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.