Happiness and Its Discontents, Part III

The Call of Character

This week our featured book is The Call of Character: Living a Life Worth Living by Mari Ruti. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have the third part of an excerpt from Mari Ruti’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Happiness and Its Discontents.”

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Happiness and Its Discontents
Mari Ruti

I recently attended a presentation given by the daughter of a prominent man who, during his life, wrote several books that have had a tremendous impact on how we understand human psychology. During her talk, the daughter faulted her father for not having been a stable “family man,” for having let his passion for his work overshadow the rest of his life, and for having never been completely at ease with everyday social interactions. She made it sound as if her father had been a failure as a person because he had not been able to appreciate the rewards of a well-adjusted life.

As I listened to her, I kept thinking that she was judging her father by a very conventional standard. As far as I’m concerned, there are situations in which the ability to show up at the dinner table is less important than the capacity to produce works of great genius that enrich the rest of society.

Many of the people who have made the biggest contributions to our collective history—intellectuals, researchers, composers, writers, artists, and so on—have lived lives that, from the outside, seem fairly pathological. They have often been deeply solitary, have had trouble forming enduring relationships, have been consumed by their projects to the point of obsession, have plunged into the depths of despair, have doubted and disparaged themselves, and have had to endure the coldness and sharpness of the world’s judgment. Yet who is to say that these lives are somehow less poignant than those that seem more wholesome?

When it comes to living a robust life, it’s possible that these tormented, “pathological” personalities have come closer than many healthier ones. By stating the issue so strongly, I want to call attention to the ideological nature of our faith in the value of poise and equanimity. If we had grown up in a different society, we might celebrate other traits—say, absolute dedication to a cause—instead.
I don’t wish to fetishize psychological or emotional instability; I’m aware of the enormous toll it can exact. And I know that there are many people who live under unbearable burdens of uncertainty. But we are mistaken when we interpret anxiety and other forms of existential disorientation as being at odds with a well-lived life. It may well be that they are an essential part of such a life.

It’s also possible that the more we pursue happy, balanced lives, the more bland and boring, the more devoid of character, we become. It may not be a coincidence that many people these days complain about a sluggishness of spirit—what the philosopher Julia Kristeva describes as one of “the new maladies of the soul.” These people go through the motions of life and may even accomplish a great deal in terms of professional ambitions or successful relationships. Yet something is missing. There is an underlying futility to their existence that makes them feel fake, unreal, or not fully present in their skins. Much of the time, they sense that the edition of themselves they display to the world is an empty shell, a mask that may sometimes dazzle but does not ultimately bring fulfillment.

This is why our society’s creed of happiness, with its witch hunt of anxiety, tends to be antithetical to the needs of our character. Granted, it’s nice to feel calm and collected; there is nothing wrong with composure. But those reassuring feelings have little to do with the unruly singularity that lends weightiness to our character. After all, our character includes not only what is pleasing and gracious but also what appears volatile, disorderly, unwieldy, and even a bit tumultuous or derailing. Our character routinely mortifies the more refined parts of us. If we want to be faithful to our character, we need to learn to tolerate whatever undermines or refuses to be disciplined into the seamless persona that sustains our social viability. Heeding the call of our character, in short, means risking our composure.

In one of his more poetic moments, Adorno proposes that awkward, embarrassing gestures preserve “a trace of vanished life.” I understand this to mean that our accidental gestures—our lapses of composure, as it were—carry an imprint of our character, of the part of us that we are asked to banish but that never quite vanishes.

Hannah Arendt in turn talks about an ethereal “aura” that is implicit in our demeanor but cannot be reduced to any of our qualities (our talents, limitations, and so on). This inimitable aura tells others something about the deepest layers of our being, about the “who” of us rather than the “what” of us. Like the Greek daimon, which was thought to represent the unique spirit of each individual, and was believed to accompany him or her throughout life, this aura is visible to others yet impossible to translate into a clear description.

I like to think of Arendt’s daimon and Adorno’s awkward, embarrassing gestures together because I believe that the intersection of these is where we find our character. Like the daimon, this character is intangible yet palpable. And like awkward, embarrassing gestures, it communicates something about the often quite excessive compilation of energies that infuses our lives with vitality. Anxiety represents one facet of that compilation, which is why it’s not always the enemy our society makes it out to be. Sometimes it might even be our last link to our character: what reminds us of the kinds of desires that our society deems immoderate or imprudent but that our character deems indispensable.

This is why there is something quite hollow about the ideal of a happy, balanced life—a life unruffled by anxiety. It’s why I think that underneath our quest for vibrant health lurks a tragic kind of discreet death: the demise of everything that is eccentric and messy about human life. Our society sells us the quick fix: If you get a cold, take some decongestants; if you get depressed, take some antidepressants; and if you get anxious, take those tranquilizers. But what are we supposed to take when we lose our character?

Read the article in its entirety at The Chronicle‘s website.

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