Post 21: Positive Psychology—the strength and virtues that lead to happiness

In Post 12 I noted that Aristotle had explored the nature of human happiness and its relation to virtue. Racing forward some 2400 years, we find that some eminent psychologists are pursuing that question today, though in much more sophisticated and scientific ways.

I first heard about “positive psychology” in an issue of “Health Magazine” in the Summer of 2004. Peter Jaret reviewed a publication entitled Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (Oxford University Press) edited by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. I was especially impressed by the ten “essential traits of happiness” listed by Jaret.  They were: Love of Learning; Creativity; Humility and Modesty; Humor; Persistence; Gratitude; Forgiveness; Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence; Spirituality; and Vitality. It sounded like a good formula to me and inspired me to read further.

In a later article from the May 5, 2008 “Health Magazine,” Jaret provided more context:

Instead of focusing on what goes on when people become anxious or depressed, a growing number of psychologists are saying it’s high time to look on the bright side. … “What are the traits that allow people to lead fulfilled lives? What are the strengths and virtues that contribute to happiness?” … [T]he book celebrates characteristics like love, prudence, creativity, and leadership. It’s intended to be a counterpart to the traditional text of psychiatric medicine, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, with its gloomy chapters on troubling conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.

Analyzing the bright side was not as easy as you might think. Peterson and Seligman spent 3 years working with a team of experts to identify traits that are shared and valued across cultures. (Persistence just happened to end up on the list.) During that time, they pored over not only psychiatry journals but the works of philosophers and even classic religious texts.

Practicing another ideal on their list-humility-Peterson acknowledges that the classification system in Character Strengths and Virtues is a work in progress. “Our goal was to get the conversation started, to encourage people to begin to look at the strengths and virtues that contribute to emotional well-being,” the psychologist says.

The New York Times introduced us to another guru of happiness on April 22, 2008 when Claudia Dreifus interviewed Harvard Professor Daniel Gilbert, known on campus as “Professor Happiness.” Dr. Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness was a New York Times Paperback Best Seller, won the 2007 Royal Society Prize for science books, and has been translated into 30 languages. A few of his comments from the interview describe one element of happiness that should come as no surprise:

We know that the best predictor of human happiness is human relationships and the amount of time that people spend with family and friends.

We know that it’s significantly more important than money and somewhat more important than health. That’s what the data shows. The interesting thing is that people will sacrifice social relationships to get other things that won’t make them as happy — money. That’s what I mean when I say people should do “wise shopping” for happiness.

Another thing we know from studies is that people tend to take more pleasure in experiences than in things. So if you have “x” amount of dollars to spend on a vacation or a good meal or movies, it will get you more happiness than a durable good or an object. One reason for this is that experiences tend to be shared with other people and objects usually aren’t.

Oh, you can spend lots of money on experiences. People think a car will last and that’s why it will bring you happiness. But it doesn’t. It gets old and decays. But experiences don’t. You’ll “always have Paris” — and that’s exactly what Bogart meant when he said it to Ingrid Bergman. But will you always have a washing machine? No.

You couldn’t pay me $100,000 to miss a play date with my granddaughters.

And that’s not because I’m rich. That’s because I know that a hundred grand won’t make me as happy as nurturing my relationship with my granddaughters will.

Post 20: Moderation in All Things, Including Moderation

On the wall of the family room of our house on the Cape hangs a poster quoting the wise and late Sister Ann Marie. It was directed at the yellow-shirted and green-skirted girls of Georgetown Visitation, my daughter’s high school. One of her sagest cautions was “moderation in all things, dearie, including moderation.” I don’t know if David Brooks ever met Sister Ann Marie (or Oscar Wilde, for that matter, who proffered the same advice), but a column Brooks wrote in the era of Blackberries and Bush II is a most wonderful caution against “extremism in moderation.” It was entitled “Saturday Night Light.”

March 12, 2005, The New York Times

Let me tell you a story to illustrate that we are living in a pusillanimous age. I was in New Orleans last Saturday night, dining with a wonderful group of people at a culinary landmark called Antoine’s. Our host had arranged for a remorseless avalanche of delicious food, served in prodigious 19th-century style. There were about six appetizers, including oysters, foie gras and various lobster confabulations. There were main courses aplenty — fish, then crab, then steak.

