Two things happened to Sandra Bullock this month. First, she won an Academy Award for best actress. Then came the news reports claiming that her husband is an adulterous jerk. So the philosophic question of the day is: Would you take that as a deal? Would you exchange a tremendous professional triumph for a severe personal blow?
The answer is…
Or, a bit more relevantly, since he won an Oscar this year too, Jeff Bridges.
Meryl Streep and her husband have been married for thirty-two years, Bridges and his wife for thirty-three. Maybe Brooks didn’t watch the Oscars so he didn’t hear Michelle Pfieffer gush about what a great family man Bridges is or hear Bridges himself make part of his acceptance speech a valentine to his wife. Possibly, like many of us, he was caught up in wondering if Bridges was stoned, drunk, or goofing or all three and didn’t pay attention to what the man was saying, man.
The point is that in order to answer Brooks’ question as simply and simple-mindedly as he expects us to or, rather, doesn’t want us to, so he can lecture us on how wrong we are---
if you had to take more than three seconds to think about this question, you are absolutely crazy. Marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being. If you have a successful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy. If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled.
---you have to accept the idea that life is an either/or proposition and that the way your life is now is the way it’s always going to be. That’s all right for a college bull session but absolutely useless as a basis for navigating through life itself, which makes Brooks’ lecturing us on how best to live our lives based on an answer that depends on a useless absurdity absurd.
Streep and Bridges are living arguments that life is complicated (That’s not a plug for Streep’s movie.) and unpredictable. But they and their marriages don’t prove anything about how to achieve happiness, any more than the heartache Bullock’s suffering now proves that following her example will lead to unhappiness, because what’s the example anyway, in any of their situations? Brooks makes it sound as though the choice is always and only between professional happiness and personal happiness through a happy and stable marriage, but Streep and Bridges appear to have managed both.
Meanwhile, what about Sandra Bullock?
The answer to that is Tom Hanks.
Or Paul Newman.
Neither of whom managed personal happiness through a happy and stable first marriage.
Things didn’t work out for Bullock with Jesse James but that doesn’t mean that tomorrow she won’t meet someone who is not a sleazeball with whom she will live as happily ever after as anyone ever does with anyone.
To take Brooks’ question, and his answer, seriously, requires something else---ignoring the problem of talent.
The first problem is that most people don’t have it. Not to a degree that gives them grounds for reasonably assuming that the highest levels of professional achievement are obtainable for them. It’s easy to say, oh, I’d trade my Oscar for a good and faithful husband in a flash, if there was never any possibility that you would win an Oscar or even act in a movie that would get you considered for a nomination.
The second problem applies to those that have it. Any degree of it.
Brooks’ answer, that marital happiness is better than professional happiness, depends on believing that a person with talent can feel fulfilled in a life that doesn’t make serious use of that talent.
I’ve known some talented actors and actresses who once aspired to professional careers who found some satisfaction in lives spent teaching college drama classes and acting in community theater. None of them did it for love though. They landed where they landed because they either failed in their professional careers or got worn out. Those of them who’ve had happy and fulfilling family lives have had them as consolations and there’s not a one of them who doesn’t miss the days when they were young professionals with reason to hope.
But they’ve been lucky in at least having outlets for their talents.
Imagine having a talent for science and having no outlet for it beyond supervising science fairs at your kid’s grade school or having a talent for medicine you only get to practice when your kid’s sick or a talent for architecture you can only apply to building blocks or a talent for diplomacy that only comes into play when breaking up a fight in the backyard.
Actually, there are lots of women in America over 60 who don’t have to imagine.
There are millions and millions and millions of women of all ages all over the world who don’t have to imagine it either.
And there are many men who sweep floors, dig ditches, plow fields, empty bedpans, load and unload trucks, drive cabs, sell cars, sell suits, sell appliances, sell insurance, and spend their entire working lives pushing papers that are making other men and women rich, who were by talent and intelligence intended for other things and how likely is it that even those who go home to happy and contented families feel fulfilled?
“Oh well, could be worse,” isn’t as rousing a motto as Carpe Diem for carrying on, but that’s all it is, something to say to yourself when there’s not much else to make you excited about getting through another day.
Brooks’ condescending bromide of a point---really, are we supposed to listen to a best-selling author, television pundit, and New York Times columnist tell us that we don’t need a successful and challenging and creative professional life to be happy? It may be true, but it’s something I’d rather hear from my old mother than from someone who could command a five or six figure speaking fee to tell an audience of the rich and powerful the same thing.
