I have been spending my days with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I had to replace my house manager from Madison, and people told me that I should put an ad on the grocery-store bulletin board. That’s how people get jobs where I live now. So I did that. I got two responses.

The job listing said $10/hr and Jeanenne said she’d do it for $20. That’s something I would do. So I hired her. Everyone knows everyone in this town. And when I mentioned Jeanenne’s name, everyone said, “But she’s a Jehovah’s Witness.”

I didn’t really know what this meant. I mean, I knew that they’d probably say something like that about me, being (probably) the only Jewish family in the county. And I knew that when I was a latchkey kid, and Jehovah’s Witnesses would knock on our door, I would often invite them in to talk.

They never made any sense to me.

Now I know why. Jehovah’s Witnesses are all about being happy. They are all about having the answers, knowing the rules, and following them to happiness.

1. The real path to happiness is contentment, and it looks a lot like hell.

Jeanenne recognizes that this is the big difference between us. She took this photo for me. She said, “The cow reminds me of you.”

I laughed right away. The cow has acres of land with corn and grass to feed on all day long. But she went to the edge of the fence and poked her head through to somewhere else. That’s how I am.

Happiness is not interesting to me. I ask Jeanenne why she does not want to argue with the Watchtower. I ask her why she does not want to try doing bad things to see what it feels like. I say, “If you’re going to make your whole life about living according to the Bible, then why not learn to read the Bible in the original language instead of reading someone else’s translation?”

This is so completely not interesting to her. She trusts the unnamed person who tells her what the Bible says. When I question whether it is okay to use birth control if it’s not okay to masturbate, she sends me a three page, well-reasoned email response.

So here’s where we are: I want to find what is wrong, what is unsettling, what leads to inner turmoil and conflict. She wants to have peace and happiness by believing that there is one way to interpret the Bible, and that the Jehovah’s Witnesses know that one way. She wants to help other people find that.

I want to help people find conflict and self-doubt.

2. Contentment is intellectually boring and creatively unchallenging.

So the happiness in Darlington, Wisconsin is killing me. People are genuinely happy here. They do not want to fly to New York City to see what they’re missing at Annie’s Blue Ribbon. They have better things to spend their money on. Like family togetherness or something.

It’s just not in me to be happy. I love questioning everything. Now that I’m a Jew among Christians, I realize that the big difference isn’t Jesus—the big difference is that Jews are always asking more questions. Jews celebrate doubt, angst, and searching in dark places. We love that stuff.

The other day my son asked the farmer why we can’t use dirty napkins at dinner.

The farmer said, “Don’t ask why. It’s rude.”

I nearly fell over. Really. I had never heard that ever in my life.

3. Uncertainty and disquietude make life worth living, but they don’t make contentment.

This is another thing about living in farm country: If you want to say something nice about someone, you say they are a hard worker.

Apparently, people here have not read my post about how you should never be the hardest worker. Because here, it’s a competition. You know how if you want to go home early, you make sure to send a bunch of emails as the very last thing you do so that everyone thinks you’re working? The farm version of that is cutting hay. Or corn. Or soybeans. Everyone can see how far along you are.

The farmer is always early. He says he’s early because he’s a hard worker.

We pass a farm and I say, “Why do you think the corn isn’t cut?”

He says, “I don’t know. Maybe they’re lazy.”

I say, “Maybe the husband just killed the wife and the kids are trying to deal with a grand jury while they’re trying to get the corn cut.”

You know what is most lovable about me to me? I can find drama in anything.

4. Intense solitude and internal voices are essential to life, albeit an unhappy one.

Now that the positive psychology types are coming out with iPhone apps, we know that people with a lot of free time on their hands are not happy. Those people spend too much time thinking miserable thoughts.

The problem is that this seems so nice to me.

And the problem is that now it all starts to make sense to me that Jeanenne is always busy doing stuff for Jehovah’s Witnesses. For instance, 400 people volunteered their time to build a new meeting place. I don’t think Jews would do that. We would donate money so that we could have more time to think dark, unsettling thoughts. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses keep busy. And anyway, going door-to-door is a lot of work.

The farmer and I went to visit.

We had to leave after only a short time because we had to pick the kids up from my Ex and I still needed to fight with the farmer about whether or not he can boss me around with my chickens if he won’t let me boss him around with his pigs.

5. Intellectual angst and constant turmoil are so fun and interesting that you won’t miss being content.

My friend came to visit. She is a friend who has been a professional flutist, novelist, gardener, and now I think she’s on her way to professional photography. Here is a random picture she took of the cows and the barn.

