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Not Be Made Right Again

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If we have ever spoken, ever, I have tried to persuade you to read "The Road." Friends have been subject to countless wine-infused rambles on its importance, strangers on its opening pages next to me on planes have been assaulted by my flurry of promises on its life-altering qualities, librarians and unsuspecting Borders clerks have been hounded to put it in more prominent places. The story of a father and son wandering the earth after its destruction, Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" ends with the boy watching his father, "each the other's world entire" die in front of a little camp fire in the middle of the woods. Understandly, reviewers tend to sum "The Road" up as "relentlessly depressing."

My instance that people read it anyway comes from the general elsewise assessment that because of this bleak imagined world, 'The Road' is in some way flawed. Because McCarthy doesn't leave plausibility for a civilization to grow out of the ashes, for the boy to have a family, for the boy to make a family, "The Road" has been dismissed in some ways as lacking sophistication, perspective, or redemption. But the book's truth is wrapped up in its desolate ending- we as a society desperately try and wash this out, but as "The Road" says, "There are some things that cannot be put back, cannot be made right again."

I am fascinated by the American obsession with happiness. Trapped inside an Urban Outfitters the other day during a sudden and violent rainstorm, I wandered upstairs to their book section, expecting to find the usual mix of Banksy coffee table books, fuschia bartenderess guides and handbooks on dealing with all-nighters and naked college roommates. Instead, I found stacks of books whose cover pages screamed promises of happiness, using everything from science to psychology to paint-by-numbers to checklists. If a store that caters specifically to disaffected suburbanite hipster-hippies stocks their shelves with happiness books because they sell best, it does not portend well for the rest of our already cheery society.

Every semester, a broken record of people at Harvard justified their positive psychology classes to me as "beneficial." "Massage class might be beneficial too," I usually said back to them. "We do massage!" They would nod enthusiastically. I was recently at a work conference in Miami where I elected to take a seminar called "Building a Selling Strategy for Your Company." I imagined financial models and quantitative recording methodology. I got an affable Southern man in a bowler hat telling a room full of wide eyed groupies that happiness was the pursuit of a worthy goal, and offering sample affirmations for moments of flagging motivation.

There are apparently things called "Happiness Indices," that serious publications put serious thought into compiling. I do not understand them, but Googling them does make me laugh, which I hope counts as raising my own happiness index. The New York Times reported today on Gretchen Rubin's "The Happiness Project," in which she tracks her efforts to increase her happiness for the course of a year- sort of a "Julie and Julia" for the soul. I initially thought the article said the book was number one of the NYT bestseller list within moments of publication, and was prepared to be sort of horrified, and then saw it was actually number one on the self-help bestseller list, and was completely horrified that there is such a list.

This obsession is completely insane, and completely useless. Not having attempted any of the books (there are still actual, um, books, I haven't gotten to yet, like "Anna Karenina," whom I do know jumps under a train, and who might not be good for my happiness index) I guess I cannot empirically say that they are useless. Maybe if they all offer the same generic advice in different window dressing- try to be good for something, take care of yourself, be brave, don't be evil, stand up for what you believe in- then it's not that they're technically wrong. It's that they are obvious, and like the cash cow diet industry, the reason the same people buy the same products in them year after year is that they preach things that are easier said than done. Throw money at a book or a seminar or a program designed to fix anything- poor health, poor spirit, poor heart- and you feel like you're doing something, even though the work only begins when you finish the book, leave the seminar, and close the instructions.

But moreover, happiness, like love, strikes me as eminantly outside the domain of any rational instruction. The other day, I sat on a fire escape, smoking as I looked out over a sunset winter city, and for no reason I know or care to know, was still and whole. Twelve hours later I was sitting in Starbucks, reading about the fate of the healthcare bill, having a full blown quarter-life crisis. There are many things I want to know- like how to play more than one song on the guitar, or what Havana looks like at sunrise, or how to build a selling strategy for a company. But I have no interest in knowing why my heart swells or drops- I trust that anything worthwhile I pursue will lead me to both places. The moment I believe I have a way to turn any Starbucks life crisis into a fire escape at sunset, both moments turn to dust. Be happy eight floors up, sucking carginogins in as the sun leaves for the day, and don't wonder why. Thumb through a newspaper the next morning reading about a problem, ache to be useful, worry that you're not, and almost cry on the papers of the investment banker and his grande no whip vanilla latte next to you. This is real life, and it doesn't come bound up with a cover promising anything, doesn't have charts or checklists or battle plans in any arena that matters.

Religion, even more than the beautiful, arched old Episocopal church I was raised in, to me means a faith that even unjust things are just. It means putting down bannering book covers that promise to fix you, and sitting broken in a church, or a room, or a Starbucks, if it is the truth. There are things that are real, and they do not leave, and they come to everyone- death, heartbreak, betrayal, loss. To look for silver linings, to try and bury sadness and live like you did in the before, desecrates the shooting beauty of whatever was broken. It is for this reason that I tell people to read "The Road"- there are some angles of love that can only be lit from loss, and perhaps the book can make us see it in our lives where we have it by forcing us to imagine a world where it is all gone.

What would positive psychology say about "The Road"? What should the boy have done, walking away from his dead father, stumbling across a few strangers who take him in, walking along the purposeless road where cannibals and starvation lurk in the shadows? What should he have twisted his mind to, looked to the horizon for? Most American lives are not so holistically horrid, but when flashes of this life fork across our own, no book or silver lining can ever really save us. So let's all walk past the table with "How to Change Things When Change is Hard," "So Long Insecurity, You've Been a Bad Friend to Us," and "Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man," and do the things we've always known, rather than desperately claw for something telling us those things in a semi-new way. There are some things that cannot be put back, not be made right again. The other side to that graceful, irrefutable truth, is that there are some things that can be put back, can be made right again, and it is to this I hope we dedicate ourselves as we walk past the table, and out into the world.