Media Influences and Satisfaction

Sometimes the media makes me feel worthless. I was watching an episode of the sitcom New Girl today and the entire focus of the episode seemed to revolve around the idea that money is what makes us worthwhile. Having money means being an adult, and if you aren’t doing something that the world considers worthwhile, then you’re just a child. Of course, to emphasize this point a rich, successful older man is contrasted with two ‘boys’ in their thirties who spend their time partying, drinking, and trying to have sex with twenty year old women. The idea that these boys represent those who haven’t grown up is quite strong, because they haven’t grown up. In the episode they act like children. However, the idea that growing up means being rich isn’t quite right either.

I am currently playing a bit part in the stage version of It’s a Wonderful Life, and much as I hate the movie, I have to admit that it has a good point. Unlike what modern media tells us, and unlike what my generation grew up hearing, life doesn’t have to be special to be worthwhile. The truth is that I appreciate the movie more now than I ever have in the past. It’s still chalk full of horrible theology, but the overarching point of the movie is about satisfaction. George wants to kill himself (tries to kill himself) because he isn’t satisfied with his life. He feels worthless because he hasn’t accomplished any of the things that he set out to accomplish. Instead he got stuck in his hometown, running his father’s business, and his life has been thoroughly small. Honestly, while I don’t think I’d want to run a building and loan, George’s life has always seemed pretty good to me. He has a beautiful wife, loving friends and family, and a fairly stable business. He’s always seemed like a bit of a pussy for wanting to kill himself. At the same time, I’ve been suicidal, and I have no doubt that (if that story were made into a movie) there would be a lot of people out there thinking that I seemed like a pussy. So, I suppose I have no place to judge.

However, all of the theology and complaints about George aside, the movie is really about being satisfied with what you have. George worked hard, cared for others, lived up to his responsibilities to family and community, and through the movie he comes to see how much value that has had in his life. The episode of New Girl did exactly the opposite, and I see this in a lot of modern media. Where It’s a Wonderful Life encouraged us to embrace the lives that we’ve been given and learn to be satisfied where we are and with what we have, a lot of modern media encourages us to want more, to always be looking for what comes next, and to never be satisfied with where we are.

It strikes me that this is an extremely unhealthy message that perfectly fits the attitude of my generation. We grew up easy (financially at least) and were promised that everything we did would be amazing. We weren’t told that we had to be satisfied. We weren’t told that we had to work hard. We weren’t told that we might not get what we want, or that we might not be good enough. Well… a lot of us weren’t anyway. Those of us that were told these things were generally told that no matter how hard we worked we would fail, or that we would never be good enough for anything. In other words, most of us weren’t raised with any in-between space. We weren’t raised to understand that we have to work hard, try our best, and be satisfied with the results.

This isn’t to blame my parents, or parents in general for failing in their duty. Certainly they did fail us, but the culture as a whole failed them. I don’t think this is an issue for which any particular party can bear the blame. We are all at fault, and especially those of my generation because all to often we haven’t done anything. We look around at our friends on facebook, twitter, linked-in, etc and the amazing careers that they post online, and fail to realize that, on-line, most of our careers look equally amazing. Simply put, instead of going out and doing something about our dissatisfaction, we puff ourselves up in an attempt to compete with the images we see. We lie about our lives because we think everyone else is being honest about their’s, and we all remain dissatisfied.

A few day ago my roommate’s girlfriend said something that took me by surprise. She’s young (20 something I think… maybe 19) and works at a local fast food establishment. I was sitting in my favorite recliner (… well, really it’s the only recliner in the apartment that actually works…) grading papers when, on her way out the door she looked at my computer to see what I was doing. In passing she commented, “This is what you do all day? Man, I wish I had your job, that would be awesome!” This girl knows how much I make (or at least I’ve told her), and she is still envious of my job. I’ve said many times here that I love my job, and her comment brought to mind a simple thought: My life isn’t that bad.

There are things that I want, and only a few of them have anything to do with what media pushes on us, but all in all, I have been greatly blessed. I spent a good fifteen minutes today just thanking God for the life that he’s given me, and that isn’t something that I used to do.

So, if you’ve managed to read this far into my ramblings, take a moment and think about your life from someone else’s perspective. It’s probably pretty good.

Bovary Moments Part 2

So, a few days ago I mentioned a novel that I’ve been listening to as a book on tape (full disclosure here) called Madame Bovary. I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed the book. To be completely honest, it’s pretty much infuriating! The entire novel revolves around an incredibly selfish woman and the pain that she causes to everyone around her. Emma, Madam Bovary, is an adulteress and wastrel who spends her husband’s money on her lovers until there is no money left to spend, and then continues spending until her family is ruined, at which point she commits suicide. She is convinced of her own worth, flaky, flighty, and constantly plays the victim while the real victim of the novel, her husband Charles, blissfully goes about his days in apparent ignorance. I haven’t quite finished the novel yet, so I don’t know if it will be revealed that Charles was simply a trusting victim or if he knew of his wife’s indiscretions and chose to love her anyway. I want to identify with Charles. He’s a good man, an honest man, and a hard worker. I want to see Charles in myself, and to see Emma in the people around me. The truth is often the other way around.

I’ve been doing fairly well with my struggles lately. I’m generally satisfied with my life, though T’Amber shot me down when I finally asked her out yesterday. I’m planning to ask a couple more times. In this, I’m going to go by the sayings ‘Third Times the Charm’ and ‘Three Strikes and You’re Out’. She was very nice about shooting me down, and I don’t figure a couple more polite invitations are likely to hurt anything. I’ve been doing fairly well in my internet struggles as well. I’ve wrestled with the desire to look at pornography, but I haven’t fallen much lately, and I’m very happy about that. I did just break down and pay for a year-long membership to eHarmony… it was a good sale price… still, I have a feeling I’m going to regret that. Nonetheless, I’ve been doing well (Happify has helped with that some, I suggest checking it out). Nonetheless, no matter how well I do, I am not Charles.

I am all too often fickle. I like T’Amber and I plan to try again, but then there’s also a very pretty young lady who just started taking Karate at the school at which I help teach Aikido. I have a feeling that one of my other students might try to set us up, and I am in no way opposed to this. Then I still have to ask Sally to lunch, although I’ve recently found out that she’s not available in the first place, which made me indescribably happy.

More than that, I’m not only fickle, I’m downright selfish. I want to be loved, often (I was going to write sometimes here… but that wouldn’t really be honest) more than I want to love others. I want to be desired as much as Madame Bovary does, and I want to play the victim. I always like to have someone to blame when something goes wrong. I know that I should take responsibility for my actions, but all to often I don’t. In short, I am just as selfish a man as Bovary is a woman. The thing is, I think this is true of all of us. We all want… we all desire… we all need… often we don’t even know what we want/desire/need. We are listless, indecisive, and ultimately we don’t have the time or the energy to care about anyone else. It’s not a good thing. In fact, this is exactly what God is trying to fix through the process of sanctification.

However, as I’ve said many times, sanctification is a process. I don’t get there overnight. In fact, I won’t get there until I’m dead. Until then I keep trying to be better, and often I keep failing, and God keeps forgiving.

I’ve also been reading The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence (Lawrence of the Resurrection if you want to look him up) lately, and there is a huge difference between the life to which Brother Lawrence exhorts us, and the life that Gustave Flaubert displays. Lawrence exhorts us to a life of consistent worship, a life filled with the presence, the wonder, the beauty, and the satisfaction of God. Flaubert displays a life without any of those things. A life in constant quest for beauty, wonder, and love. A life in which satisfaction is an undreamable dream (I know I stole that, but I can’t remember where).

