The Stories We Tell Ourselves to Feel Just or Correct; Plus, Regrets and Happiness

**I’ll come back to aphids a little bit toward the end, I promise.  Meanwhile, since this is my website I’m going to write what I want to.**

Three things came together this past week that prompt this essay. First, I am reading the book A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, second, I watched a crushing, tears inducing, documentary called Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield, and third, I was pointedly reminded of a major failing of my own from about a decade ago.

As human beings we mostly want to feel like we are good, and that what we do or support is done for good reasons, is right, or just. Arguably, there are psychopaths who differ from most of us, but I’m putting them aside. Throughout U.S. history, as documented in Zinn’s book, horrible things have been done by those in power including the displacement and genocide of the native peoples of North America, the capture, commodification, and torture of African slaves, the subjugation of poor white immigrants, the severe repression and disrespect of women, the abuse of children in factories, the invasion of Mexico and theft of its land, the destruction of the natural systems across the whole continent, genocide and war in SE Asia and almost every other corner of the globe, etc.

Many justifications have been put forward over the centuries, explaining why atrocities like these are good things. Concepts such as human advancement, or “progress,” having a higher value in the long run than the human suffering it causes along the way.  Or, that killing and mis-treating Native Americans, Africans, or Mexicans, is fine because they are not equal to white people, or that they are not in fact human (an idea being promulgated even today by Donald Trump, calling Central American refugees ‘animals’). Subjugating women was justified because they were deemed weak and generally less capable, and that the positions and opportunities they were granted by the men in power were the most they could really handle. The U.S. throughout its history has justified invasion of other countries by framing invasion as good for the local population, that the U.S. will bring civilization, freedom, prosperity, or ‘democracy,’ or that invasion is necessary in order to advance human progress.  The destruction of the environment is justified in the name of economic growth, which is taken by most people in rich parts of the world as necessary for human survival. It’s all about the way the story is told. If we tell the story to ourselves and each other in the right way, all sorts of terrible things feel less terrible.

The same trend exists in our personal lives and the choices we make day to day, month to month, about how to live. Although “Generation Wealth” is about a lot more than personal choices, it’s that aspect of the film I want to write about.  The film documents parts of the lives of several people with different stories.  One is a banker who put accumulation of wealth above family, friends, humanity in general.  Another is a business executive who put work above all other goals in life until it was almost too late. There were stories about people who subjugated themselves through prostitution and pornography in their attempt to get ahead, to gain wealth and power over others. There was a 6-year-old beauty pageant winner who was in it for the money, who already viewed her goal in life as money accumulation.

Two stories in the film hit me the hardest. One was the film-maker herself, who had grown up with divorced parents who put their careers first, and who then herself had become very career focused, choosing work over family in a number of ways.  In one segment, she discussed a choice she made about leaving home for a work assignment just weeks after giving birth to a son. Her husband encouraged the trip and was there to look after the family, but still it was an important decision. She decided to go. She interviewed her sons for the film, and a heart-wrenching scene was when her teenage son said that from his perspective, she was gone a lot throughout his childhood.  He said something about realizing that “damage was done.” This was a teenager talking to his mother, saying that she had made poor decisions about being gone so much.  He said these things, swallowed hard, then looked with compassion at the camera and asked her if she was OK.  I bet she was crying. I would have been.  I’ve been in her shoes, choosing between family time and work time.  I chose work very often.  The justification I think many people like me articulate is that “the kids will be OK.” And, we tell ourselves, the money, social advancement, and perceived stability will benefit the kids down the road enough to counter-balance the short-term damage.  We want those things, money, social status, and stability, and justify our aggressive pursuit of them by framing it as good for the kids.  Would the kids be better off if we made decisions to be involved rather than away? Very likely. But instead, we make the decision, tell ourselves that they’ll be OK, and that OK is good enough.

Another core aspect of the film is the idea that accumulation of wealth or achievement of social status leads to happiness, that having what popular culture pushes us to have is the recipe.  Some people are obsessed with money and possessions as that path to happiness.  Others focus on looking and acting the part. One story in the film was of a person who chose cosmetic surgery, and having the right body and face, as the path to happiness.  This came with great sacrifice in terms of surgeries and financial burden that she could not afford. It made for stress in her single-parent-of-two-children household. This belief in looking a certain way as being necessary for happiness was all-consuming for her, and (it was implied) became so for her teenage daughter. This storyline ended with the woman bankrupt, still obsessed with her physical appearance, and with her teenager dead (from suicide).

At last we are coming back to the third prompt to writing this essay: my choices made when my sons were teens, about a decade ago. The reminder of those days came to me last week via a share of an old Facebook post from a friend of one of my sons about the dangerous self-destructive behavior they engaged in as teens.

