David Foster Wallace: Fighting a Culture of “Me”

Unless you’re a devoted fan of NPR or The New Yorker, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of the late David Foster Wallace. Unbeknownst to many, David Foster Wallace, or “DFW,” as he is sometimes called, was one of the most influential and insightful writers of our age.

Deeply aware of the social illnesses that pervade western society, Wallace aptly articulated our psychological and sociological norms, paying particular attention to the onslaught of media that now encompasses our collective way of life. It is not merely the quality of media for which Wallace articulated concern, though this is part and parcel to his main worry. Wallace was largely disturbed by our generation’s incapacity to endure silence, boredom and self-restraint. To have freedom, he argued in his Kenyon College Commencement Speech, a person must be disciplined:

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

Contrary to modern cultural standards, Wallace articulated a profoundly old truth; arguably, a “natural law” that beckons to the very heart of human existence.

Being an adult requires self-sacrifice, not merely in order so that we may receive future gain, but also so that we might not lose ourselves in the culturally sanctioned decree that we have a right to get what we want, how and when we want it. It is a culture of self that determines personal happiness to be the highest virtue. Wallace adds: “[T]he world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” But freedom,involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Our own Dustin Steeve articulated a similar concern about on-demand technology’s effect on human development and character. We must ask ourselves: how much are we losing by allowing information to flood our every waking minute?

Television and internet were a customary part of my daily routine when I was growing up. Rarely did I wait to be stimulated by entertainment, or forced to put strenuous effort into anything outside of an average school day. Somehow I made it through college in spite of this, and now as I encounter adulthood, I recognize just how difficult it is to choose to confront discipline and boredom for future gain, rejecting the pleasure and ease of immediate gratification.

My experience is in large part a symptom of my generation. The uniqueness of our situation lies in our culture’s devotion to convenience and demands for entertainment. Wallace noted this when he said that while our culture, as times past, is committed to narrative art, “television,” the most prevalent form of narrative today, is of the lowest sort.

It’s a narrative art that strives not to change or enlighten or broaden or reorient—not necessarily even to “entertain”—but merely and always to engage, to appeal to. Its one end—openly acknowledged—is to ensure continued watching.…Television’s greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding.

There are many hard working people my age, and yet, the choice to endure hardship has become increasingly “a choice” and less a requirement of which all responsible adults are expected to take part. Our reclaiming of discipline and self-sacrifice as a standard part of adulthood will be essential if we hope to retain our freedom from our “hard-wired default setting” of self-centeredness.

*For those who aren’t familiar with David Foster Wallace, I’d like to briefly acknowledge the fact that his death was openly identified as a suicide. Regardless of the motivations or rationale that accompanied Wallace’s act, the truth of his words remain the same. No matter who participates as the mouth piece for this truth, self-sacrifice and endurance is an objective good. Having said this, we should also admire Wallace for his ability to discern and display what is good; especially as a voice within a society so disposed to keeping truth buried in self-mire. ‘

The Ordinary Pointing Us Onwards

What can be said about a painting of a girl washing dishes? We barely think about the act of dish washing. We barely contemplate this familiar experience at all. Standing in a room called a kitchen; the dirty sink, the brightly lit lamp. This is the space we inhabit as we eat, drink and wash. This is the space in which we accomplish the task of living. And it’s instinctive to us.

However unassuming the subjects of her paintings may be, Victoria Macmillan’s series Private Inscape calls us to attend to our “spaces of life” in a unique and sober way. As in the painting above, Macmillan transposes scenes from the places of our adolescence—where our most basic and instinctual understanding of the world is fostered—and paints them on common fabrics. In each piece, the fabric bleeds into the scene, reminding us of a memory or thought that is called to our minds in the present. We are made aware that it’s a memory because of the material that surrounds it.