I’m imaging banquet tables crammed with elderly millionaires turning wistful eyes on their third trophy wives and patting their hands as Brooks assures them that it’s not money but love that matters most in life.
I suppose Brooks might be giving some comfort to those of us sinking sadly into a dull and mediocre middle-age with nothing more to look forward to in our careers but their end, that is, those of us who’ve been lucky enough to get this far with our families healthy and intact. Brooks assumes that marital happiness is a default state and not mainly a matter of the gods having decided not to screw around with you for the fun of it. Brooks likes to recommend classical reading in his columns, although you have to wonder if he’s read what he’s recommending himself. This is a guy who once quoted Tolstoy as an expert on marital happiness. I recommend that he go read the Book of Job.
But as advice to the young, smart, talented, and ambitious it’s worse than useless. It’s a recommendation for giving up before you’ve even started.
Seek not after fame and fortune, my children, seek not even after the satisfaction of a job well done. Find yourself a nice boy or a nice girl, settle down, and start cranking out the kids as fast as you can. Surrender, that’s the key to happiness!
Never mind all the people who have ruined their chances for personal and professional fulfillment by chasing after marital happiness in the form of lovers who aren’t worth the chase or all the people who having thought they had achieved personal fulfillment by settling down with a nice boy or a nice girl have discovered after years of fulfillment the person they felt fulfilled by was not fulfilled themselves and had decided to seek fulfillment elsewhere.
I’m guessing Brooks didn’t give a thought to Elizabeth Edwards’ probable reaction to his column. Or Elin Woods’.
Or Sandra Bullock’s, because, as Brooks apparently didn’t bother to consider, she’s forty-six, this is her first marriage, and in marrying Jesse James rather late in life, she was apparently accepting the idea that a high-level of professional achievement---Bullock didn’t need the Oscar, except maybe to make people forget about All About Steve---wasn’t enough.
Still, somehow I doubt she’s thinking, “I would trade my Oscar for the return of my husband’s love.”
More likely, she’s thinking, Good riddance to bad rubbish, and getting her agent on the phone to find her a good follow-up to The Blind Side.
Maybe Bullock should have known that James was a bad bet. But that’s saying that she was better off being content with professional fulfillment instead of trying to find personal fulfillment with a known bum. And maybe Elin Woods should have stuck to modeling. But at the time she got married would anyone have told Elizabeth Edwards that she was going to be sorry---thirty-odd years later, and if they had would it have been reasonable for her to believe them and change her plans?
What if someone had told her that between her wedding day and the day she found out her husband was worse than cheating on her she would lose a child and be diagnosed with a cancer that would certainly kill her?
I have no idea what she would have, should have, or could have done, except what she did, make the decision she thought would make her happiest.
Life is a gamble. There are no such things as destiny and fate. Whatever the purpose of the life is, if there is a purpose, it is not the happiness of individual human beings. No matter what path you choose in life you are choosing pain and suffering. There is more along that path, wherever it’s leading, that will cause you unhappiness than will give you a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. There are paths that are less dangerous, that are smoother, that include fewer mountains to climb and fewer to fall off, and that will carry you past prettier scenery, but how are you to know you to know which path that is? Even if you could know, how are you to know that you will enjoy traveling along it? It might bore the life out of you. Falling off mountains may be what you need to make you happy.
Chose the path that leads to a life of marital contentment, if not bliss, says Brooks, as if he doesn’t know that that path may require you to fall off mountains every day.
Chose love, says the starry-eyed romantic David Brooks. But Freud said people need love and work.
Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep appear to have found both. But did they decide to have both? Doesn’t matter in the long run. The initial decision doesn’t guarantee the outcome. Along the way they’ve both had to make many more decisions. They’ve had to make accommodations for their personal lives in their professional lives and for their professional lives in their personal lives. They were both lucky in having married people willing to make their own accommodations for them.
Nobody can decide to be lucky.
There is a very short period in life when we get to decide on what path we’ll take and a long period after that when we have to come to terms with the results of that decision.
What excites us and makes us want to get up and out the door at twenty may be our idea of hell at forty, and that goes for a job as well as for a spouse.
But how can you know at twenty what you will be like at forty?
All you can know is what makes you happy at the moment and your best choice then is to do what makes you happy.
The happiest people, married or single, are those who are doing what makes them happy.
Whatever that is.
Hat tip the McEwan.