Chapter 2: Trapped in the American Dream

Part 1: Why We All Need Walden

American culture infects us with the belief that happiness is the fallout from our wealth, our status, our fame, our pleasures, our comforts, our possessions, our achievements.

By those standards, Thoreau was a total failure in every possible way.

Graham Greene

Graham Greene: if that’s love, I’d rather have a bit of kindness

In fact, all these shallow beliefs, to paraphrase Emerson, are the hobgoblins of small minds. One central message of Transcendentalism is that each of us must rebel against the popular notions of success and happiness to find our own inner truth.

Emerson defined happiness beyond the cultural norms: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

In this context, how is it that the pursuit of happiness has morphed into the pursuit of unhappiness for so many of us?

Well, our road to unhappiness is a long and winding one. It begins with the human condition we are born into and dead-ends in the American Dream itself. So let’s start from the start: Is there a God to look after us once we are dragged kicking and screaming into this bewildering and traumatic life?

Who can tell? The Buddha pointed out a long time ago that we human beings have never been given the wherewithal in any unimpeachable way to know whether or not God exists. He was quite content to leave God as an open question. Or, as wonderful folky Iris DeMent sang it: “I think I’ll just…let the mystery be.”

In my own mind, to believe in the God pictured so anthropomorphically in the Bible demands an astronomical leap of faith. As a deeply devoted fallen-away Catholic, I have come to accept the Buddha’s noble agnosticism with joy. Why? Because the underlying question about the God so many of us are brought up with is such a painful one: If this is a God of love, why does he, she, or it seem to be such an abusive lover? One of my favorite authors, Graham Greene, himself a practicing Catholic, expressed this complaint in a devastating way. “They are always saying God loves us. If that’s love, I’d rather have a bit of kindness.”

God surrounded by angels

It’s hard not to doubt the reality of a God whom religion has made in the image and likeness of ourselves

Unless one possesses this mysterious predisposition called faith, it’s hard not to doubt the reality of a God whom religion has made in the image and likeness of ourselves. For supreme doubters such as myself, the only hope for a deity is some providence above and beyond the ability of human beings to comprehend or even imagine.

The God question is only one of the mysteries wrapped within the conundrum of life as we know it. Somerset Maugham’s groundbreaking novel, The Razor’s Edge, was based on his experience with a real-life seeker he called Larry, who threw over wealth and social connections to embrace Eastern spiritual philosophy. Larry summed up life’s “big questions” in a truly Transcendental way. “I want to make up my mind whether God is or God is not. I want to find out why evil exists. I want to know whether I have an immortal soul or whether when I die it is the end.”

Elsewhere in the book, Maugham remarked on the near-impossibility of Larry’s quest to answer life’s existential questions. “Don’t you think he may be pursuing an ideal that is hidden in a cloud of unknowing – like an astronomer looking for a star that only a mathematical calculation tells him exists?”

Here is the built-in puzzle of human existence in a nutshell. All life exists in a cloud of unknowing. All life is a search for a star that might not even be there.

“We are obliged to live our lives as if there’s meaning, without any guarantee that there is any,” explained American Buddhist writer Lama Surya Das. “In that endeavor lies all the glory, honor, wonder, and, yes, meaning of life.”

In his 1959 classic, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl referred to this quest for purpose as “the self-transcendence of human existence.” As he wrote, “The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself…Self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

In other words, our purpose in life is to create our own purpose; our meaning to become our own meaning; our actuality to transcend our own actuality; our happiness to invent our own happiness.

But most of us are not so wise as Emerson, Greene, Maugham, Lama Surya Das, or Frankl. So, faced with potent existential dilemmas that might express themselves only in a complex mathematical calculation, an invisible star, or a cloud of unknowing, people everywhere fall back on…What? Read on to find out.