As a true contemporary artist, Macmillan does not have a particular intention for the way she wants her art to be interpreted. Yet the work encourages viewers to recall their former living spaces, and builds upon these memories a sense of the transitory nature of growing up. Fabrics serve to remind us of the “stuff” we keep in storage or in our musty childhood bedrooms. Similarly, in Joy Okagawa’s Obasan, dust covering antiques in her aunt’s attic induces the main character to think of the brokenness of her family. Likewise, the “physical,” as we interact with the material in the present, grabs hold of our attention and our associations, which helps us as we recall the past.

The physical world has the capacity to cause us to remember, our relationships, our childhood perceptions, and the very prosaic experiences of our upbringing, and set us in motion towards something else entirely. Rather than merely sifting through our ordinary experiences and assigning meaning to them, what if the purpose of our ordinary experiences were to direct our attention to the divine?

In a recent interview in Books and Culture, poet Adam Zagajewski noted this transitory and transitional nature of what we consider familiar. In his poem, “Ordinary Life” he remarks:

Ordinary life, ordinary days and cares,

a concert, a conversation,

strolls on the town’s outskirts,

good news, bad—

but objects and thoughts

were unfinished somehow,

rough drafts.

In contemporary poetry, as with contemporary art, there is a tendency to create and depict the prosaic experience as simply what it is. The intention of a work of art is not made clear for us. Simply depicting what’s “real” is the point. This view of art has a tendency to predispose us to materialism, to want to view the world as less than it is. Materialists continuously endeavor to hold the world as they would any physical object. Rather than seeing meaning and purpose, they stop with the object, as though that were all that existed.

Fans of G.K. Chesterton will recall his adamant opposition to this view. He argues that such a viewpoint cultivates a spirit of “smallness;” resulting in skepticism and austere minimalism:

As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. …His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.

Zagajewski falls in a similar camp with Chesterton when he argues that our physical experience doesn’t stop with itself. The ordinary world, along with the transitory memories of childhood and the physical objects of our youth, all serve to point us elsewhere:

Many people, including some friends of mine, have a tendency to celebrate the quotidian. It seems to me that the quotidian doesn’t want to be celebrated. It has to be completed. It’s open to new adventures. It’s not something we can put on a pedestal, to which we should pray. It prays itself for something else; how can we pray to it?

Modern life often forces us to view the world as objectively limited. Zagajewski is deeply aware of this disposition, both in his culture and within himself:

For me it’s a constant battle between this dream of an ecstatic, religious poem and the heavy burden of skepticism that pulls me down. I sometimes think that in being implicated in this conflict, I’m not a bad representative of our time. This is one of the main struggles today not just in poetry but also in the spiritual realm.

When we hold within our hands the objects that once filled our childhood living spaces, we find ourselves in the midst of this tension. We are stuck between two poles—a tendency to view ordinary life materialistically and the “ecstatic” faith which would allow us the space to view our lives as a narrative.

The tension between materialism and faith is a strong one. And we do not have to dismiss the physical world in order to reasonably affirm the mystery and complexity of the divine. To challenge the smallness of materialism, however, we must be inclusive in our view of life. To reject cynicism and exclusivity, we must be open to mystery and faith. ‘

Learning Compassion from Story-Truth: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

Empathy is one of humanity’s best qualities. And it can also be the most neglected. When insurmountable obstacles confront a community, understanding and compassion from neighbors is often just enough to pull them through.

But what if the obstacle is something few can understand? What if it’s trauma from a perplexing and complicated war?

Earlier this year, ArtsWestchester featured Tim O’Brien’s war novel The Things They Carried as part of The Big Read, a program designed to encourage reading in communities nationwide. Attempting to increase in understanding and compassion, O’Brien’s partially-autobiographical work was intentionally chosen by ArtsWestchester so that readers could encounter some of the issues our servicemen and women face.

O’Brien himself explains that the similarities between the war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam are not primarily political, but human:

“Obviously there are differences [between the war in Iraq and Vietnam]” he said, “chief among them the absence of the draft. But there are enough similarities. These are wars in which there are no uniforms, no front, no rear. Who’s the enemy? What do you shoot back at? Whom do you trust? At the bottom, all wars are the same because they involve death and maiming and wounding, and grieving mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.”

