The Collective Misery of Americans and How to Cure It in This Lifetime, Part 1
By Vica Miller
Rainer Maria Rilke, the revered Prague-born poet and heart’s philosopher, who died at 51 of leukemia, wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet on how to live one’s life: Don’t seek answers. Live the questions.
Do you have a favorite question?
- Mine is:
- How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were? (My answer is 36).
- My own recurring statement for 30+ years of living in New York City:
- The Americans are always worried about the wrong problems. I’ll explain later with examples.
- My favorite Russian sayings, having grown up in St. Petersburg:
- The eyes are afraid, but the hands are doing the work.
- We plan, but God re-plans.
- My favorite phrases in the Dominican Republic, where I live part time, in Cabarete:
- Vamos a ver.(We shall see.)
- How are the waves today?
Let’s unpack this. We all seek meaning, happiness and contentment but it seems that, at least in the U.S., the matter is approached from the wrong end. People try to make themselves beautiful and successful on the outside: be fit, wrinkle-free, with pearly white teeth and the latest-brand-name bag/watch/shoes, to fit in “the society” and be “approved” by the proverbial Johnsons. But what resides inside is misery. The scary part is that it prevails in more than half of the US population. They don’t show it. They’re great at hiding it behind the fake smiles and surface cheer. They go to shrinks at $500 an hour, hire personal trainers at $200 an hour, do liposuctions and Botox, vagina bleaching and penis enlargement. And it never works. It doesn’t make anyone happy. Only the service providers who make a ton of money on your misery.
Happiness comes from the inside. As does contentment. They also can come from the outside –from connections with other people. The formula is really easy. Try to make another person happy and you’ll instantly be happy yourself. Really, try it. Don’t know where to start? Find a hungry child and feed him. Find a sad one and give her a plush bunny. Find a single mother and pay for a month of groceries. Find a disable veteran and offer him a ride along the river. Find a teenager with a broken heart and offer yours, to listen. Find a lonely man and start a conversation with him. Not small talk – that kills everything. A real, deep, long conversation.
The best conversations are like sex, long and hard.
But then they come to light, and a happy ending.
The rush of dopamine. Gratitude abounds. Possibilities present themselves.
You realize that you actually have it in you to smile and laugh, and be happy with another. Because your ego is forgotten, you’re free of its evil grasp, and you discover that the meaning of life is not to make yourself happy. Or to make a lot of money. It’s to make another happy. And as a side effect, your become happy yourself.
In psychology we call it transcendence, which is the highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. It’s not self-actualization, as is commonly thought. It’s self-transcendence, which his unpublished writings show (he died suddenly while writing a paper about the subject).
But first, you have to part with self-doubt.
Wait, you say. It’s well known that you can’t make another happy if you are unhappy yourself. That’s not true. You CAN make another happy and experience contentment yourself. What you can’t do is you can’t love another until you love yourself. How many people like that have I met over the years? Hundreds? Thousands? They’re stuck in the brain noise, trying to reach some goal, impress their parents, receive a degree, a promotion, a certificate. And then what? That’s the one question that usually pops up once you “get there”. And now what? Who did you do this for? Why? Are you happy now? If it was your goal and honest pursuit, the answer is yes. It’s how dreams come true. If you did it as a sacrifice or obligation for someone else – parents, children, colleagues – you’ll be miserable.
How do we cure the collective misery? Live your every day as if it was your last. If your core is screaming that you want to be a theater prop designer, but you’re stuck with the spreadsheets for accounting and taxes, you’ll be miserable. If you’re longing to travel the world but “can’t just leave” allow the Universe to step in and help you. Send the wish out into the Cosmos. Talk to your friends about it. Tell them you’re obsessed. They will help you. But the first step is on you: stop the doubts that you can’t, that it’s not possible, that you’re not good enough. Tomorrow might be your last day on Earth. Or today.
Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of The Hours, said at one of my literary Salons during the Q&A: “You have to give yourself a permission…” Add whatever is asking to come out to be permitted: leave the boyfriend who no longer pays attention to you; leave the job with no prospects; have a baby by yourself; date a younger man; untangle yourself from mean friends and relationships, step out of your comfort zone. In other words, forgive yourself for all the “wrong” deeds and thoughts. Let yourself be…
You probably heard some or all of this in one form or another.. But.. There’s always the “but”. Kill the “but”, stop doubting that you can be the best version of yourself – because “all others are taken” according to Oscar Wilde – and go for it. (And I am not a life coach. God, I hate the expression.) How do we do this? Start with the scary stuff.
Always go in the direction of fear. Beau Willimon, the showrunner for The House of Cards, said in his speech to the 2017 graduating class of Columbia University Film School: “There are only two buttons. Hope and Fear.”
But it’s so hard, you’ll say again. To do this – to open up, to go into the unknown, to challenge public opinion, to forget old hurts and leave your comfort zone. Of course it is. President Barak Obama had a plaque on his desk that said, “Hard things are hard.”
Let’s say you’ve identified your fear and started going in that direction. Quit the job you hate and go back to graduate school for a degree you always dreamed about. Fall in love. Make a new friend. Start a project you have been putting off because you were not “good enough” or because “who am I to write a book?”
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming next week.
Vica Miller is a native of St. Petersburg (Russia) and has been a New Yorker for three decades. She’s the co-founder (2021) of UNA VIDA. NO PLAN, a life transformation company in Cabarete, DR, and the founder (2009) and curator of the Vica Miller Literary Salons, New York City’s favorite chamber reading series held in private art galleries. Her first novel, INGA’S ZIGZAGS, was published in 2014 and is slotted for publication in Russia in 2021.