Good Life

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Matt Geiger

It’s become fashionable these days to tell your daughter she can grow up to be president. That she can work on Wall Street or run for senate. That she can be rich and powerful.

Just as rich and powerful as the most miserable men.

The only problem is that I love my daughter, and I wouldn’t wish any of those terrible things on her, or on anyone else about whom I care. 

All I really want for my child, is for her to see beauty and truth in the humble places they reside. That, I hope, is enough. And if she can, she will be able to lead a good, meaningful life, brimming with meaning and love.

I left a mason jar on the side of sink the other day, wobbling when I set it down on the rounded white porcelain beneath it. My five-year-old daughter, Hadley, entered the bathroom a few minutes later, and I heard the telltale crash of glass exploding on the unforgiving tile floor. 

As I was sweeping it up, cursing the uneven grout ridges and canals that trapped hundreds of tiny shards of glass, she listened to the little symphony of sharp chunks and slivers as the stout, short-handled broom attempted to drag them into the dustpan. 

“This sure did make a big mess,” I said, making a mental note to locate the antibacterial ointment and the Disney bandages so I’d know where they were when someone inevitably cut their foot in the next day or two. 

Hadley listened as glass cascaded over the tiles, and she replied: “Yeah, but it sure does make a beautiful sound!” 

I recently talked to her at great length about all of the paradoxes that make us human. I said that things can be broken and beautiful, good and bad, fun and scary­all at the same time. 

“But why would a scary story make us feel better?” she asked. 

I thought for a long time and told her what G.K. Chesterton said, which is that fairy tales do not exist to tell us that dragons are real; they exist to teach us that dragons can be defeated. I told her that it feels good to be scared, for a little while, because then the fear passes out of you, and when it’s gone, you realize that nothing, not even terror, has the power to hold you in its cold grip for very long. 

I like my life. I like my daughter’s life. We live in a time and place where nearly everyone, every single person, has access to enough food and clean water, and anyone can read Shakespeare or gaze at great works of art, or listen to good music. The richest and poorest alike all have access to millions of creations of beauty–both intentional and accidental–that until recently were simply unattainable to most people. In this time, you can be lazy or driven, and either way you can live a good life. My daughter, like all of your children, will grow up in a world in which everyone does not have the exact same amount of stuff, but everyone does have more than enough stuff to be happy, and hopefully she will never be dumb or unenlightened enough to seek out too much power or wealth, which are the two things that truly make people miserable when they are concentrated in one place for too long.

If she makes $30,000 a year, that will be plenty. If she makes $100,000 a year, that will be plenty, too. But it doesn’t really matter.

The popular thing these days is to tell children–daughters in particular–they should get into politics or business. To tell them they should change the world and gobble up as much power and wealth and things as possible. The most fashionable thing for people to tell their children is that they can’t be happy or fulfilled unless they have as much money and power as everyone else, or more. 

I understand it. Women were excluded from so many types of life for so many years, and it’s good for society to be open to everyone. But I’m not sure making lots of money or wielding lots of power are actually progress for anyone. When I look at those with money and power–at least, those with more money and power than us–I am struck by the immutability of the fact that they are universally miserable. Every. Single. One of them. 

It’s like Dorothy Parker said: If you think people with money are happy, just look at the poor, unhappy souls who already have it. 

One of my biggest fears is that, because my daughter is a girl, people will think I don’t want her to seek power or money because of her sex and/or gender. That they’ll wrongly suspect I think she should be humble, kind, and thankful for what she has because she doesn’t deserve to have as much as her male counterparts. That I’m part of a patriarchy that’s trying to keep her down, or keep her in “her place,” just because I don’t want her to strive for the hollow things that truly give the people who seek them nothing but despair and anguish.

Few things make me mad, but that does. Because we know very little about how to live a good life, filled with meaning, but everyone who has ever read the great theological and philosophical works of the world knows that hunger for power and wealth actively work against the development of a good life. Lust for things, and lust for power over other people’s lives, even if your intention is to make those lives better, will rot you to your core. 

People who get into big business or politics, whether I agree with their policy positions or not, always do so because they think they know better than anyone else. What a strange thing to think! I’ll never be able to wrap my mind around the idea that I could possibly know better than anyone else how to govern the people who live in my village, my county, my state, my country, or my world. Sure, I want her to live in a world where she could be anything. But I also want her to be wise enough not to crave the wrong things.