Distancing his work from politics, O’Brien’s writing and public comments have continuously centered on the personal nature of war and its effect on individuals and relationships. Even in Hollywood, a move has begun from the mere “reenactment of battles” towards the personal.

While a war may be considered justifiable, the negative impact combat has upon the human soul is poorly understood. O’Brien attempts to draw out the truths of this impact by issuing his readers into the experience.

Rather than merely recounting events, O’Brien modifies the “facts” of his own memories, shifts the chronology of the story and emphasizes mystery and confusion, forcing his readers to emotionally face the psychological shock of his experience.

He explains his technique in The Things They Carried by distinguishing between happening-truth and story-truth. The former pertains solely to facts, whereas the latter attends to emotional truth and the pursuit of meaning.

The two “types of truth” seem pretty clear. Yet literary critic Tobey C. Herzog reports that O’Brien blurs the lines not merely in his writing but also in his public life.

In front of an audience at Wabash College, while O’Brien elaborated on an event depicted in his book, he allowed listeners to assume that the details he related were actually true. Because The Things They Carried is based on his life, the audience implicitly believed (without evidence to the contrary) that the events O’Brien described had actually transpired:

. . . O’Brien paused as the Wabash audience nodded knowingly at the story’s conclusion: Tim O’Brien had chosen to enter the army, to fight, and not to flee across the river into Canada. Then, after a dramatic pause, O’Brien confessed: the story was made up . . . the incidents on the Rainy River, so realistically described, simply did not occur in O’Brien’s own life.

According to Herzog, O’Brien argues that this deception introduces audiences to “the complex intermingling of facts, fiction, truth, lies, memory, and imagination . . .”  The realization of abstract truth is “truer” than facts; the human element deeper than the form.

O’ Brien recognizes that human beings empathize best when they share in other’s experiences. Since fictionalized stories convey abstract truths in a noticeably defined way than mere reporting, his work uniquely functions by “cutting to the chase.” He forces us to view trauma in war on a deeply personal level by rapidly putting us in uncomfortable positions as we read.

Many listeners in the Wabash audience were understandably offended by O’Brien’s trick, wanting to hear his “actual war-related experiences,” instead of grossly elaborated ones.

But at this time in our nation’s history, as we watch our friends and family go off on their tour of duty, seeking understanding of their war experiences may be one of the most compassionate thing we can do. O’Brien’s story-truth brings to light some of these experiences and ushers us into emotional realities otherwise inaccessible to civilians. ‘

Our Turn Inward: Emotionalism

While some economic theorists take notice of class distinctions and their impact on quality of life, few choose to go deeper by asking such questions as “how does capitalism shape our feelings?”

Eva Illouz does just this by bringing abstract economic theory to the realm of the personal. Illouz acknowledges the trendy yet ensconced cultural tendency to observe life through emotional lenses. Her recent book, Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help, provides an in-depth articulation of this shift. Transcending academic and professional categories, Illouz spearheads a new kind of study, analyzing psychological and emotional language in its attention to human behavior. Guernica Magazine’s Jesse Tangen-Mills gives Illouz the label “cultural theorist,” as this approach doesn’t fit the typical labels of “historian,” “philosopher,” or “sociologist.”

Illouz’s thesis in “Saving the Modern Soul” reveals—if not pronounces—a change in contemporary discourse. In the early 20th century, “society” understood the world according to relationships. Community was what mattered; less so, the individual. When talking about the family unit, we spoke of it in terms of the greater good. Any defiant individual who caused harm to the community, for example, we “felt” and spoke of as being in direct opposition to the social good. When considered, the individual was most frequently viewed in opposition to, or in support of, the community, rather than the community towards the individual. This view has since been flipped.

Tangen-Mills points out that in shifting towards the emotional and psychological we now “hearken back to childhood memories and recognize emotional needs” when we talk about ourselves. The defiant individual is no longer a mere enemy, but is recognized personally. We begin to view the individual as a victim of the family and/or the greater community. We turn from a discourse that sees only the greater good to recognizing the personal and individual good.

