Privilege, Price, Illusion and Choice

I am, and have always been, privileged. And yet I manage in certain moments to be other than happy.
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This one is personal. I will start by noting how much I love my wife. She loves me just the same. That is privilege. I am privileged.

And yet, we -- my wife and I -- can manage to be unhappy at times. Despite our love for one another, and for the bountiful blessing of five much-loved, healthy, thriving children, we can manage at times to be unhappy. For, after all, there is unhappiness in the world -- and we live in it. We see it.

There are mudslides and earthquakes. There is Ebola, cholera, and measles. There are murders, and suicides. There is polarization, politicization, and disrespect. There is the perversion of religious fervor into a blatantly human tendency to kill one another and blame it all on alternative versions of, ostensibly, the same god.

There is hunger, and infirmity. There is loneliness. There is climate change, and declining biodiversity. Will those children we love raise their children in a world with, or without tigers? With or without polar bears? Just asking such questions takes its toll. The freedom to ask such questions comes at a high price. It isn't free.

And so we come to the paradox. Perhaps privilege itself is costly in its particular way.

I reflect on it from my vantage point, as a person of privilege. I am a man of privilege. I was a child of privilege, too.

My father is a cardiologist, and while I never thought of my family as rich growing up, I certainly recognized that we never wanted for anything important. My sister and I grew up with never any cause to doubt the love of both parents. Allowing for the vicissitudes of any marriage, we never had cause to doubt the love of my parents for one another, either; love, and marriage ongoing to this day.

I am, and have always been, privileged. And yet I manage in certain moments to be other than happy.

Perhaps only privilege allows for the idle lassitudes of illusion. Perhaps only privilege requires the harsh confrontation with a countervailing reality we call disillusionment. Yes, the beautiful princess gushes at the dashing figure of the prince in his saddle. But she inevitably comes to resent those long hours he spends at the stables, dismissing the ineluctable dependence of the one on the other. And he, as inevitably, comes to know of it, and that once noble posture is the poorer for it. She, of course, has a different version of the very same tale.

They are only small cuts, but we are subject to them by the thousands -- to the meter of coffee cups.

Of course, privilege is better than destitution. Of course advantage is preferable to disadvantage. The latter imposes its low ceiling, forestalling all views to the distant horizon.

In so doing, it forecloses on all distal opportunities, and perhaps as well the dreams they might otherwise engender. But of course, it obscures all distant scourges, too. Maybe there is less space for pains as well as pleasure within the cramped confines of immediate need.

Of course only the privileged get to agonize over the costs of privilege. But knowing that doesn't really help any of us, does it?

Maybe there is a more generalizable precautionary tale than we are prone to realize in the oft-repeated Greek tragedy of modern celebrity: the meteoric rise, and fiery crash; a celestial grab, and then the reach to rehab. Maybe we play out the lesser versions of just such tumult, within the bounds of our less extravagant privilege.

For those who look with a privileged vista, and the genuine capacity to see, perhaps the only reliable defense against being disillusioned is choosing to remain... illusioned.

Or maybe, across a surprising expanse of circumstance, contentment is more often than not -- a matter less of happenstance, and more of choice.


Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital

Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity