Sunday, September 20, 2009

"The Referendum"

The New York Times has an entire blog, called Happy Days, devoted to questions surrounding "the pursuit of happiness." Earlier this week, it pondered the topic of "The Referendum" (emphasis mine):
"...a phenomenon typical of (but not limited to) midlife, whereby people, increasingly aware of the finiteness of their time in the world, the limitations placed on them by their choices so far, and the narrowing options remaining to them, start judging their peers’ differing choices with reactions ranging from envy to contempt. The Referendum can subtly poison formerly close and uncomplicated relationships, creating tensions between the married and the single, the childless and parents, careerists and the stay-at-home. It’s exacerbated by the far greater diversity of options available to us now than a few decades ago, when everyone had to follow the same drill. We’re all anxiously sizing up how everyone else’s decisions have worked out to reassure ourselves that our own are vindicated — that we are, in some sense, winning."

The tension between the childless/free and those with children is one of the threads explored in the post:
"I may be exceptionally conscious of the Referendum because my life is so different from most of my cohort’s; at 42 I’ve never been married and don’t want kids. I recently had dinner with some old friends, a couple with two small children, and when I told them about my typical Saturday in New York City — doing the Times crossword, stopping off at a local flea market, maybe biking across the Brooklyn Bridge — they looked at me like I was describing my battles with the fierce and elusive Squid-Men among the moons of Neptune. The obscene wealth of free time at my command must’ve seemed unimaginably exotic to them, since their next thousand Saturdays are already booked.

"What they also can’t imagine is having too much time on your hands, being unable to fill the hours, having to just sit and stare at the emptiness at the center of your life. But I’m sure that to them this problem seems as pitiable as morbid obesity would to the victims of famine."

I particularly liked these observations, towards the end:
"Yes: the Referendum gets unattractively self-righteous and judgmental. Quite a lot of what passes itself off as a dialogue about our society consists of people trying to justify their own choices as the only right or natural ones by denouncing others’ as selfish or pathological or wrong. So it’s easy to overlook that hidden beneath all this smug certainty is a poignant insecurity, and the naked 3 A.M. terror of regret.

"The problem is, we only get one chance at this, with no do-overs. Life is, in effect, a non-repeatable experiment with no control.... One of the hardest things to look at in this life is the lives we didn’t lead, the path not taken, potential left unfulfilled..."

I loved this post. It made me think of Deathstar's recent post, asking, a la the Talking Heads, "How did I get here?" It's so true that, as you get older, you start to sense that narrowing of options, the feeling of being on a downward slide, that time is, already, starting to run out to do all the things you wanted to do with your life. The possibilities that once seemed so endless suddenly don't seem quite so plentiful or possible anymore. You may find yourself painted into a corner -- and, what's more, you realize with some horror that you're the one holding the paintbrush. Eeeek.

Reading this, I thought about all the many recent articles & blog posts I've read on the subject of infertility and childless/free living -- &, especially, the inevitable tug of war in the comments section between those, like me, who just want some understanding (&, dare I say, validation) of our situation and what led us to this point in our lives, and those who clearly don't have a clue what we're talking about and think we should just adopt & get over ourselves already. It made me think of all the other tensions that are so prevalent in our society right now -- for example, between working mothers and stay at home moms, those in the U.S. who want healthcare reform desperately and those who want the government to butt out, and so on.

I have a horrible time making choices -- both momentous & minor. I dither, whether it's about fertility treatments or what to have for dinner. I research my options endlessly. (I drive dh nuts in the process.) And I can't help but second-guess myself afterwards about the road not taken.

I think it's only human. Who among us has not, at least once, cast our eyes at the neighbours' yard & wondered whether the grass really is greener over there -- and then tried to brush off our uneasy feelings by talking about why it's so much healthier for the lawn to be left in a natural state anyway (lol). It's human to want to be "right," and to be seen as doing the right thing in the eyes of our peers, particularly the people we love.

But I also think our world would be a much better place if we stopped trying so hard to justify our own choices, and started listening with more sympathy about what led others to make the choices that they did. It would be much better if we could learn to accept that we made the best choices we could with the information that we had at the time, and that others's circumstances may have led them to make different choices than we might have made for ourselves.

It's a brilliant piece & worth a full read (I've just spotlighted a few of the highlights here). Go read it, and then tell me what you think. (I started reading some of the comments too, but there are more than 500 of them!)


  1. I really enjoyed this article. As you know, my terror hour is at 4am not 3am. I think this is why I was so attracted to Buddhism - it gave me an opportunity to become a part of a whole movement that gave me an opportunity to create value even out of my own misery.

  2. You've done a really lovely job explaining this piece; and reminded us not to judge people who find peace and joy in their lives even if they're different than our own because *we don't know the journey that got them there.* This is why I never assume. Not that I assume these people are depressed, but that I don't assume to know their reasons, decisions, life events that put them on that road.

    And WOW am I tired of the infertile being responsible for the world's orphans. When did that happen?

    Great and thoughtful as always, Lori. There's also an interesting op ed by MoDo yesterday on how women are statistically becoming more unhappy here. More food for thought, I suppose.

  3. Thanks Loribeth, for pointing out that piece. It is excellent!

  4. You have made some great points. I'll go read the rest now!

  5. "But I also think our world would be a much better place if we stopped trying so hard to justify our own choices, and started listening with more sympathy about what led others to make the choices that they did."