Then dessert floated onto the table: a meringue pie roughly the size of a football helmet. And with it came coffee, but not just any coffee. It was called “devil’s brew.” A copper bowl was put in the middle of the table with some roiling mixture of brandy-ish spirits inside. Coffee was poured in and the concoction set aflame.

The waiter thrust a ladle into the inferno and lifted up long, dripping streams of blue fire, hoisting the burning liquid into hypnotizing, showy cascades. He poured out a circle of flame onto the tablecloth in front of us. It was a lavish pyre of molten, inebriating java and then, when he swung around to where I was sitting, I turned and asked the climactic question:

“Is it decaf?”

In this circumstance, this was like Nero pausing during the incineration of Rome to worry about the dangers of secondhand smoke. This was like Henry VIII, lying amid a great mound of gnawed bones and empty steins, remarking, “I’ll take the low-carb mead.” This is like the Marquis de Sade fretting nervously over his leather collection because it might be an affront to animal rights.

I blame the people at the top for setting the tone. We live in an age in which the White House is staffed by tidy-desked, white-shirted, crisply coiffed StairMaster addicts, whose idea of sensual decadence is an extra pinch of NutraSweet in the lunchtime iced tea. We’ve got a president whose personal philosophy is: freedom is God’s gift to humanity, but bedtime is 9:30.

I blame parents. Kids are raised amid foam corner protectors and schooled amid flame-retardant construction paper. They’re drugged with a vast array of pharmaceuticals to keep them from becoming interesting. They go from adult-structured tutorials to highly padded sports practices to career-counselor-approved summer internships.

I blame the titans of corporatism. Fitness is now the prime marker of capitalist machismo, so the higher reaches of corporate America are filled with tightly calved Blackberries in human form, who believe that extremism in pursuit of moderation is no vice. They have become such obsessive time-maximizers that all evening, in what used to be known as social life, they keep an eye on the need to be up, fit and early, for the next day’s productivity marathon.

I blame the arbiters of virtue. Sometime over the past generation we became less likely to object to something because it is immoral and more likely to object to something because it is unhealthy or unsafe. So smoking is now a worse evil than six of the Ten Commandments, and the word “sinful” is most commonly associated with chocolate.

Now we lead lives in which everything is a pallid parody of itself: fat-free yogurt, salt-free pretzels, milk-free milk. Gone, at least among the responsible professional class, is the exuberance of the feast. Gone is the grand and pointless gesture.

But at least we have New Orleans. After stumbling out of Antoine’s, some of us headed across the street to a piano bar run by Gennifer Flowers, Bill Clinton’s old flame. And there was Gennifer herself in a black leather miniskirt, belting out a song called “Ya Gotta Have Boobs.”

It was a reminder that no matter how dull and responsible you become, an alternative and much stranger moral universe is always just one slippery step away.

Post 19: Why Some of Us Stay With our Church

Editorial Note:

I have now gone carefully through fifteen years of personal journals looking for clippings with ideas I want to share with others. Three questions have arisen. Do I combine clips that hit on the same theme or bit of wisdom? When is the best time to share one quote rather than another? How relevant are passages that I took note of over a decade ago? I have decided not to spend too much effort worrying about these questions. For this reason, you will see a certain repetition of some themes in my postings; and, while I will try to post thoughts that are timely and varied, a certain randomness will still prevail.   My answer to the third question is that I feel there is no “statute of limitations” on good ideas or wisdom!

Speaking of themes, let me advise in advance that there will be numerous blogs on the challenges of religious faith in a secular age; on the nature of creativity; and on a question that has nagged me all my life – whether we are morally required to be open to the truth rather than clinging to our biases.

Why Some of Us Stay With our Church

Today’s post picks up the first theme, why some of us stay with our church, despite the scandals that cause many to leave.

Each year in December, David Brooks confers “Sidney” awards for the best “long form” journalistic articles of the year – articles which are “broader and more reflective.” The awards are named after the philosopher Sidney Hook, and are not to be confused with the monthly Sidney Awards given for investigative journalism by the Sidney Hillman Foundation. One of Brooks’ award winners was by Tish Harrison Warren on the “nice side of church.”

December 28, 2018, The New York Times

It’s hard to write about what religious faith feels like. Tish Harrison Warren does it compellingly in “True Story” in The Point. As a kid she just loved going to church. Then as an adult she learned about the church’s sins – the narcissism, abuse, sexism. But she still became an Anglican priest. The nice side of church, she writes, is the day-to-day goodness, the teenage boy still sweet enough to rest his head on his mother’s shoulder during the sermon, the young man who gives an elderly friend a ride, the way the members see themselves as a community of forgiven sinners.

