grandpa was named Tom.”
My brother engages any and everyone with similar genuine interest.  At our father’s funeral, though he and dad had had some hard times over the years, he gave a touching eulogy about how Dad would welcome conversation with anyone from the school custodian to a CEO with a natural egalitarianism that seemed to come from what was sometimes an utter and awkward lack of class consciousness.  “Who are you?” he wanted to know.  “What can I learn from you?”
The money exchanged on these occasions is not, of course, incidental.  It isn’t enough to look people in the eye and speak with them.  My brother carries a roll of quarters for the purpose.  Dad sometimes brought people home for something to eat.  But what I have learned from these whom I have loved, and from many others in my fortunate life is that gratitude is a dimension of giving—gratitude of the kind that says I’m so glad you asked me for money!  I’m so glad I found you just on this street corner while the light was red.  I’m so glad you picked my freeway exit and I saw your sign, even in the rain.  I’m so glad I happen to have some money right here in my pocket.
Some days I rush past the people who need what I have.  Busyness and hurry erode generosity.  Some days I occupy myself with my first-world problems.  I’m grateful for the days I don’t.  I’m grateful for the people who have taught and continue to remind me that what isn’t shared is wasted.

In Praise of Specificity

Specificity is a form of compassion.  The most compassionate people I know deal in details.  Their eyes take in the sticky residue on the floor where a toddler will plant the hand that goes into her mouth.  Their concern about housing leads to questions about cockroaches and rats.  They see the faint pesticide cloud breaching the edges of the field that borders on migrant laborers’ homes.

In his remarkable book The Working Poor, David Shipler models this kind of compassion in his close attention to the daily decisions and weekly crises of people whose every choice involves a tradeoff.  He invites readers to sustain their attention to specifics long enough to feel what they “see.”

I can’t help, in this pre-election month, contrasting his humble, careful portrait of the poor with the abstract rhetoric about poverty that wins points for candidates—or worse, stereotypes the poor.

One of the most convicting phrases I heard in graduate school was when a friend worked herself to a place of quite justifiable outrage about “affordable middle-class morality.”  By that she meant holding people to standards that could only be met by people with choices:  cleanliness, preparedness, “good” parenting, social grace.  These standards are hard, sometimes impossible to meet without money, or in a state of grinding fatigue, or when chronic anxiety and depression deplete one’s inner resources.

Imagining Compassion

“Systematizing compassion risks introducing a parade of disingenuous gestures that will be read as artificial and patronizing.”
(David Watts, “Cure for the Common Cold,” NEJM 9/272012, 1185)