If we doubt this trend, we need only look at the popularity of Oprah Winfrey and Woody Allen—both of whom, Illouz points out, have built their careers by recognizing the deeply emotional and often broken nature of modern day individuals.

The question is not whether such a trend exists, but whether it is in fact good that we have turned from a communal discourse towards an individualistic one. In evangelical Christian circles, the term “individualistic” is often antagonizing because it’s believed that an individualistic society perpetuates “self-focus,” which is in direct opposition to the selflessness directive given in Scripture.

Constantly evaluating the personal impact of one’s environment—for example, how a person was treated by their family—turns our attention furthur towards the “singular,” and away from the family and community. Rather than viewing a poor individual and his affect on the community at large, we fastidiously turn our heads towards the emotions he experiences because of his lack. Illouz comments:

…in literature people focused on interpretation of text and really never bothered to actually pay attention to the fact that texts and movies elicit emotions and draw you in through emotions. Or sociologists who asked themselves why people do what they do could talk about competition, when you consume something, or they could talk about class stratification but never about the envy or the humiliation or the shame that can accompany class stratification.

Prior to the last several decades we analyzed and articulated subjects of study externally. Sociologists who talk about “competition” regarding human behavior, for example, remain just outside of a discourse of feelings and emotions. Competition is a perspective of relationship with others, rather than an emotion that comes out of such a relationship. The development of psychology as a discipline has brought with it a reading of human behavior that regards emotions almost to the exclusion of all else.

People spend an increasing amount of time focused upon the misery of an individual rather than of healing and triumph. Movies, for example, are more likely to show the gradual digression of users defeated by heroin or cocaine, such as Requiem for a Dream, than to show the impact of users upon the greater public or those individuals finding healing in their communities.

We are now inspecting the parts of a picture, instead of the picture. Yet, to ignore the minutia is to ignore what makes up the whole. This turn towards the psychological and emotional experience of the individual may not be such a bad thing.

In fact, by looking inward, we find some of the causes of our social diseases and have the opportunity to solve them. Modern society’s “emotional” approach is in fact liberating in its own right. Examining human experience according to its psychological and emotional impact allows us to understand our environment and community in a much deeper way. We give voice to injustice and pain, and doing so, are given the insight to carefully respond to the social or familial harms that create an experience which negatively influences individuals who become “defiant.”

Despite this psychological and emotional discourse being new to humanity, the emotional and psychological is part of our makeup. Humanity has always been and always will be emotional. Our discourse has changed; we have not.

But the way we speak about ourselves affects how we relate to one another. And so, as we continue in this new way, we should cautiously remember that individuals make up a greater whole. Environment and relationships affect the individual, and though the individual is important, he or she also impacts the whole. ‘

The Murder of the Homeless & Social Merit

Do we perform acts of kindness towards others because they deserve it or because they need it?

In case you haven’t heard, a homeless man was recently murdered in New York City after trying to help a woman in the middle of being assaulted. Brian Levin reports:

In New York surveillance video captured a homeless good Samaritan come to the aid of a woman being attacked by a knife wielding assailant, only to be stabbed himself. While not a hate crime, the bleeding wounded man was casually ignored by passersby who failed to do anything to assist him as he lay dying in the street.

Levin comments that though this instance isn’t a hate crime because the perpetrator was initially after the woman, Levin states that many hate crime scholars are regarding the increasing number of homicidal deaths of this demographic as such, because the homeless are “perceived as a threat.”

Of course, we should be angry at those who choose to actively brutalize and murder, but what of those who do nothing to stop or help when they’re able? What of the passersby?

Some are saying that the passivity of passersby is the result of a kind of psychological paralysis. “Bystander apathy,” as it’s called, is a result of being overly-exposed to violence and being in a very public setting in which people feel less guilty for doing nothing.

While some, like Manasan, offer other examples for why few get involved in public displays of violence, we should consider whether our judgments of those being harmed play into our decision to pass-by, watch… or help.

Isn’t it possible that in a crisis situation we are more likely to help those we consider more valuable within society than those who we view as a burden?