“Each Sunday during communion, when the members of my church come to the table, I watch their faces. Many tired. Some sad. Some lit up with joy. One kid who has special needs approaches me like he’s won the lottery. His voice rises, ‘Oh boy! Oh boy!”

Dani Clark works in communications at an international development organization. She lives in Washington with her husband and son and is a member of the Sant’Egidio Community, a lay Catholic association based at the church of Sant’Egidio, a former Carmelite monastery, in Rome. The Community is dedicated to serving the needy and to the arbitration of conflict. A committed Catholic, she writes movingly about not throwing out the baby with the bath.

October 5-8, 2018, National Catholic Reporter

You gaze at your son’s sleeping 10-year-old face all chubby and smooth, and you growl with anger over the clerics who conjured and conned heaven and hell to get their abominable gratification. You wonder how much soul-squashing agony could have been spared had these men and the ones who protected them not abused the power we bestowed on them as absolvers, as intercessors, as consecrators, as part of an exalted caste, when, in fact, they were capable of eating the apples just like everyone else.

It’s woeful, because this Catholicism has filled you with so many good things, too many to enumerate. It has stuffed you with cobblestone piazzas in Rome’s pink light and the memory scent of incense, with kneeling on cracked wood beams, your hands clasped, always, always in hope, and always trying, trying to be good. It has bequeathed to you the psychic inheritance of being the descendent of immigrants who drank their sorrows down and clung to beads and wept under saintly effigies.

Then there you are, next in line, a 7-year-old praying to Mary Queen of Heaven repeating Hail Mary after Hail Mary, and Sister Gaetana and Sister Filomena, immigrants themselves, and all the other silver-cross-wearing ladies are telling derring-do stories of levitating saints while you wonder what their hair looks like underneath the polyester white.

Then there are the peaceniks you have broken bread with, marched with and wanted to emulate, the Dorothy Days, the Helen Prejeans, the Jean Vaniers, the Francises of Assisi, the communities, the composters, the Catholic Worker friends who never have two coins to rub together but whom you secretly believe have more courage than anyone you know.

So wherever it is, in whomever it is, stay with it, tend it, love it. You could go on and on and on. Catholicism is your marrow, the thread that connects; it is the gnarly tree root of what’s inside you, and people pontificate (ha ha) on how bad and weird and creepy it all is, and you get it, you do, but you can’t help being astonished and grateful for all this rainbowness in your life.

You are awed at this brightness inside you, a beam of light on a Caravaggio painting, real but not real, like everything else on the blue and green ball we all live on. And you know very well that someone else could tell an opposite story just like there’s an opposite story for anything, but you won’t say you’re blessed because maybe it’s just good luck. We know so little. We hope so much.

And so you cross yourself and say thank you to St. Patrick, patron saint of wobbly drunks and people like you who go around doubtful and faithful and hopeful all at the same time. And still Catholic. Because there’s a baby in this dirty bath water, and we must save her…

Post 18: Being Really Unserious about Silly Owners (including Me) of Dogs

Last week we talked about not taking things too seriously. Well, how about these two stories: one about a woman who married her dog, and the other about an email I received from my dog, Watson. Together they take anthropomorphism to a new level.

The Woman who Married her Dog

A woman married her dog!  Ridiculous you would say, but stay tuned.  The woman in question was Lilly Smartelli and she (and her dog, Bernie), were the subject of a Sunday, February 3, 2019 New York Times Vows article. The Vows section is a regular read for Faith and me because we love to learn about how the couples portrayed in the article met each other, fell in love and then celebrated in an event recorded by the Times.

Vincent Mallozzi is the Society news reporter of the Times who covered this particular event, as he had some 7000 others.  He was also thinking at first, as probably all of you are, that this was one enormous and rather tasteless publicity stunt.  Not until he looked a little bit more into it. It turns out that Ms. Smartelli is a remarkable woman. She is terminally ill, suffering from a form of pulmonary fibrosis. She donated a kidney 12 years ago to a childhood friend in Detroit and is using the idea of marrying her dog as a way of raising money to draw attention to organ donor groups and animal welfare shelters. Mr. Mallozzi found her to be a woman with a great sense of humor who just wanted to experience the joy of a wedding day. She asked him what her wedding announcement might look like in the Times and so he obliged her.