Good cooks know the limits of the recipe.  Good cooking is about patient practice of observation with all the senses engaged:  as the sauce is stirred the good cook notices texture, color, the layers of fragrance—rosemary mingling with oregano—even how the simmer sounds, and, at the appointed moment, taste.  Good cooks trust their trained intuitions—a phrase that may seem oxymoronic, but, in fact, points to the well established fact that intuition can be trained, and in the culinary arts, as in any other art, must be trained.
The analogies to medicine may seem a stretch.  But after years of hanging around medical professionals, medical students, and aspiring premeds, I believe nothing is more important in training competent, compassionate clinicians than helping them develop intuition, imagination, and empathy—all prerequisites to real compassion.  What one beloved colleague has wryly called the “social sciencing” of higher education troubles me—meaning no particular insult to those who labor in the social sciences.  They have their place.  But when the methods of social science—data gathering, measurement, graphs, charts, and—well—systems–dominate academic discourse those of us who inhabit alternative discursive universes—in the humanities, for instance—are increasingly encouraged to forsake our “soft” language and methods for what seems to be more reliable.
This morning a student in our “Narratives in Medicine” seminar brought in a bar graph with a bell curve on it illustrating the “vicious cycle of avoidance.”  One axis is labeled “anxiety.”  The other is labeled “time.  The right end of the bell curve is labeled “mastery of anxiety.”  It looks definitive there in black and white, neatly symmetrical.  But those of us who experience anxiety in fits and starts, or who have learned to laugh at ourselves in the midst of it, or who know it can coexist with deeper levels of calm and trust, and that “mastery” doesn’t really even serve as a meaningful objective, have to wonder at the way such diagrams too readily invalidate experiences that are better accommodated by other, messier narrative structures.  Wendell Berry’s description of a dying man’s relatives who, unlike the efficient folk in the hospital bureaucracy, offer a kind of care that belongs to “the larger looser, darker order of merely human love” comes to mind as a vision that challenges what medical and educational institutions institutionalize.
Watts claims that “the product we should seek is not proficiency in literature, but brain balance.”  Yes to the latter, but I’m not sure the latter can be fully achieved without the former.  Proficiency in literature, after all, offers the skills necessary to defend oneself against the domination of bell curves and bar graphs and numerical analyses of data.  There may be, as one critic opined, only 36 plots, but the ways to tell a story are nearly endless, and endlessly generative.  To recognize a patient’s narrative strategies, to wonder why she might have begun her story with an allusion to her mother’s fear of abandonment, to consider the logic of her metaphors and the parabolic quality of her stories from the workplace, to notice how she situates herself relative to the incidents she reports, or how the inflection of her sentences disempowers her and invites her listener to doubt…these noticings can be sharpened and enhanced by literary awareness.  Anyone who has noticed that Romeo and Juliet’s first conversation is a double sonnet is not likely to skim through any other dialogue without looking at its architecture.  Anyone who has laughed over Holden Caulfield’s recurrent opener, “If you want to know the truth…” is less likely to overlook the little flags and tags that offer clues to a good listener.
Can compassion be trained?  To a point, absolutely.  To what point?  I can’t, or won’t put a number on it:  85%, 50%?  It doesn’t matter.  Compassion can be encouraged, modeled, reinforced, spotted in stories, witnessed on Grand Rounds, recognized in the moments when one’s own heart opens.  We develop it in community, in koinonia—the ancient Greek term that means both community and participation.  We step into a magnetic field created by others’ compassion and find ourselves reoriented. It is difficult to get a bell curve from poems, yet doctors deepen their practice every day by means of what is found there.

What Medicine Can’t Cure

Borges:  “Medicine cannot cure what happiness cannot.”

Recently I heard Russ Baker give a lively talk about the copious book he’s published after over a decade of intense investigative reporting on some of the worst government corruptions, scams, assassinations, and consequential lies in US history.  The analysis went back to the Kennedy assassination and beyond.  The general tenor of the talk was that any reason we think we have to trust the major media or the government probably needs to be reexamined.  And that things are worse than we thought.  One of the most remarkable moments in the Q&A that followed, though was when, asked how he managed not to become overwhelmingly cynical and depressed, Baker said, convincingly, “I’m a cheerful guy.  And I love doing this stuff.  Truth is exhilarating.”
It was a good reminder that happiness isn’t dependent on good news, or positive thinking, or the sort of ignorance often mistaken for bliss.  Some of the happiest people I know have complicated lives, precarious finances, or chronic pain.  Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, Brightsided, offers a characteristically edgy critique of the culture (or cult) of positive thinking that encourages members of the public to avoid “being negative,” to enjoy life, to make a project out of happiness.  The result of such efforts to “be positive,” she points out, is dangerous neglect of critical questions that need to be asked, critical thinking about public issues or consumer decisions, and even a kind of atrophy of the emotional musculature it takes to sustain a deeper sense of well being than the superficial cheerleading that often passes for happiness.
My mother had that.  My dad—a large-hearted but difficult, eccentric, high-maintenance spouse—asked her on occasion, “So—do you love me in spite of it all, or because of it all?”  As I recall, she evaded the question deftly, and they both moved on, with a little ritual laughter.  From this distance, it seems to me the obvious answer was “Both.”  It’s probably the true answer for most relationships.  And it’s probably true that the deepest happiness any of us achieves comes both in spite of and because of circumstances.  “Be joyful,” Wendell Berry admonishes, “though you have considered all the facts.”  In order to do that, we have to learn something about joy that isn’t obvious, and isn’t circumstantial, and certainly isn’t marketable.  Happiness like that has something to do with discipline, maturity, simplicity, contentment, hope and, I think, what Frankl would have called a search for meaning.