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Monday, January 31, 2005


Cranky idealist

I'm feeling cranky today. In thinking about my crankiness I'm reminded of an article I read while I was away that I wanted to post here. It was in the New York Times on 1/20, inauguration day - an op-ed by Daniel Gilbert called "Four More Years of Happiness."

I just looked it up nytimes.com and of course now I have to pay if I want to access the full piece, so I'll just link to the abstract. The basic premise was that we as human beings are trained to manufacture happiness, but that throughout history, great moral leaders have often been people who can't quite master this trick -- Martin Luther King, Jr. (who apparently spent more days depressive than cheerful), and Mahatma Ghandi (I believe the article referred to how often he "stewed in his own juices" - so to speak).

The author makes the point that after the election, most Democrats sort of shook off their depression and anger - and he encourages us to rekindle it, and to use it, ostensibly so that we can lead the country towards positive change. If we're going to be the change we wish to see in the world, as Ghandi would have encouraged, then we need to keep seeing the world we wish for, instead of convincing ourselves that things are just fine the way they are. Of course the essential ingredient Gilbert doesn't mention is: idealism. If you're dissatisfied with the world but you don't believe it could be any better, or any different, then your mental state is probably no more productive than manufactured happiness.

(I remember a class I took in college, the "Literature of Community," in which our professor required us to take a position on the topic of discussion. If you agreed, for example, that the main character in the story we read last night was a bigot, then you sat by the window; if you disagreed, you sat by the door. You could change your position as many times as you liked. My professor strongly discouraged sitting in the middle, reminding us that throughout history, terrible things had occurred as a result of people not taking a position - for example, in Nazi Germany. I remember we talked a lot about idealism versus pragmatism in that class. I think it was the first time I understood that idealism was a position of strength, rather than naivete.)

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