Anyway, she has a nose for nuisance, and she took one look at Jeanenne and said, “I can tell she brings a lot of stability to you. It’s good you have her.”

It’s true, really, that you can SEE stability in Jeanenne. That’s how she is. And she has a stable family and her kids are growing up and being good Jehovah’s Witnesses. And she doesn’t care that they’re not going to college because really, what is college about except challenging everything you already know?

This is one of my favorite pictures. It’s my son sitting in a crowd of boys watching my other son play a video game where he kills everyone.

This is a picture of the life I’m raising my boys to enjoy: a tangled life of misery and conflict, and gatherings to celebrate that. I am not crazy for wanting this. We are officially in the backlash period of the positive psychology movement (I am declaring that period beginning: Now.) As a backlasher myself, I’m convinced that you cannot have both a happy life and an interesting life; you have to choose one. Adam Philips recently made a contribution to this backlash in the Guardian with a review of one of my favorite books, Lord of the Flies, to show that people want interesting lives over happy ones. Tyler Cowen was so far ahead of this curve that he had to disguise his diatribe against happiness as an economic treatise. And I credit him with making me understand that an interesting life is a better goal than a happy one.

The farmer and I wake up very early in the morning. There’s a lot written about why you’ll be happier if you wake up early, but who cares? Because the farmer doesn’t want more happiness —if he did, would he have married me? I’m way too much trouble. The farmer wants to be busy. He put in this wood burning heating system and every day he wakes up early to chop dead trees in our forest.

I wake up early to think. Because I don’t want to be happy. I want idle time to let my mind wander because the unhappy result is so interesting. I watch the sunrise through the smoke, then I sip coffee and stress about what I’m doing with my life. Then Jeanenne comes to remind me that the other side’s always there if I change my mind.

166 replies
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  1. Mairzy
    Mairzy says:

    Hahaha – loved this post. I was raised Catholic and in my 40s got so torqued with the Catholic church that I tried to become an Episcopalian. I failed because the Catholic guilt kept eating away at me. :-)
    This year, I missed getting the Hanukkah presents to my sister-in-law by 2 days. Now I am plagued by both Catholic and Jewish guilt. Oy.
    Happy Hanukkah!

  2. Varun
    Varun says:

    the only way one can live a happy and interesting life(i feel one can do both) is if one defines for himself/herself the meaning of ‘happy’ and ‘interesting’, and not be beholden to society’s ever-fluctuating definitions(think: Fight Club).

    though positive psychology attempts to paint happiness onto someone, rejecting it without emphasizing a deeper understanding of happiness and what it means to live an interesting life(which you havent done, thank you Penelope) might lead some to conclude that being a sullen depressed son-of-a-gun is the only way to live life. When you lose a friend to suicide, you get quite angry when you hear folks talk about how being ‘unhappy’ is the way to live life.

    between cheerleader-happy and fan-depressed, there is the mentality of the athlete: fight like hell, leave it all on the field and walk off with the mind & heart of a champion, regardless of the score.

  3. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    Never thought the jews that read this blog were so insecure.
    You are comparing yourself with a cleaning lady who lives in the rural area of the Midwest, AND from a minor Christian denomination, and claim that Jews ask more questions than Christians.

    I could compare the wig-wearer orthodox Jewish lady who manages the dry cleaners by my place, with my nonpracticing Christian philosophy-majored friends, and come up with the opposite conclusion.

  4. chana
    chana says:

    I don’t get your take on the picture. Of course the cow prefers fresh tender green grass to what’s on her side of the fence.

    And hooray for disquietude and questioning. But don’t forget the process is meant to get you somewhere. There’s truth out there. If you’re a Jew, you’ve got a yearning soul for a reason.

  5. EstherAsna
    EstherAsna says:

    Fascinating – I found your blog via your article on BNET. It’s funny; I once also said something similar to what you did to a fundamental Christian re reading the Bible in the original. I don’t think they liked it. But let’s do so – actually this is from the Mishnah- Oral Law, Pirkei Avot or Chapters of the Fathers – Eizeh hu Ashir – Sameach B’Chelko – an idea mentioned by at least one other poster here. It means Who is Rich? He who is happy with his lot. Jews always like to dig deeper and that is why we have the Torah to plumb its depths and learn and question endlessly until we come to the truth. And re being happy – there is one key way to do that and it’s called Emunah. Check out http://www.lazerbrody.typepad.com/ He translated a phenomenal book that I just read through. It can really change someone’s life. You can be questioning and thinking and happy all at the same time :).

