Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Way Out of Wheeler-ism

The "Wheelers" are the married couple in "Revolutionary Road" played by Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet. Outwardly they appear as the perfect couple. How could they have any problems, since they are "the Wheelers?" Ahhh... little do others know that, in their individual selves as in their marriage, they've got nothing. Nothingness defines their lives. Inwardly they are empty. This is significant because they have fulfilled the "American Dream" in what may go down as the most economically prosperous place and time in all of history. The film shows that, if there's not a whole lot more to life than the American Dream we're all in a lot of trouble.

Philosopher J.P. Moreland, in The Lost Virtue of Happiness, writes: "Since the 1960s, for the first time in history a culture - ours - has been filled with what have been called empty selves. The empty self is now an epidemic in America (and in much of Western cultuyre). According to Philip Cushman, "The empty self is filled up with consumer goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners, and empathetic therapists... [The empty self] experiences a significant absence of community, tradition, and shared meaning... a lack of personal conviction and worth, and it embodies the absences as a chronic, undifferentiated emotional hunger." (Moreland, 17-18)

Moreland gives four traits of the empty self.

1. The empty self is inordinately individualistic. Healthy individualism is a good thing. "But the empty self that populates American culture is a self-contained individual who defines his own life goals, values, and interests as though he were a human atom, isolated from others with little need or responsibility to live for the concerns of his broader community.... But as psychologist Martin Seligman warns, 'The self is a very poor site for finding meaning'." (Moreland, 18-19)

2. The empty self is infantile. "The infantile part of the empty self needs instant gratification, comfort, and soothing. The infantile person is controlled by cravings and constantly seeks to be filled with and made whole by food, entertainment, and consumer goods. Such a person is preoccupied with sex, physical appearance, and body image. He or she tends to live by feelings or experiences.... [P]ain, endurance, hard work and delayed gratification are anathema. Pleasure is all that matters, and it had better be immediate. Boredom is the greatest evil; amusement the greatest good." (Moreland, 19-20)

3. The empty self is narcissistic. "Narcissism is an inordinate and exclusive sense of self-infatuation in which the individual is preoccupied with his or her self-interest and personal fulfillment... Self-denial is out of the question." (Moreland, 20)

4. The empty self is passive. "The couch potato is the role model for the empty self... From watching television to listening to sermons, our primary agenda is to be amused and entertained." (Moreland, 21)

True happiness, on the other hand, comes from "squandering ourselves for a purpose." Here Moreland draws on Jesus' words in Luke 9:23 that we are to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily.

Moreland has written a great chapter that's worth the price of his book on happiness. This is important because "The Wheelers" have been fruitful and multiplied. They are everywhere. American culture is now full-blown Wheeler-istic. Revolutionary Road is brilliant in depicting this. Moreland's work explains it, and shows us the way out.