The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

The Good from The Bad

The full life is a blend of the good and the bad

The pursuit of happiness...it sounds so great, why wouldn't everyone want happiness?

Maybe everyone should, but there is an unsettling idea about happiness creeping over the conversation. 

Happiness has become the recepticle for all things good in life.  Good feelings, good relationships, good desires, good vacations, good purchasing decisions, good plans for the future, good sex, good health, good looks.  Is this happiness?  It sounds great, but if this image of happiness is meant to remedy a historical perseveration on all the nasty junk of life, then the very absence of all that junk makes this notion of happiness unappealing, and probably unrealistic.  One snapshot in time seems to capture this point perfectly in my mind.

One of the images that burst into my mind when the World Trade Center towers collapsed was the iconic photo of Philippe Petit, suspended on a nearly invisible wire stretched between the two towers.  The fragility of that image is part of what humanized the towers to me, softened the steel striations and unyielding lines of the towers.  The loss of that journey, the disappearance of the imagined wirewalker hanging in limbo whenever I looked at the towers, was a tiny bit of the symbolic insult that was piled on top of the immense human tragedy suffered in the 9/11 attacks.

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At the same time, the fact that it had been done, and that its accomplishment preserved at least one positive memory of the towers, still offers some inspiration.

The documentary, Man on Wire, takes interviews with the cast of characters who pulled off this adventure and weaves them into a nearly mystical and simultaneously joyous and poignant fable.  The thoughts that pop into my head when I look at the picture of Philippe Petit on his wire run a gamut around courageous, stupid, crazy, beautiful, inspiring, and pointless.  Thinking about that now, I'm not even sure why I watched the movie.  After all, what is there for me to learn about walking on a tightrope between these towers?  I already feel bad enough about my mediocre balance. 

What was fascinating about the documentary, though, was the level of fear and terror that Philippe Petit described about his venture.  I had just assumed he was immune to fear, that stepping out onto a thin, swaying cable 1200 feet above the concrete of downtown Manhattan was no more scary than any one of us trying to step over a stone in our path.

It was, in fact, the fear and terror that made the journey possible, that gave us the image of a man on wire, and that preserved a personal link for many of us with those vanished towers.  Many people have argued that the good can't be appreciated, or even understood, in the absence of the bad in life (see, for example Ryan & Deci, 2001).  My colleagues Ken Sheldon and Todd Kashdan and I have recently finished compiling an incredible collection of brilliant contributions from expansive and insightful minds from across the spectrum of psychology all focused on the title of the book: "Designing the Future of Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward."  In nearly every one of the essays leaders in the field urge us not to myopically focus on the 'positive' in psychology and to preserve the symbiotic relationship between the good and the bad.  In my own area of meaning in life research, it is really impossible to think of a meaningful life that hasn't earned some of its meaning through confronting the bad that swirls in the tow of good living, like tin cans tied to the back of the departing wedding limo.

I could list off a million examples, and you could, too.  The main message is cautionary, though.  Be wary of promises of a kind of happiness that eradicates all of the warts, bumps, bruises, and even trips to the ER that life brings us.  It may, indeed, be possible to live a life like this, but what kind of life is that? 

Rather than my own examples, I'll let Philippe Petit talk about his own example instead.  If you look carefully at all the pictures of Philippe Petit on the tightrope, you'll notice that he never uses a safety net. 

"Seemingly, I'm crazy -- a suicidal maniac. But you have to enter my world. I work for days, months and years to prepare. My safety net is much stronger than anything else in the world -- it's my preparation." (Lazarovic, 2002)

Look at the photo below.  The possibility of falling is what keeps Philippe Petit terrified, and what keeps him on the wire.  If he ignored that possibility, or relied on a safety net to catch him, he might not have spent 6 years preparing, he might instead have simply danced toward the tower across the chasm.  Maybe he'd make it anyway, but I doubt it.  The image of the man on wire is the image of someone realistically confronting the fall that awaits an inch beneath his feet.  The image of the man on wire is the image of someone experiencing the peak of life in the face of the fall.

Are you prepared for such a fall?

 

References:

Lazarovic, S. (2002). The daredevil in the clouds. National Post.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2001). On happiness and Human Potentials: A review of research on hedonic and eudaimonic well-being. Annual Review Psychology, 52, 141-166.

Sheldon, K. M., Kashdan, T. B., & Steger, M. F. (Eds.) (in press). Designing the future of positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia entry for "Man on Wire" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_on_Wire

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.

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