March 13, 2011


Why is it so hard to find happiness? (David Malouf, March 11, 2011, Sydney Morning Herald)

Ask any one of your friends or neighbours if they are happy and the answer they will probably give is that they have nothing to complain of.

What they mean is that the good life as previous generations might have conceived it has been attained. Medical science ensures that fewer children die in infancy, that most infectious diseases have been brought under control and the worst of them — smallpox, plague, TB, polio — have in most parts of the world been eliminated; that except for a few areas in Africa famine is no longer known among us; that in advanced societies like our own we are cared for by the state from cradle to grave.

We do complain, of course, but our complaints are trivial, mostly ritual. Our politicians lack vision, interest rates are too high, the pace of modern living is too hectic; the young have no sense of duty, family values are in decline. The good life, it seems, is not enough. We have nothing to complain of, we are "happy enough"; but we are not quite happy. We are still, somehow, unsatisfied, and this dissatisfaction, however vaguely conceived, is deeply felt. [...]

For most of us the possibility of death or dying is no longer of immediate daily concern. The way we live now has seen to it that all this side of life and living is kept tidily out of sight. Dying is no longer a household occurrence. The old and the newborn no longer die at home. Except for the occasional horror of a road accident, dying is a managed affair of intensive-care units where life-support systems glow and hum till they flatline and are turned off, then the piped music and tippy-toed formalities of the crematorium.

Our worst fear these days is not the finality and nothingness of death, or even the agony of dying — there are drugs to take care of that. It is that life may go on too long: to the point where we no longer have control of either our bodily or mental faculties and have slipped into the half-life, the virtual death-in-life, of that "second childhood and mere oblivion / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything" with which Jaques in As You Like It ends his account of our "strange eventful history".

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 13, 2011 7:57 AM
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