A joke: Three guys are having a drink at a bar. The first one says, ‘a horrible thing happened to me. At my travel agency, I wanted to say, a ticket to Pittsburgh! And instead I said, A picket to Tittsburgh!’ The second one replies, ‘that’s nothing. At breakfast I wanted to say to my wife, ‘Could you pass me the sugar, honey?’ and ended up saying, ‘you dirty bitch, you ruined my entire life!’ The third one concludes: ‘Wait til you hear what happened to me. After gathering up my courage all night, I decided to say to my wife at breakfast exactly what you said to yours, and I ended up saying, ‘Could you pass me the sugar, honey?’
The above joke was told to me by my very own husband, after he had spent an hour reading a section of the book The Puppet and the Dwarf, the perverse core of Christianity, by Slavoj Zizek. Now, I will not bother to pretend that I have any idea what Zizek is trying to convey throughout this rather long-winded and philosophical book, other than that he was a student of Jacques Lacan, and according to the dust jacket, Zizek is known as ‘an academic rock star’ and ‘the wild man of theory’, and in this book, he criticises both New Age gnosticism and deconstructionist-Judaism, then tries to redeem the ‘materialist kernel of Christianity.’ But it doesn’t much matter. Trying to read Zizek is, for me, simply a waste of time and brain cells- it gets me nowhere, understanding nothing of what he is trying to explain, in a hurry. My husband, on the other hand, somehow relishes these type of books, full of verbosity and all manner of didactic, long-winded, complex philosophical meanderings and ponderings about life in our present times. The simple fact that he had the audacity to relay that tasteless joke to me, and in fact, was laughing so hard halfway through it that he had some difficulty in reciting it, spoke volumes about the sometimes stark differences between men and women, along with the realization yet again, that no matter how much we would like to think that we know the person to whom we are married, in some crucial ways, we simply do not, and can not.
Obviously, it works both ways. There are many things I laugh about which I know for sure my husband would never find funny in the least. But I think there is more to it than what is obvious in this story. It begs the question, ‘How and when and why can we be truly honest with one another?’ These are moral questions, and there are no cookie cutter answers for them. We all experience this veiled reality with each other often in our lives, perhaps far more than we are conscious of. From here I begin to wonder, is real honesty and authenticity (that much over-used word) truly possible in our post-post modern society? And even if it was, would we prefer it over our veiled, hazy, half-truth lives?
Take, as an example, the ever-expanding business of self-help courses, books and retreats which seem perennially popular in the United States, and which have been quite successfully exported to various countries across the globe, including Denmark. The Danes, along with most of Europe, apparently, love American exports such as capitalism and globalization, Coca Cola and I phones, all manner of useless junk imported from China but claiming designer labels like Nike and Converse. Well, you get the picture. Additionally, the Danes also have embraced Self-Help products, courses, books, and the like as enthusiastically as Americans themselves. One can easily learn about yoga, qi-gong. sound healing, and mindfulness most any day of the week. Are you feeling down and lonely? No problem, we have a course for you. The bottom line of all of it seems to be vague catch-all promises such as ‘health, radiance and real happiness.’
I have to be honest. There were some years of my life when I too read these books, and even attended a few courses claiming to help me ‘become happier and lead a more joyful and fulfilling life.’ Some of what I read was helpful and made sense. Some of what happened in those courses also was helpful to me at that moment in my life, a couple of things were profoundly healing, even. So, I can’t definitively say that it was all a big pile of rubbish. And yet. Maybe due to my age and experience, (maybe not) I have become much more skeptical of people’s claims to help me become happier and more fulfilled by reading their book or attending their course than I once was. In fact, these days I simply question these people’s intentions. Though I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and take them at their word instead of being suspicious and doubtful of their integrity from the outset, these days I am wary of anyone who makes claims that they can help me to become healthier, more creative, smarter, and generally more fabulous than I currently am. Who are these people, and how have they somehow cornered the market on happiness and fulfillment, while the rest of us poor hacks are still struggling to get through a day or a week relatively unscathed from the ups and downs of life? I wonder.
Recently I received an email from a woman in the small town I used to live in back in Wisconsin. She is now offering weekend retreats in such exciting topics as, Reinvigorating Your Creative Force, Creating Significant Rituals, and Shining Your Light. Her descriptions of these courses are shining examples of really slick marketing copy. She claims that her courses can ‘boost your confidence while actively being a part of our own lives,’ ‘creating a ritual to create a sense of belonging and to make those significant moments of one’s life really count,’ and the best one, ‘to find one piece of fabulousness and plan to make it happen.’
Don’t get me wrong. She is a very nice person, in her way, intelligent, bright, funny, personable. And a very talented actress, I have seen her perform in the local theatre group on occasion. But. I happen to know that this woman also happens to be an ordinary person with problems just like the rest of us, is divorced, has had various dramas unfold in her life in the same way as it has for the rest of us. In other words, it is very hard to take her claim of being some sort of expert at the art of living joyfully and fulfillingly, too seriously. And to fork over several hundred dollars to her in the hopes and expectation that doing so will magically improve my life and happiness index, is rather absurd.
It is a tricky business, after all, the business of helping others with their lives. It is more what is at the core of it as a ‘business’ that is most irksome. I like to help others, to listen to them, even to give them advice if it seems they want any (and yes, maybe even at times they don’t, I admit!), and certainly to be in a creative space with other people, simultaneously creating together, whether art, music, theatre, dance, movement, spoken or written word, and things of this nature, can be a wonderful, uplifting, happy-making, fulfilling experience. Absolutely. Definitively. Without a doubt. I guess it has to do with that pesky label ‘expert’ or something, that really gets in my craw. It’s a little like the old story, ‘He who is blameless shall throw the first stone.’ Are the happiness experts really so happy themselves? Are the success experts so successful, and if so, why? Because they are spotless and immaculate in their morality and ethics, deserving of all that material wealth and the benefits thereof? Or is it because they have become so adept at their marketing skills, have figured out the game and are so clever at selling themselves that others will buy it, so that they themselves can also become rich, clever, socially adept, beautiful and, yes, of course, Happy!?
Dear Readers, don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against happiness. I believe in happiness as a real benefit of being alive on the planet. But. Haven’t we collectively taken the concept of Happiness a little too far here in the Two-thousand-and-teens? After all, any person who embraces the depths of human experience as important can obviously see that being happy is only one aspect of being human, not the ultimate goal of existence. Finally, something that Zizek and I can agree about.
In the words of the happiness expert in Wisconsin, ”You have something beautiful to give, let’s make it the best it can be. The world is waiting.”