Lilly and Bernie were married on Valentine’s Day at St. Bernard Church in New York. The Reverend Jack Russell, one of the man’s best friends, officiated.

Mrs. Bernie, 55, who was radiant in a bone-white gown, and Mr. Bernie, 54 (dog years), flealess in a rhinestone collar, exchanged puptials before a litter of family and friends.

The bride, who graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit, was a travel nurse. The groom, who graduated from obedience school, works from home, keeping the yard free of squirrels.

The couple met in Palm Springs, California, in October 2011 during a county fair adoption for shelter dogs. “He couldn’t keep his paws off me,” the bride joked.

An Email from my Dog, Watson

For the past three years, Faith and I have enjoyed the comforting company of our dog, Watson. Unfortunately, Watson is overly friendly and behaves terribly whenever guests arrive. Also, he barks constantly and loudly to protect us from anyone walking by, including very threatening two or three-year-olds with their parents. Faith has taken the initiative to get Watson under control, and it is not going well. Recently he emailed me the following message.

Dear Tom,

I was wondering if you could help me with a very serious, but delicate problem.  It has to do with Faith. I know the two of you talk a lot about me – and always say nice things – but Faith has been acting very strangely recently and I was wondering if you could help clarify things for me with her.  (You have always told me to honor my feelings and dogs have feelings too, you know).

The problem plays out on several fronts.  First of all, she has been taking me to all kinds of strange places and introducing me to “not very simpatico” persons who put me through all kinds of unnecessary and strange paces. “Watson sit.” “Watson come.” “No Watson.” “Good boy, Watson.”  Who needs this?? I am very aware that I can do all these things but I prefer to do them only when necessary or clearly indicated, like when I am waiting for you to give me my breakfast.  And, frankly, I find the “Good boy, Watson” rather condescending.

And then there are the new routines in the house.  Would you want to walk around the house with a red leash tied to your collar? Leashes are for outside.  Every dog knows that.  The worst is when I try to greet someone at the door – or better yet protect you guys from some obviously dangerous character – Faith yells “Watson, go to place.”  Now “place” is this stupid little trampoline like platform that is too far from the door for me to be truly effective in my dog/protector role.  Last night Faith even put up one of those hated barriers to prevent me from my favorite spot overseeing Worthington Drive!

Some of this might have started when you guys went to Little Rock and I stayed at Lindsay’s.  I did my best to protect her apartment that day when she was not there, and I let everyone else in the area know I was doing that. I am not sure that she appreciated it.  Otherwise, Lindsay was fine.

Oh, and one other thing.  Please tell Faith that she can dispense with the treats that she gives me after I “perform” for those new guys she has me seeing.  Tell her that the biggest treat she can give me is to just let me be my barky, jumpy self with a good view of the local streets.





Post 17: On Not Taking Things Too Seriously

This week I want to introduce my readers to one of my favorite spiritual writers, Michael Leach. His articles appear frequently in the National Catholic Reporter, a publication I described in a previous blog as a “a well-deserved thorn in the side of the institutional church.” Michael is publisher emeritus of Orbis books, a publishing house of the Maryknoll Order whose editor, surprisingly enough, is Richard Ellsberg, son of Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame.

Michael edits and contributes to NCR’s” Soul Seeing” columns which have been cited by the Catholic Press Association as the best spiritual writing for five years in a row. He describes these columns as follows:

This column is about seeing God, the world and ourselves with the eye of the soul. It is not about changing the world but changing the way we see the world. Each column is a spiritual reflection on the beauty that hides behind appearances and the peace that is beyond all understanding.

Leach’s early career as a priest was interrupted when he met his future wife, Vickie, in a bar in Greenwich Village. He described the moment in the Over 65 Blog for the Hastings Center (April 18, 2014):

I met Vickie in Your Father’s Mustache, a sing-along place in Greenwich Village 46 years ago.  She had long dark hair and wore a poncho like Clint Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars. She was singing and swaying with such joy. She had the kind of face you could look at the rest of your life.  I noticed her eyes were different colors.  One was hazel and speckled with green, and the other a cloudy blue.  She asked me, “What do you do?”

“I’m a priest.”

She laughed uncontrollably.  That cinched it.

