For the past few years, I have become increasingly aware of sadness – particularly American sadness. Above all else American sadness is a sadness which is shunned and ignored by the popular culture; its sufferers are asked to keep quiet and lay low, and by and large they do. This sadness comes in many forms – depression, anxiety, the agony of being gay in a largely straight world, or black in a white one. Much of this sadness could not be avoided by any society – it exists as part of the human condition. But in America, it is made even all the more alienating by both cultural and economic oppression.
Even those who do not have to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from – or whether it will be enough to cover the rent – experience the stifling smothering that the broader culture tries to perform on the reality of sadness. American life is full of stories of successful, affluent bourgeoisie who can find no reason to get up in the morning. Recently I have been reading Homeward Bound for the sections I am teaching this quarter. While most of the young couples Elaine Tyler May researched indicated that they had no regrets about getting married young and settling down, the doubts and uncertainties that do come through speak to dreams never believed possible, to a feeling of being trapped and lonely. This could be difficult enough for those who really were happiest being stay at home housewives or corporate breadwinners, but what about those who simply saw no other option? Who knows how many gay and lesbian Americans struggled under such conditions, who knows how many women who never wanted to have children – this one in particular I identify with – ended up having their entire youth consumed with child care?
For the economically oppressed things are even worse. American society tells us, after all, to measure our worth by our income – if we are coping both with fundamental sadness and a feeling of worthlessness, the burden becomes heavy to bear indeed. I heard a social scientist once describe those on the absolute bottom of this ladder, the homeless, as “radically vulnerable.” For such Americans, invisibility is the preferable fate – preferable, that is, to the type of scorn and rejection they are likely to face whenever they actually do succeed in attracting the attention of their countrymen.
All of this makes me think of a problem David Foster Wallace discusses in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself – the lack in the United States of any overarching social or civic purpose other than making money and getting ahead. We are encouraged to believe that the best thing we can do for the country is to make ourselves rich and happy – and therefore people who have not successfully molded to this form present an acute threat to the comforting assumptions most of us carry around in our heads. But as so many of us find out, once we have made our money or even had our children, that isn’t always enough. There needs to be something larger – a common good – that can make us all feel like we are a part of a human community, which values humans truly for their humanity.
Conservatives solve this problem by insisting on a return to “traditional” American values – to them, the cult of domesticity and the feminine mystique of the 1950s expressed the height of what this larger American common good could look like. As Wallace points out, too many make the mistake of brushing aside this conservative complaint that American culture today produces essentially selfish and self-centered people. It certainly does; but the conservatives are tragically mistaken to think that the model we had before was a good one. This was a model where unquestioned authority and stifling adherence to conformity were essential to making the myth believable –it was a model that severely restricted the breadth of human experience and potential down into an unbearably small and smothering place. We cannot go back to that – we cannot set up another “ideal” to which we all must aspire to. But we do need to have something else on which to base a broader sense of purpose and humanity community.
Most Americans, religious or not, believe that the universe is a just place – that good things come to good people, and anyone with a sincere, hard-working heart can turn life into a certain type of peace, and a certain type of happiness. While there is obvious truth to the fact that people filled with bitterness, hatred or ugliness cannot be really happy, the reverse is not always true – so many beautiful, exceptional people have suffered under the worst kind of agony, and not all stories end with redemption. As far as sadness is confronted by Americans – and there are some attempts to do so – the narrative that through sheer will, anyone can be saved from their sufferings, remains essential American gospel. Oprah will have plenty of people come on her show to talk about coming back from the brink of suicide, for example, but she rarely if ever has the family members of those who lost that struggle come on to talk about the implications.
It is my opinion that the ethic of individualism, combined with the faith in a just universe, prevents Americans from realizing what is needed more than anything else: empathy. Empathy in our personal interactions and empathy in our economic and political structure. I cannot express how forcefully my experience of the past five years has hit this home to me – empathy, empathy, empathy before all else. Because without empathy – without the recognition that the human creature is caught up in a universe where human experience and connection are the only things that inject meaning into our lives – we are truly wading in water, merely waiting to drown.