The driving force behind the most troubling of my choices might have been similar to the woman I just mentioned: a sense that if only I can succeed at being happy, my happiness will benefit my children (I was also a full time single parent). It’s akin to trickle-down economics.  Make myself rich with happiness and my children will reap the benefits.  The woman above sought happiness in cosmetic surgery and the pursuit of physical appearance.  My pursuit was not unrelated: romantic love and a happiness-inducing relationship and/or marriage with a woman.  By pursuing happiness for myself in an intimate relationship, the argument went, I would achieve a happiness that would benefit me and my whole family enough to outweigh the negatives.  What were those costly negative choices I made?  Mainly, to spend a lot of time away from home, leaving young people to fend for themselves and without parental supervision, involvement, and guidance. Were they likely to be OK through it all?  I suppose. At least that’s what I chose to believe.  Was I, in fact, achieving a happiness that was great enough to overcome the negatives of my absences?  Absolutely not.  It was an intensely stressful time, trying to maintain a warm and exciting romantic life while maintaining a more-than-full-time job, a house, property, a pack of dogs, and being a good single parent to two teens.

A key thing in the film, which I know would apply to me, were I interviewed about this story I just old, is the facial expressions of people telling their stories, of why they did what they did. They would explain their rationale for their choices, often with energy and a smile. Then, after they spoke their final sentence, they’d settle just a bit and their face said it all – “I know what I did was wrong, and I knew it at the time.” This applied to the mother of the filmmaker, asked about whether she knew that her choices as a parent hurt her children.  She said she didn’t know this, but the look on her face said something completely different. The cosmetic surgery woman was the same – even when she was making the choices she did, she knew they were wrong at some level, but used a lie to herself to justify them.  Like them, I lied to myself and everyone I talked to about those times. I said that I was leaving home in pursuit of a happiness-inducing romantic life for the benefit of the children and everyone else in my life.  No, that was a lie and a part of me knew it from the start.

While I was away from home, ostensibly pursuing my trickle-down happiness, much unhealthy and self-destructive behavior was going on at home. Dangerous things. Through those things, I could have ended up like the woman in the film, with a dead child.  Luckily, death did not ensue, but death-no death is not a very useful metric.  What would have, could have, been the outcome if every weekend or week I spent away from home, leaving teenagers to fend for themselves and party with friends, I had instead stayed at home? Cooked. Involved them in projects. Taken them hiking in my quests for aphids. Read more books with them. Heck, played more video games with them.

My sons are now OK, but only after suffering the most heart-wrenching and at times life-threatening periods in their early 20s. Could those hard times have been avoided or ameliorated if I had made other choices?  Quite likely. Do I know that my decisions in many situations were wrong? Yes.  Was I fully honest with myself and those around me at the time about my feelings and my justifications for my choices? No.

Sometimes I get going on a rant and then rhetorically ask, “Why did I start talking about this?” This is one of those times.

Two final things before I finish here.  First, regrets. Second, happiness. 

I’ve occasionally talked with one friend or another about the ways in which I let my sons down as a father.  They caution me about needlessly punishing myself for things long in the past.  Another friend once said something to the effect of, the only thing we’ll have left on our deathbeds is our regrets. I disagree with the latter, and the former needn’t worry.  I strongly believe that looking at and recognizing one’s failures is a good thing and does not lead to sadness or deathbed regrets. There is much in my life I could have done better from various perspectives (myself, my brother, sisters, parents, wives, children, etc.), but I know very deeply that I tried as hard as I could at the time. Trying hard was what I could do.  I shouldn’t feel anger or sadness with my past self, but just acknowledge that I’ve learned since then and that I have grown as a result of my mistakes.

Finally, happiness.  Ultimately, Generation Wealth is about people trying to achieve happiness.  They are all conditioned to pursue happiness through acquisition, accumulation, and power.  That fact is not their faults.  It’s a fallacy almost all of us first-world, lacking-for-nothing people cling to dearly. The film was about seeking money, fame, power, and property as means to happiness. But I want to emphasize another common fallacy not dealt with by the film — acquisition of humans, of relationships, as pathways to happiness.  Happiness never results from acquisition of or owning anything. Happiness cannot be given to, or made for, another person.  Happiness comes from choosing. Each of us is responsible for our own happiness.  It can be right here, right now, if we choose.  The trick? How to effect that choice.  Therein lies the real mystery. The place to look for effecting that choice is inside, to grasping our true identity, to understanding our unity with everything.

For a couple other ideas on happiness see the following:

I know the captions are not in English. Just listen carefully, you can do it. 🙂
From Mooji, my guru. I can point you to many others of his talks if you want.