After leaving the priesthood, he “entered the vineyard of religious publishing” and has edited more than 2000 books. My admiration for him increased mightily in 2004 when he began to write about the care and love he was providing to Vicki after she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s—loving care that continues to this day. He has written: “We’ve had a good life. Still are. God helps us see the good that nothing can erase.”

Michael’s writings can be witty and wise and ironic. An example follows about not taking things too seriously!

National Catholic Reporter, August 1-4, 2014

My spiritual teacher Dr. Thomas Hora taught me, “Don’t take anything seriously.” I took him seriously and tried not to take anything seriously. Things got harder. Good thing is, life wore me down until the wisdom of his counsel was as clear as a window that has no glass, darkly or otherwise. Nothing is worth being taken seriously, not even expert advice.

To take something seriously is to clench our mind on it like a fist. It squeezes out joy and brings headaches. The antidote is to understand what Zen master Matsuo Basho knew: “Sitting Quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.” We don’t need to think or act, just see and be a light in the world. Jesus put it like this: “Behold the lilies of the field and see how they grow! They toil not, they spin not – and yet I say unto you that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27). The opposite of seriousness is delight.

Seriousness swells the sense of self. Delight extinguishes it.

Aldous Huxley writes about taking things seriously in his book Island: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them… on tiptoes and without luggage, completely unencumbered.” Our luggage, what weighs us down, is rumination over what life should be and how we can control it. Loving as God does – spontaneously and without restraint – sets us free.

Jesus asks us to delight in the birds of the air and to love being loving with all our heart and soul and mind, and our neighbor as our self (Matthew 22:37-38). The magnificent thing – the thing we haven’t gotten yet – is that he doesn’t ask us to take his request seriously.

Blog Post 16: The Impact of Love, Connection, and Meaning on the Very Old

Often, I reach back several years in my journals to find articles that I want to share with others. However, articles also keep appearing in the paper on a daily or weekly basis that are worth saving and sharing as well. One such article was published in the Science Section of The New York Times this week (June 11, 2019), in which Barry Eisenberg, Ph.D, an Associate Professor of Health Care Management at SUNY Empire State College, wrote about caring for his Aunt Doris until her death at age 106.

Aunt Doris lived independently until she was 103 when, after a fall landed her in the hospital, she agreed to hire a live-in aide.  After becoming increasingly frail, she accepted the offer of Dr. Eisenberg and his wife, Amy, to come live with them. Their experience over the next 17 months provides a wonderful insight into the impact that connection, love, and meaningfulness can have on the very old.

On the impact of love and connection

As the ambulette crew delicately shifted a fragile Doris from her bed onto a stretcher, she appeared more a collection of bones than a person. Would she even survive this trip? She was nearly unresponsive, her eyes vacant. I held her frail hand, hoping she wasn’t frightened.

At our house, she lay nearly motionless in the hospital bed provided by the hospice agency. We began the vigil we were certain would not last long.

Doris stirred a bit over the next few days, her eyes becoming a little more focused. Then something of a miracle happened: Doris began a slow but steady journey back to her old self. Over the next few weeks, her cognition was almost fully restored. She began to feed herself.

As winter gave way to spring, Doris sat in her wheelchair on our backyard deck. Her vision was weak, but she could make out the trees and see birds fluttering about. We had lengthy talks about her life. She was most animated when talking about her childhood.

Now, living with us, Doris was determined to regain her strength and walk independently again. She returned to the exercise regimen she had been doing for years, mostly leg lifts, stretches and self-massages. Soon, Doris was able to raise herself out of her wheelchair and walk with the aid of a walker. She had a disciplined routine, counting her steps and charting her progress. Then she would sit back in her wheelchair and gaze at the trees in the backyard. She giggled when the dog licked her ice cream cone and her face. She delighted in the reawakening of her senses, asking to smell the newly blossoming lilacs.

Doris’s intellectual curiosity blossomed as well. We sat on the deck and talked every day. When the weather turned cold, our conversations moved indoors. She kept up with politics and her investments. A small circle of relatives who had visited her in New York came to visit her in New Jersey.

On the importance of meaningfulness

After 17 months with us, Doris’s cognition again began to fade.