    BTW Not sure if you are anywhere near Milwaukee but I hear there is an amazing family there called the Twerskis that I would love to learn from.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      @ Esther
      No offense, but I find this amusing: Isn’t the Torah almost the same as the Christian’s Old Testament? I mean, where is the questioning to
      – Don’t eat pork;
      – Don’t work on Saturdays, and
      – if you are a woman, please cover your head with a wig.

      For me Orthodox Judaism = Fundamental Christianism =
      Fundamental Islam.
      And again, no offense to anybody.

  6. nissan corona
    nissan corona says:

    Why can’t an interesting life also be happy overall though? If you have an “interesting” life, then I’m guessing that it is that way because you had a lot of struggles and obstacles which may have been less than pleasant but that doesn’t mean your life can’t be happy as a whole. I don’t get why you have to choose.

    It’s also happen to have a boring, uneventful life and STILL be unhappy.

    I read somewhere that happiness is a choice; you have to actively decide to be happy and not let others affect your emotions. Personally I veer on the unhappy side; I can’t help it, it’s just ingrained in my nature. I like to brood over things that could have or should have been.

  7. Paul
    Paul says:

    Another thing the Jews I’ve known are drawn to is extreme states of being.
    To skeptical, searching people (like archetypal Jews), the poles of life are the stable places. Moderation (say, between misery and contentment, or Jew-consciousness or Witness-consciousness) is an untenable position, almost as boring or soulcrushing but harder to hold onto.
    The state most strive for – balance – is revealed as an illusion: a life in balance is, finally, not natural. Contentment is a state unattainable without resigning ourselves to a rigid discipline of the mind and heart, that not all of us are made for.

  8. chana
    chana says:

    @Gretchen: Are you serious? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4Uup2wwVa0 Hear the noise as those boys learn Talmud with their study partners? The Torah is not a static book like the “Old Testament.” Jews have a Written Torah and an Oral Torah, and we have a rich heritage of arguing, reasoning, & struggling with the Torah in order to a.) apply the laws correctly, and b.) come closer to understanding the Divine. Sorry but I think you misunderstand what questioning means in this context.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      @ Chana –
      Genesis. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers. Deuteronomy.
      Same books, in both Jewish written Torah and Christian Bible.

      Re ‘static’ Old Testament: there are hundreds of different Christian denominations. Each of them can also say they “argue, reason, & struggle”, looking for guidance and mysticism in their sacred books.

      Orthodox Jews and Fundamental Christians have more in common that they want to recognized.

  9. Sally
    Sally says:

    I agree that happiness is overrated. I disagree that happy and interesting are mutually exclusive. If you are happy because you follow some rules (Jehovah’s witness, e.g.) and nothing is challenging you, that’s more like being asleep than being happy. You may be more COMFORTABLE sticking your head in the sand, but when the tractor trailer bearing down on you hits, you won’t be so happy. There’s a difference.

    In a zen sort of way, happiness is beside the point. It comes and goes, as do most feelings. Interesting is also elusive. I don’t think it works to be invested in or identified with either one. YOU are so much more than happiness or interesting. I guess I’m in favor of stillness, which doesn’t interfere with happy or interesting, but does allow you to experience a much larger picture.

  10. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    @ EstherAsna
    Thanks for the link. It proved my point.
    The 3 religions say “My G-d is better than yours” while they all worship the same deity of Abraham and Moses.

    Really, get a Bible and read something from Exodus. It’s the same thing, word for word, than the Jewish Exodus.

    Btw the “struggling” part was an answer to another comment, that said
    “we have a rich heritage of arguing, reasoning, & struggling with the Torah”.
    My point was, there are some Christians that can also say the same about the Bible.
    Thanks again for the link.