Jack Levin (no relation to Brian Levin), a professor of sociology and criminology, comments that being homeless and/or elderly has an effect upon those who are witnesses:

“We devalue people with disabilities, people who are homeless, people who are marginal types, and elders,” he said. Levin suggested that crime victims who need help while in a public space try appealing directly to an individual.”If you can somehow single out a person so he does feel personal responsibility, then he will help,” he said.

In discussing what happened in New York the other day, a professor of mine pointed out that even those who speak out for the marginalized often fail to properly help the marginalized.

We feel better about ourselves if we “say” something in support of the needy. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t make me feel better to write this article. But if I regularly justify not helping others when I can, for the sake of myself, and because of implicitly held beliefs about who is valuable and who is not, I am one of those onlookers who passed by the homeless-man while he was bleeding to death.

Consequently, if the murder of this homeless man is an example of our social gradation of human value, shouldn’t we consider the possibility that we are failing to live up to our professed beliefs?

Is it logically consistent to serve others based on merit or need?

Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões. (Some Rights Reserved.)

You, Me and Television: “Fringe” and Human Nature

Despite the downsides of television, and the fact that we probably don’t need to be watching more, small screen narratives offer profound insight on the human condition.

Before the birth of “TV,” 18th Century British author Samuel Johnson once argued that a story was only truly superior if it was a faithful “mirror of nature.” He said:

Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile . . . but the pleasure of sudden wonder is soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.

If television is a medium for stories, Johnson’s argument applies to what is displayed on the tube. Many of us enjoy watching Glee, for example, for its glamour and musical skill. But unless we spot in the characters something that matches our own human experience, fanciful invention will sooner or later cease to inspire us. This is perhaps the reason, as adults, we are unable to watch the cartoons of our youth. Looney Toons, somewhere along the way, ceased to inspire our imaginations. Our life experiences made us too large for the sort of entertainment it offers.

Yet despite entertainment purposes, television can offer rare moments of truth that challenge us intellectually and morally.

Take last week’s episode of Fringe, for example. For all its scientific intrigue and suspense, the relationship between main character Walter Bishop and antagonist Dr. Alistair Peck makes it one of the best of the season.

Their shared position as great men of science, and Walter’s personal experiences, allows Walter the ability to identify with Peck and his desire to resurrect his fiancé through the means of science. Unlike the government agents who merely seek to thwart Peck’s intentions, Walter is the only person capable of connecting to him, and consequently, the only one able to articulate the moral challenges that stem from his desire.

Tim Grierson from New York Magazine’s “Vulture” comments:

The two actors made [the story] riveting, particularly when Walter confronted Peck man-to-man. In their exchange, where Walter warned Peck that changing the past only leads to more problems, Fringe had one of those rare moments where you got the sense that Walter was talking to someone at his own level. Perhaps not surprisingly, that kinship inspired this devoted man of science to admit to Peck that his rescuing of the alternate-universe Peter made him believe in God for the first time.

The scene is embedded below:

Moments like this are compelling not because Walter expresses what might be the beginnings of faith in God, but because his struggle between human loss and his human limitations are brought to light in a way that every viewer can understand.

Walter also recognizes that there are boundaries to human ambition within science, especially when it comes to human lives. This particular theme cycles again and again throughout the series and it is one we as viewers should grapple with as we live in a culture steeped in scientific aspirations.

But even while entrenched within a plot beyond many of our own personal experiences, we see a familiar struggle fixed in human relationships and sacrificial love for those dearest to us.

As I continue to watch, I am amazed to what depth writers will take their viewers. This may be a result of the fact that, as Dylan Peterson says, “America runs on Jesus.” Yet apart from an explicit Christian context, in order to be “good art,” to tell good stories, television shows must truthfully mirror life.

It must depict humanity’s most basic needs and desires by telling stories we can all relate to. Shows like Fringe remind us of what it means to be human.

Television may be bad for my health, but excellent scripts? Good for my humanity.