It often took a while to find the right trigger, the portal into a memory clouded by age and confusion. But once there, her mental wherewithal returned in full form. It remains a great challenge for caretakers, helping our elderly loved ones experience life that, no matter the constraints and limitations, no matter the place they live, is purposeful and enriching. We have a richer vocabulary for talking with our aging relatives about their health than about their dreams. And yet, what I discovered is that Doris thrived when she could make choices about how to spend her time, maintain control over her life story, and feel that those around her respected whatever autonomy she was capable of exercising.

In “Being Mortal,” Dr. Atul Gawande reminds us that meaningfulness is central to what we yearn for, and this doesn’t stop just because we get old. I came to appreciate that meaningfulness involved dignifying Doris’s desires, feelings, memories and even aspirations. In the journal The Gerontologist, Melanie Mallers and colleagues summarize research indicating that “lack of choice and self-determination can lead to poor physical fitness, decreased social support, and depression.” The will to go on can weaken when one feels stripped of empowerment in decisions made about one’s own life.

So we talked about generosity, about what giving looks like. It comes in many forms, hers just as valued as any other. In the end, she became gracious in ways I never thought possible. She talked about family as being something to cherish, to nurture. She initiated hugs rather than stiffening through them. Her final words, as she passed from life to death, a transition of merciful seamlessness, were “thank you.”

Amy and I thought that Doris would be living with us for a very short time, and we had invited her to stay with us thinking we could lend comfort to her in her final moments. But it transformed into something none of us anticipated, bringing new meaning to her life, even at 106.

She thanked us for this gift. But in learning about life, love, aging, meaningfulness and the power of connection, the gift was all ours.


Post 15: The Joys of Sitting Still: Some Thoughts from Pico Iyer

Pico Iyer has been an essayist for Time magazine since 1986. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s and numerous other newspapers and magazines. His book on the Dalai Lama, The Open Road, and his TED book, The Art of Stillness, were best sellers in the U.S. His three TED talks, delivered between 2012 and 2016, have been viewed by more than seven million persons. Outside magazine has described him as “arguably the greatest living travel writer.” Several years ago, while traveling in China, I came across a column he wrote in The International New York Times (January 7, 2015) which, ironically, described the joys not of international travel but of just sitting still.

Iyer wrote about a conversation with an older friend, in which he described his new exercise routine.

“You’ve never thought of doing this with your mind?” he said, a bit ungraciously, I thought. “Just sitting still for a few minutes every day, to give your imagination a chance to take a walk?”

“I don’t have time!” I replied. “Especially now that I’m devoting 75 minutes to the gym.”

I’m not the type to meditate; I’d sooner give up Taco Bell for life than take on the rigorous disciplines of yoga or tai chi. But I recalled something a 17th-century mathematician and philosopher had whispered to me, which echoed what my friend now said. We run and run in search of contentment, Pascal wrote in his “Pensées,” and so ensure we’ll never be settled or content. We mindlessly race away from the one place where happiness is to be found.

I was, in short, what I’d call an externalist – a person who’ll exercise great care over what he puts in his body and never think about what he puts into his mind. Who will dwell at length on everything he can see, in order to distract himself from the fact that it’s everything he can’t see on which his wellbeing depends. Who will fill his head with so much junk that he can’t remember that wolfing down Buffalo wings is not the problem, but a symptom.

An externalist makes a point – even a habit – of cherishing means over ends, effects over causes and everything that fills him up over everything that truly sustains him. He interprets health in terms of his body weight, wealth in terms of his bank account and success in terms of his business card. He’ll go to the health club and never think of the mental health club, like someone who imagines the only arteries to be unclogged are the ones that course with blood.

This past Christmas, I was all set to take myself on an exotic vacation, and then decided just to stay in my mother’s house in California – no long lines, no visas, no three-hour online reservation attempts foiled when you forget your second password. I’d come to believe that most destinations are less important than the spirit you bring to them. And that spirit is better developed by sitting still than by running all around.

As friends hurried off to the airport for Rio or Hawaii, I sat in my little room and watched the sun burn on the water down below. Light flooded into the space every afternoon and then, in the magic hour, the whole place began to glow. I nibbled at breakfast bars and listened to public radio and did nothing at all, the way it isn’t always easy to do if you’ve paid half your annual income to go to Mauritius. Moments carried a depth, a weight of both emotion and association, they’d seldom have in Vegas. It’s not so much that we lack food, I remembered Simone Weil suggesting, as that we won’t acknowledge that we’re hungry.