  11. chana
    chana says:

    Gretchen:
    1. Proof, please, for your claim that “[t]he 3 religions say ‘my G-d is better than yours’ while they all worship the same deity of Abraham and Moses.” Doesn’t mesh with my experiences at all. Would people say “my way of serving G-d is better than yours?” Absolutely. But would they say “my G-d is better than yours?” No way. Doesn’t make sense within the basic theology of any of those three.
    2. Exodus for a Jew and Exodus for a Christian are night and day. Christians see it as a story of deliverance and love, and look at it as part of a larger story culminating in what they mistakenly believe was an empty tomb. For Jews it is a.) part of a Cliffs-Notes version of halacha–the written part is just the surface, the details are in the oral tradition, and b.) about the unique relationship between G-d and the Jewish people, our history and purpose, and how to be a proper Jew.
    3. Sure, Christians reason and struggle with the Bible, but it is not the same type of questioning that Jews do. Christians aren’t trying to figure out how best to apply halacha and how to behave correctly within the unique status of the Chosen People, with all the mitzvot and special responsibilities that entails. Christians are mostly hunting for clues to Yeshka or talking about literary themes or the Code of Hammurabi etc. :-)

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      @ Chana
      1. From http://www.ohrtmimim.org/Torah_Default.asp?id=939

      “The Jews worship a completely different G-d than all the other religions, and it is this G-d that all mankind eventually will be worshiping.”
      Translation: My xxx is better than yours, or even more, my xxx is the only God.

      2. Again, word by word, Exodus is the same thing. Any non-religious person reads that thing, and will not see any.difference.whatssoever. That each group interpreted the words is a different way, is another story.
      3. Thanks so much for your answers. It’s fun to see how predictable the intolerance is among all the “believers”.

      Have a pleasant holiday :)

  12. Mark Hunter
    Mark Hunter says:

    Your Jehovah’s Witness house manager will have you down as an “interested person” and will likely be “reporting time” for the hours she spends discussing JW matters with you, or sending you email responses about masturbation.

    Going along to the “quickly built” meeting place will have earned her kudos from the other Witnesses.

    It’s a shame that, while some JWs are happy not questioning where their religion came from, others die through blindly obeying the “unnamed person” who tells her that platelets are forbidden by God, but some minor fractions of blood aren’t.

    Good post.

  13. Millie
    Millie says:

    sporadic reader of your blog. (always enjoy it.)

    not sure how to say this without sounding annoying.
    but. you had a hell childhood. likely lived in at least one crap nyc apt. gained and lost jobs/businesses. had a “deformed” baby (your word, not mine). moved to madison (which i know is supposed to be nice, but still). divorced. met someone new. broke up/made up. re-married. etc.

    don’t you think / haven’t you noticed yet, that no matter what crap comes along, things are pretty much fine? that either you get used to it or change it. and that you keep doing this over and over. you haven’t been homeless, or destitute, or friendless or lonely — at least not for long. so, in the mean time — between now and when more crap comes, maybe stop thinking about it so much. save the energey that goes into being uptight and semi miserable?
    just a thought. that’s what occurred to me one day, after 40 years of distraction.

  14. mister
    mister says:

    Just want to make an observation…you look so HAPPY in the pic of you visiting the kingdom hall build. Do you normally look so happy when stressed and thinking of way to not be happy??? :)

  15. Gaurav Kishore
    Gaurav Kishore says:

    Very interesting post.. really enjoyed reading it. The one particular statement “…you cannot have both a happy life and an interesting life …” reminded me of Hugh Mcleod’s (of gapingvoid.com) wolf vs. sheep cartoon print – http://bit.ly/aiZC.

    I have to explore more of your blog and writing.

    Keep writing!
    Thx.
    Gaurav

  16. Andrea Coutu
    Andrea Coutu says:

    This post didn’t go where I thought it would go. I thought you would get into how your new housemanager wouldn’t take on certain parts of your household management because of religious differences. I thought it would turn into a discussion of how women end up being the ones responsible for holidays even when they have help. But this is probably because my blood is still boiling from someone asking me if my 14-year-old consulting firm is a cottage business the other day. :)

  17. Nina
    Nina says:

    My Mother (over the phone): “How are things? Are you stressed?

    Me: “Yes.”

    Mother: “Good. You’re happy.”

  18. Dawn
    Dawn says:

    I am a little late coming to the party but I think this is one of my favorite posts from you. I see the date is from 2010 and wonder if you still feel this way or if you have changed and want to be happy now. I totally feel what you describe in your writing and I have to tell you about an incident this post reminds me of. I was in my therapist’s office and we were talking about a new medication I was trying. She was explaining about all the success some of her patients were having with it. She proceeded to tell me that one of her patients, who was angry all the time, took this medication and became happy all the time. To which I replied “But I don’t want to be happy all the time!” What I meant was that I didn’t want a drug induced fake happiness. And with being on anti-depressants on a regular basis my shrink will ask the whole “on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being happiest, where are you?”, to which I tell him it’s like 6 or 7 and he will then ask what would make it a 10. I can’t ever imagine being at 10 on the happiness scale.

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