I am struck by just how much Emma had, and still her life was empty, compared with how little Lawrence  had (he was a lay brother and kitchen worker in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, a man of absolutely no importance). None the less Lawrence espouses a complete satisfaction with life that Bovary never considers a possibility. I have written before that I am currently searching for eudaimonia. The thing is, eudaimonia does not lie in financial security, in things (duh), in the respect and admiration of those around me, in knowledge or wisdom, or in the bosom of a beautiful woman. Eudaimonia is something that I can only reach by the daily practice of walking in God’s presence. Something that I’m still fairly poor at. Nonetheless, on with the process I march.

Eudaimonia

I’m jealous of people who seem like they have it easy. This isn’t a good thing, but it is a thing. I have a few friends who work hard, and they’re good people, but it always seems like things just come to them. I don’t really know how else to put it. This is a meanness in me, and I realize that, but I see these people who are happy and successful and together, and I get frustrated sitting on the outside looking in. Partially because I don’t know how to be that person. Happiness has never been particularly important to me. A year ago a friend of mine tried to coach me, well… she called it coaching, but it was really counseling in disguise. She kept trying to convince me that I could just choose to be happy, that I should go to a happy place, which has always struck me as a cop-out. There is a difference between having a peaceful confident joy that comes from God and running to some imaginary happy place that lets you hide from real life. However, she finally got around to asking me, ‘don’t you want to be happy?’ And this honestly should have been her first question. My answer… “I don’t know. Happiness is… meh.”

I’ve always striven to be better. There was a time that I was a very bad person, and I think a lot of this striving came from that. I want to be good more than I want to be happy. I want to be like Christ more than I want to be happy. However, I think that I’m coming to the realization that part of being better is learning to be happy (and by happy I mean joyful). Joy is one of the fruits of the spirit, perhaps one that me make to much of (after all it isn’t faith, hope, or love), but still it is one, and if I am devoid of joy (and I have been devoid of joy at times), then I am missing an essential part of what Christ is trying to make me.

I’ve said for a long time that Americans are far to obsessed with happiness and pleasure, and I think this is very true. However, running in the opposite direction and avoiding happiness and pleasure entirely isn’t any better. It’s like saying that Americans are greedy, so I’m going to give away everything I own and live on welfare. It might be a noble gesture, but it isn’t really the right response. So… I think I know my answer, a year later, but still I know my answer. I do want to be happy, or rather I want to be joyful. It’s something that God’s been trying to teach me for a while, and I tend to have a really hard head. I don’t listen well, but he always get’s through to me eventually.

My happiness actually does matter. It’s not the only thing that matters. Obviously it has to be held in balance with temperance, love, peace, patience, kindness, virtue, etc. Nonetheless, my happiness does matter, and I should be working to be happy. I don’t want to say that I should be working to make myself happy. I’m honestly not even sure what that would look like… a wife maybe, a few kids, an income of $50-$60 thousand a year… or maybe two or three wives and an income of several million a year… or maybe living in a monastery where I don’t have to worry about women at all… honestly, I’m pretty sure that (if it were up to me at least) happiness would revolve around women in some way.

Instead of trying to make myself happy and running from one thing to another to another, I want to be happy where I am, with what God has given me. I want to be happy with myself as the man that God has made me, even if I can’t have the things that I want. That… is something that I’m still working on. Too often I still want to be someone else, and that does nothing to help me be satisfied with him, and I think that the kind of happiness that I’m describing here, Plato’s eudaimonia, is part and parcel with satisfaction. Still, at the moment, beyond the fact that satisfaction comes from God… I have no idea how to actually be happy. Plato argued that eudaimonia comes from living a virtuous life. However, my life at present is fairly virtuous and I certainly don’t spend a lot of time in eudaimonia. So, while I agree that virtue is a part of eudaimonia, there is another part… or probably a few other parts, that I haven’t found yet.

