Awareness of the realities of life and of our current circumstances here in the United States is something that I view as a positive. I realize that not everyone would agree. Certainly one of the great philosophical questions involves what is often the dichotomy which exists between happiness and truth. I’ve made a very conscious decision to do my best to overcome the natural tendencies humans have toward irrationality and self deception regardless of the consequences in terms of happiness. In the works of one of my favorite writers, Jorge Luís Borges, the most common underlying theme is that knowledge does not bring happiness and that often they are mutually exclusive.
As my students learn about the history of Spain and the importance religious faith had not only in the “Reconquista”, but in the colonization of the New World, I can’t help but notice how similar these two empires, Spain and the United States, are in many ways. As Spain, for many the world’s first modern nation-state, became the most powerful and wealthiest of the European powers, I can understand how easy it must have been for the people of Spain to believe that they were truly God’s chosen people and thus they became the sword of Catholicism and the heart of the Counter-Reformation. As Spain’s fortunes declined the debate over the causes of that decline tended to revolve around first a conservative movement which, truly believing that Spain’s prosperity came FROM God, could only explain its downfall in terms of the nation moving away from God, and that therefore He had removed His blessings, and second, a liberal movement which saw this clinging to superstition as the main impediment to social progress and the primary cause of Spain’s decline.
In the United States these same tendencies exist for what I think are similar reasons. It is somewhat easier to believe that one’s homeland is the chosen land of God if that homeland is noticeably more prosperous and more powerful than the other lands surrounding it. Imagine trying to sell the people of Lithuania, or Andorra, or Canada on their preeminence in the plan of an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful deity. I’m not saying that these views aren’t held by some in even those bastions of historical mediocrity, but it would be a hard sell to get the masses to buy in to the idea I think. (This isn’t to say that under special circumstances even middling powers like Israel or Saudi Arabia couldn’t convince themselves of special significance for reasons of historic oppression and/or legends of origin.)
I’m just imaging being in, say the Czech Republic, and having a charismatic leader stand up and say “We, in this great Czech Republic, have clearly been chosen by the Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Hell, Controller of the Universe, to lead mankind!” You can see the heads of the people swiveling around and looking at their surroundings and saying “Really? It’s nice and all, but seems like an odd choice.” I think the same psychological explanation holds for the religiosity of star athletes. It’s easy for Randy Moss to believe in God ’cause nearly every time he’s prayed for divine intervention in his life…he’s pretty much ended up on the good side. I mean, LOOK at things he does on a football field! Every time he’s prayed “please help me catch that ball, please help me catch that ball”… he’s caught that ball. I, on the other hand…
Of course when things in your life are truly shitty, when this life seems to entail only suffering and despair, then it is easier to believe in a different kind of God, the one who will even out all of this injustice…but not now. Later, in some impossible to see future world when finally His omni-benevolence and omnipotence will come together as one would expect omni-benevolence and omnipotence to come together.
Which brings us back to the truth v happiness conundrum. I see poverty every day. I see people whose daily lives are undeniably Hobbesian: Nasty, brutish, and short. The two nicest people in my neighborhood, the two most welcoming individuals, the two who first introduced themselves to me and immediately stepped forward to make my family comfortable here, are both dead. From natural causes, yes, but also due to the fact that they were poor and had only the most tenuous opportunities to access health care. Both died from conditions which were treatable. Neither was yet 60 years old. The “debate” surrounding universal health care was never just theoretical to me in spite of the fact that I have never been without health insurance.
A former student of mine wrote just this last week that people find it much easier to feel sympathy for suffering when it is distant from them and their daily lives, but not when it is proximate. I understand her perspective. There is a tendency, one among many, to become inured perhaps to the suffering one sees all the time, and to view “exotic suffering” with more perspicacity. I can’t help but note, however, how unaffected most Americans seems to be by the suffering we have been creating over the last decade in wars of aggression to the exotic other.
To the degree we are neglectful of our own suffering masses there is I think some truth to the idea that it is because it is invisible to most of us. Most of my students can go weeks, and even months, without ever witnessing poverty. The view of life and of the world that they get is disproportionately affluent. In their mind I am almost poor. The fact that I earn nearly twice the U.S. median family income all by myself working only 188 days a year, doesn’t seem “true” to them. Neither does it seem true that they are wealthy, since they know of many people much more wealthy than themselves. In their lives, in their community, the average family brings in over $100,000 a year, and of course many earn much more than that. That tens of thousands of children in their region live in poverty is mostly hidden from them. (This reminds me of a colleague who insisted that people who earned $250,000 a year were not wealthy because their ability to acquire was not limitless and so, in her mind, they were still middle class. When I pointed out that their deviation from the median was statistically the same as a family earning $300 a month…it had no effect!)
Are they happier living in ignorance of their own affluence and of others’ suffering? I think the answer, at least in the short term, is probably yes. In the same way not contemplating on a daily basis that we are all destined for the grave might make us happier than obsessing over our own mortality.
In the long run, though, the Stoic idea of being aware of worst case scenarios so as to be conscious of just how much good fortune surrounds us may be preferable. I suppose the paradox here, reflected in a lesson from the novel Flowers for Algernon where Charlie is descending back into idiocy and, at one point he is just smart enough to understand that he is getting stupid, and he’s sad, but then later he has become just stupid enough not to know that he is an idiot, and once again he is happy, is that ignorance is bliss only as long as you can remain ignorant. As long as you can guarantee that your son or daughter can remain ignorant of what is actually the state and condition of many lives here, in a nation which is becoming more and more Third World in terms of its social and economic equality (or lack thereof) and its politics, then IF happiness is a priority, do try to keep them in splendid ignorance and isolation. But if you cannot keep them forever out of harm’s way, that harm being a true understanding of the declining state of the nation, then perhaps exposing them to the realities of life in the 21st century United States of America is preferable.