Photo by Brandon King. ‘

Mainstream Standards of Beauty

For an industry that loves to break with tradition, upend rules, and challenge cultural conventions, the fashion world rarely compromises on its one hard and fast criterion: all models must be the same. With minor exceptions, the models chosen for the runway are carbon copies of one another. Frequently European, facially symmetrical and size-zero, models are the least diverse constituent of the business.
 
The New York Times’ Fashion Review recently highlighted the shift from the 1960’s Twiggy standards of beauty towards the more rounded figure. Even so, such a change is not praise-worthy. The fashion world embraces diversity in fashion, but refuses to embrace the diversity of human physicality. Our cultural standards have merely been restructured, not improved.
 
In an effort to fight these standards, French parliamentarian Valérie Boyer created a stir last year by proposing new legislation requiring labels on all retouched photographs. Bruce Crumley of Time Magazine encapsulates Boyer’s rationale:

[Boyer] feels that the idealized beauty in such photos is giving people false expectations of how the world should look — and how they should look as well. Because digitally enhanced photos are often used in mass-marketing campaigns for everything from soft drinks to luxury cars to travel packages, Boyer says the images are gradually leading to a standardization of what is considered beautiful — and by extension, what isn’t.

The “standardization” Crumley refers to is the same that has been around since the influence of the Greeks and Romans. In Ancient Greek culture, beauty, in both men and women, was of utmost importance. Greek sculptors attempted to represent what they believed to be the universal ideal in the figures they shaped; the 10-year war in The Iliad was fought over because of “fair-tressed Helen of Troy.” They highly esteemed beauty because they intuitively regarded objects with symmetry or pleasing proportions as beautiful. In devising what they believed was the universal ideal, they were preoccupied with beauty as part of their study of the metaphysical.
 
Western culture has largely inherited this view of beauty, with some modifications and without a desire to study metaphysics. In a time of plastic surgery, fashion and digital retouching, these standards are not merely part of an unattainable ideal represented in art, but are standards we now continually seek to achieve.
 
Standards of beauty today dictate expectations for women, men, children and ethnic minority groups across the board. 17th Century author Aphra Behn appealed to this standard in her description of her fictional character Oroonoko, who was attractive for his adherence to European ideals:  

His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so nobly and exactly formed that, bating his color, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable and handsome.

The growing number of ethnic minority groups represented in fashion magazines gives off the dubious image that diversity is becoming the norm; and we sometimes believe this trend is ushering in a more civilized and compassionate age. In reality, as it has always been, models are still expected to reach the assumed “higher universal ideal” made requisite by our culture; putting pressure on black women to hide the natural texture of their hair and using makeup to enhance the largeness of Asian eyes.
 
But few of us stop to consider the possibility that the higher ideal transcends racial and cultural borders. While we may all agree that attributes such as clear skin and balanced features are more attractive, there is something inherently beautiful in human appearance, not merely those appearances that fit a single race or culture’s “standard of beauty.” This inclusive universal beauty is difficult to quantify, and yet, arguably, fits the “universal standard” better, because it embraces—rather than rejects—what is natural.
 
As Boyer pointed out, our culture’s standards of beauty have far reaching implications for consumers. A recreation of the Clark Doll Experiment (the test starts at 3:23), by high school student Kiri Davis, is just one example of how our narrow assessment of beauty negatively impacts individual and communal identity and value. 
 
We are inundated with the message that everyone can be attractive, so long as we buy the right products, hire the right consultants and wear haute couture. Ours is a culture with the implicit maxim “we too can be as gods.” But our obsession takes a toll on who we think we are and leads us to prejudice, alienating other human beings we do not consider “classically beautiful.”
 
There are influential leaders like politician Boyer, model Crystal Renn, and comedian Chris Rock, who are actively seeking ways to poke holes in these standards. We must also seek to embrace diversity in order to fight the tyranny of mainstream standards of beauty.

Photo by Peter Duhon. ‘

Sacrifice vs. …Sacrifice? : Doing What You Love

Seth Godin recently pointed his blog readers to a heart-warming—and considerably thought-provoking—documentary. Appropriate to Godin’s field of work, “Lemonade” interviews over a dozen laid off advertisement professionals who use their new found freedom to pursue work and recreation that they truly enjoy.