Right now God has me waiting… on pretty much everything in life, and I think I may have just realized why he has me waiting. Of course, I could be completely wrong. This might just be another rabbit trail, he knows I’ve gone down plenty of those, he’s even led me down a couple. That, however, is a story for another time.

Striving and Satisfaction

We’ve all had good days, and we’ve all had bad days. We’ve probably all had days that went from good to bad, or bad to good, or stayed solidly somewhere in the middle. If anyone ever tells you that they’ve just had the worst day ever, tell them to visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki… or Auswitch… or Carthage… then hit them… preferably with something metal… ok, that’s probably going a little far. Don’t do that, but you get my point. Even though we should love overly dramatic people (thankfully, I can be one sometimes), it’s a ridiculous claim. Of course, on the other hand, the claim that you’ve never had a bad day is equally ridiculous.My day today went from pretty good to mildly bad and back again. I mentioned the other day that there’s a lady that I’m somewhat fond of, and I happen to know that she’s spending time with a friend of mine tonight… well, a couple of friends actually (which makes all of this even more ridiculous). Honestly, I know that what they’re doing is innocuous, and yet my satisfaction was ruined. Why? Very simply, I don’t know what she thinks of me. Now, here’s the ridiculous thing: Honestly, I don’t have a clue where I am romantically. I like this woman, but I’m really not sure if I’m ready for any kind of relationship, and I don’t know if I actually want to do anything about the fact that I like this girl. Nonetheless, my satisfaction is ruined because I’m not sure whether she wants something that I’m not sure that I want. This is the ridiculousness of humanity. The ridiculousness of me!

We all strive for the things that we want, or the things that we think we want, or even the things that we don’t really want, but think that maybe we should want, and when we don’t get them, or think we might not get them, we lose all sense of satisfaction. The thing is, happiness isn’t a choice. I can’t simply choose to be happy, or choose to be satisfied any more than I can choose to be orange or choose to be thin. None of these things are simple choices.

Our happiness is based on our desires, and our desires are based on the things we focus on. When my focus is on the fact that I want to be married, then I find myself unsatisfied because I’m not married. When my focus is on a woman, then I’m unsatisfied because she isn’t mine. When my focus in on wealth, then I’m unsatisfied because I am not wealthy, or at least I am not as wealthy as someone else. Thus, in striving to become I destroy my own satisfaction.

I lose all sense of the fact that I am who God has made me, not that he is finished (far from it in fact), and that I am who God is making me. I forget that he is what I should be striving for, instead of striving for all of the things that I see and want around me. Laozi, a Chinese philosopher, introduced the concept of Wu Wei, or ‘non-action’, though the idea might be better translated as ‘non-striving’. Laozi believed that the Tao was the essence of all things (obviously I disagree with him here), and that our only striving should be a striving to be in harmony with the Tao, and even this should not be a true striving. He believed that we should seek to be in harmony, and that when we were in harmony we would naturally do the things that should be done. That is to say, that we will do right without striving to do right.

Christians are commanded to abide in Christ, and when I truly abide in Christ, when I am holy, then my actions will be right. When I abide in Christ and keep my focus on him, then I find myself satisfied because he does not fail. When my focus waivers, when I focus on something else, then my satisfaction disappears. In striving to better myself, or to achieve my desires, or to meet arbitrary goals, I find myself unsatisfied because all of these things are dust. These strivings can never satisfy me, because these achievements are meaningless.

Do not think that I mean that marriage is a bad thing, or that to be wealthy is evil. This is not what I am trying to say. However, marriage without Christ is meaningless. Wealth without Christ is worthless. Christ is all things, and when I am in Christ, then I will be satisfied with whatever he chooses to give me. When I am in Christ, then marriage will be wonderful, if that is what he chooses to give me, and if it is not, then it will be equally wonderful to be single.

I think that I’ve probably botched this entirely, but I’m still kind of working these ideas through in my head. However, I think that Americans have generally lost all concept of being satisfied with what God gives us, and this makes me very sad.