I’m not without politics. Friends and readers can probably tell I’m fairly progressive and liberal, in my own way, but that doesn’t mean I have to like the way progressives and liberals talk to one another, and to those with whom they disagree. One of the pillars of liberalism, in my eyes, has always been the idea that we should do what we can to help all people, regardless of whatever advantages or disadvantages they bring with them. That we should treat humans with compassion, whether they are born into squalor and illness, or privilege and power. I like that part of it. But I don’t like the way my fellow liberals recently decided that the only things that matter are race, gender, money and power. Surely the billions of people on this planet are more complex, more nuanced, than the color of their skin, their reproductive organs, their bank accounts and their job titles, right? Surely, there is more to it than that. Surely you can be poor and happy, rich and sad, powerful and depressed, vulnerable and enlightened. Right? But that’s not something you hear, particularly on social media, where my daughter will soon be told thousands of times that she is doomed to lead a pathetic life simply because some people are sexist, some people are racist, and some hold a variety of silly, antiquated, demented worldviews. I reject the idea that anyone should waste their life obsessing over the inherent unfairness of the world, or trying to make anyone, regardless of their skin color or gender, pay for the inherently unfair nature of the world.

I sound like an elderly hermit when I complain about all the negativity on social media. I know. But I truly do not understand why every single comment I read on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Twitter, and various other comment sections is profoundly cruel and relentlessly negative. Every comment screams that my daughter will have to trudge her way through a miserable world, and that unless she makes lots of money and gains lots of power, she will be miserable too. It’s nonsense. I went searching for an answer, and I found research suggesting most human communication is non-verbal, and we need to see the facial expressions, body language, and hand gestures of the people with whom we speak in order to understand the intent of their words. We need to smell them, hear them, and sense their presence in the room. But on social media, we don’t get that, and we therefore don’t truly understand the context or content of the things we read, and our ancient “fight or flight” instincts kick in, and we either flee from our phone, or engage in a pointless online fight with someone who lives half a world away. 

When the “Game of Thrones” television series wrapped up last week, ending one of those rare shows that virtually everyone giddily talked and speculated about for nearly 10 years, I was thankful to have been so very entertained for 72 hours over the course of the decade when I became an actual adult. I fondly remember my wife and I–her, nine-months pregnant and me, trying to share in her misery by not drinking beer for nine months–sitting on the couch together and binge watching program after program, gasping when characters we loved died, and gasping again when whose we thought were good committed heinous acts, and those who we thought were evil saved the day. It was a fantasy, but it was based on the truest idea in existence: that the quest for power will always cause misery, and those who attain it will inevitably fall into loneliness and ultimately death.

I think reviewing television shows is silly, because we all like what we like, but I will say that I cared immensely about many of the characters in “Game of Thrones.” My favorite was Arya Stark, who began her story as a child and turned into the most important character in the entire narrative. I remember seeing her lost in an enormous world, without parents or anyone to guide or protect her, when she was just a kid, and thinking it would all be too much. I remember thinking that if my daughter were ever to lose us at such a young age, she would be doomed. 

But Arya wasn’t, and as the years went by, her tragedies all turned out to be adventures, and her story exhilarated me as I watched it play out and always wondered what would happen next. The moral of the story, which was clear from the start, was that those who are hungry for power will die empty, no matter how much they attain, and those who seek gold will lose out on countless tiny, happy moments along the way. 

Without spoiling the show, I can say that none of my favorite characters ended up on a throne when it was all over. In fact, several of them actually chose to eschew power and wealth, wandering out into the woods and onto the sea in search of the next adventure. They sought a good life, which is often in the opposite direction from money and power. 

I made the mistake of going online after the final episode aired. Millions of viewers seemed to have missed the point entirely. They were angry, furious actually, that their favorite characters had not “won” the game and ended up king or queen. 

The thing that people were most angry about, it seemed, was that those they cared about had not ended up with all the power and all the gold. No one seemed to care whether or not the people they cared about had a happy ending.

But the point of the story, and the point of life, is that power and gold won’t make you happy. The only thing that can really make you happy is a good story, a beautiful story, like the sound of a broken glass on a bathroom floor, heard through the ears of a child. Through the ears of a child who will be allowed to run for president someday, but won’t, because she knows better. 

Because a good life is one in which you are loved, and you love, and you work to see and hear all the good stories and little adventures that unfold along the way.

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