If you scroll down to read some of Hulu’s viewer comments, you’ll notice that the concept of “doing what you love” full-time is controversial. Many argue that “pursuing one’s passion” is often mismanaged, resulting in failure, the loss of other opportunities and a decrease in quality of life. The potential for success may not be worth the enormous risk.

Of course, it’s normal for us to seek pleasure over pain, happiness over unhappiness. There is logical consistency in choosing activities we enjoy over those we despise. Pursuing work that inspires us can be opposed to our basic needs or our familial responsibilities. Even the non-basic comforts of our lifestyle are enough to hinder us from pursuing a motivational occupation because we can’t bear the loss of them. Consequently, immediate needs usually take precedence over long-term goals.

Achieving success while doing work we enjoy is also not as predictable as, say, a corporate job. Some individuals see their corporate work as a service to others, whether they’re serving their coworkers or indirect recipients. But more often than not, it’s the paycheck that keeps them in their offices. Money, after all, can open doors for activities we really enjoy. Saving and preparing for a family’s future is also one of the major reasons people choose higher paying jobs. None of these are unworthy goals.

The potential pitfalls of choosing work solely because we love it can be numerous. Seth Godin—who, if you don’t know, advocates the pursuit of meaningful work—outlines these pitfalls thoroughly in an article from a couple of years ago.

Yet choosing work we enjoy can be rewarding, not only for ourselves but for our families and for our community. Making a documentary about surf camps, for example, “that provide free, therapeutic surf lessons to kids with cystic fibrosis” is a powerful way to impact a community; something as simple as home roasting coffee beans and selling them at the local farmer’s market is yet another way to link people together.

If we truly love the work we do, we’ll be devoted to it, willing to suffer for it, and consequently, be much better at it.  There are times when hard work is not enough to accomplish something. Usually we need certain knowledge or the right opportunities in order to achieve success. But success isn’t possible at all without devoted persistence.

As human beings created in God’s image we find the most enjoyment and meaning when we act according to our natural skills and abilities, which includes the act of creating. By doing that which most fits and inspires us we’ll be able to more fully serve our community (and create better art) as a result.

Even though money itself can be a means to better things, we frequently make the mistake of building our lives around it. Some people are able to make lots of money doing what they love, but for those of us who can’t, is the loss of money worth the loss of utilizing the gifts God has given us?

It’s okay for us to simply live and be and do. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes reminds me that, first, “all things have been done before,” but also that living humbly, I can do work which is most suited to me. It isn’t worth wasting time and energy in an attempt to achieve material wealth when it is not ultimately for the good of our families, for our community or for our own well-being. We should know who it is we want to be and what it is we want to do. Whether it means working to make money for the good of one’s family and for added opportunities, or giving up material goods for the pursuit of higher things (like art, invention, discovery or the betterment of our community and society). ‘

The Funny, the Serious and the Social: A Reflection from the Leno/Conan Controversy

It’s been an odd couple of weeks in the news recently, with a number of articles and video segments frantically reporting on the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno fiasco. “I’m with Coco” fans’ dreams for the future of The Tonight Show were laid to rest when NBC executives officially announced a little over a week ago that they planned to send him and his crew packing. In short: there has been much hype surrounding the Late Night controversy. And not only in the media. The public itself tuned its attention to entertainment’s greatest foible with much fervor.

During his last week on The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien repeatedly reminded his audience that more important things were going on in the world. But his comments didn’t quell any of the attention directed at The Tonight Show tempest. Despite the fact that, ultimately, Late Night timeslots don’t matter: if the Late Night fiasco isn’t important, how is it that so many people are upset about NBC’s decision? Why on earth does it matter?

To answer these questions, I turned to the endless supply of opinion articles to see what others were saying about Late Night television as a whole. Few have anything to say on The Tonight Show situation in light of its “comedic” or “social” significance. But some have implied that comedy, as a genre, has social persuasion, while also arguing that the fight over Late Night isn’t worth the hubbub due to its current state of mediocrity.

Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe, for instance, writes that Late Night television in its prime had been about social gatherings, community and really stylish entertainment:

There was a time when the whole post-prime-time TV world, ruled by Johnny Carson . . . seemed to have a tinge of glamour. It seemed like a time for adults who had a martini or two in them, with an almost rat-pack feel underneath the network TV restraint of the era.

In accordance with the fact that Late Night television in the golden days had been full of experimentation, originality and creativity, Late Night fashioned a culture that united friends and family beneath the banner of comedy. Late Night television, beginning with Johnny Carson, inspired a whole generation of young people and revolutionized what people talked about around the watercooler.

Yet, for decades prior to Johnny Carson, (and sadly, after him) comedy has largely been a mediocre thing. This problem isn’t new. In 1887 a writer for the New York Times claimed that in his day, contemporary theatrical comedy was “a poor thing.”

This unknown writer adds that “American comedies have generally been feeble and often witless. The truth of life eluded [them].” What is important about his comment is the implication that good comedy reveals something true about humanity and about life on a general scale: “the abundant humor of the play is founded on whims and eccentricities of humanity that are known and understood by everybody.” Recognition and shared experience belongs to comedy.

Why on earth would anyone care about NBC shifting Conan? We care, because, like Shakespeare’s Feste or Touchstone, Conan the court jester reveals truths about our culture and about ourselves. That Tonight Show hour gives us space to laugh about life, and gain perspective over situations and drama we often take too seriously.

Not only do they give us relief from our day-to-day lives, Conan and Johnny Carson inspires us.  Time notes that “Carson was just the right mix of ingenuous Midwesterner and urban sophisticate.” Likewise, O’Brien’s humor is both professional and familiar. He was somehow able to mix the fine things of life with the everyday. Conan, “the smartest guy in the room,” who always lets us in on the joke, reminds us that if we work hard and are kind “amazing things will happen.”

Ultimately, we humans have a natural bent towards comedy. We don’t always have the most sophisticated humor at times, but our basic desire and need to laugh is part of enjoying—and dealing with—life. Why we laugh, furthermore, springs out of our thought, the shape of our culture, our personal experience and perspective, especially as it pertains to our relationships with one another. Comedy personally impacts us because—even if only for a few moments—we gain a slightly new perspective, or familiar insight, on ourselves. ‘

Measuring Our Quality of Life by the Economy

Financial commentary abounds in the news, but few stop to consider what this commentary says about American values. Although economic analysis is designed to explain our material condition, we frequently look to this analysis to affirm our overall quality of life.

In the November issue of The Atlantic, Megan McArdle argues that financial commentators incorrectly link Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with economic well-being. GDP is only intended to measure the dollar amount of American production, not the actual quality of said production; oddly, analysts often assume that the two are equal.

McArdle clarifies the distinction between “quality” and GDP:

GDP does not, and cannot, reflect the waste of enormous effort, and precious natural resources, that went into building something that suddenly no one wants. Moreover, it misses many other aspects of our existence. . . . [I]n India’s national accounts, all of Mother Teresa’s labors among the poor would have had only the most minimal possible impact. GDP can record how much money we spend on health care or education; it cannot tell us whether the services we are buying are any good.

The amount of resources thrown at a project doesn’t account for actual value. Conflation of economics with quality of life serves to show we over-emphasize material well-being. We neglect traditional values, familial and communal relationships, natural resources and quality education, because it doesn’t add anything to the economic score. Yet all these things improve social and moral standards, thereby improving our quality of life. A fiscal tally can’t pin down social well-being.

Financial advisors point out that some people who drive fancy cars, wearing expensive clothes, maintain an appearance of being wealthy, but in fact, are in the grip of debt or bankruptcy. Economic analysis is similarly deceptive. Our value assessment is based on appearances, rather than inherent worth.

McArdle adds, “much of the progress in important areas of life is invisible to most people.” Material well-being is an essential part of our livelihood, but economic growth ultimately doesn’t determine our values or our happiness. While financial analysts must stop conflating GDP with economic stability, we, the general public, should stop believing that economic stability equals overall wealth. ‘