I am 32 years old, and I am a happy woman. Here is what I do: five days a week I go to work at a job I like. It is not especially challenging, but it is not boring, either, and there is very little stress. I can leave my job when I go home, which I do at five or shortly thereafter, sometimes stopping on the way home to have a drink or some tea with a coworker or friend. I live alone except for my two cats, who are lazy and demanding and never stop making me laugh. Most nights I cook myself an easy dinner or order delivery, practice my guitar for an hour or so, tidy up my cozy condo as needed, and then curl up in bed with my pets and a mystery novel or the TV. One night a week I go to my guitar lesson. I make a point of seeing a friend, or going on a date, at least one other weeknight. (I am fine with dating, but not all that interested in anything serious right now.) On weekends I go to movies, dinner, day trips, all the usual stuff, sometimes with friends or a date and sometimes on my own. My sister Madison lives nearby, and we try to get together at least twice a month.
My sister is the problem, actually. Or she makes me think that maybe I have a problem. She keeps telling me that my life is not fulfilling. I should look for love again, Madison says. I should find a job that pushes me to use my great potential and my MIT degree. I should read books that stimulate my brain. I should travel more and go somewhere else besides Yosemite. I should stop watching NCIS, and I should eat at better restaurants than the Chinese place and the burger shack down the block. I should savor fine wine.
But why should I? I really am happy. Take me at my word. Except, sometimes, when I see Madison. I could use your advice.
—Happy as a Clam in Claremont
If you took advantage of their fine Philosophy department while you were at MIT, you may have studied the Utilitarian philosophers and the famous dispute about pleasure between John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. Mill came to believe that some pleasures are “higher” than others, while Bentham remained faithful to his belief that “prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.” (Push-pin, by the way, is an ancient, tedious-sounding game where one person tries to push a pin on top of the opponent’s pin. Hatpin–type pins, not bowling pins. After Bentham’s remark, it became a symbol—and, one might add, a source, but that’s another story—of mindless, pointless amusements in philosophical circles.)
Your sister seems to be with Mill on this one, and you sound as if you are closer to Bentham. Since nobody has ever come up with a way to prove one or the other of them right on the question whether some kinds of happiness are “higher” than others, much less prove how highly we should value happiness over other good things in the first place, it seems to me that your case for your current way of life is as strong as your sister’s case against it. It also seems to me that, since the life in question is your life and not hers, your opinion on the issue should count for about a zillion times as much in this dispute.
There really are two issues here: whether your sister has a point, and whether she has any right to keep making it. I hate to say this, but Madison sounds like a bit of a snob, and also like the worst kind of nagger—the kind whose “advice” is often a mask for criticism, bragging, bullying, and invidious comparison. Of course, it’s hard to evaluate a human being based on a few sentences in a letter someone else wrote complaining about her. Your sister may be a thoroughly kind and generous soul, who only wants what’s best for you and thinks that what she is advising will actually make you happier, not just somehow classier or more outwardly successful. But even if this is the case, she has no right to “keep” telling you how to live your life. I suggest that, whenever she raises this issue, you ask her to stop, and say that her bugging you about your present life is, in fact, the thing you like least about your present life. If that doesn’t work, you might try going to once a month on those visits.
As to whether, even though she should just shut up about it already, Madison may have a point, my first and probably best thought is that, if you are happy and are harming nobody, you should do whatever you want. (That happens to be the central tenet of Wicca, sort of, if I remember it correctly from those heady second-wave feminist days. The Wiccans say “an” for “if,” which makes for a very authoritative-sounding maxim: “An it harm none, do what ye will.”) Besides, some of the things you do may not be what would make Madison happy, or put you in the running for the Nobel, but they are hardly push-pin. Yosemite could be the definition of “sublime experience.” Learning an instrument sounds like a “high” pleasure to me. And, as for NCIS, I suppose it isn’t The Tempest or The Wire but, good God, has Madison ever actually seen Mark Harmon?
I do have two second thoughts, though. One is that, even though I am supposed to take you at your word about being happy, and even though your life sounds quite wonderful in many ways, is it possible that Madison, who I assume knows you very well, is picking up signals that you do wish there were something more going on? It might be worth, say, joining a literary book group (without giving up your mystery novels) or getting a lot more exercise or attending some cool lectures on MIT-type stuff. In my own case, I have never managed more than dull contentment when I led a life of regular habits and never pushed myself. But, to come full circle, I am probably even less like you than Madison, and it is your life. And contentment is actually quite an achievement in these strange times.
Which brings me to the second of my second thoughts: so far we have been debating whether there is some sort of duty (Moral? Aesthetic? A hybrid?) to go beyond certain kinds of happiness and fulfillment in hopes of becoming even happier and more fulfilled. What we’ve left out is our duties to other people, and to the world. It is my belief that, especially now that our nation is in such turmoil and our planet at such risk, we all have a duty to look beyond ourselves and increase our level of civic engagement at least a little. At the risk of becoming even more annoying and preachy than your sister, I urge you to get involved: keep abreast of what’s happening. Make some calls. Join a group, maybe. Vow to put your skills to use at least once a week. Doing some of this may lead to personal fulfillment, or it may just be tiring and discouraging. But it is still the right thing to do.
Good luck coping with all this advice, Madison’s and mine! I leave you with Gibbs Rule #38: Your case, your lead.
My husband “Albert” has stage-four cancer. He has been given no more than six months to live, and possibly much less. So far he has been able to do some work in his home studio, but he tires easily and is starting to look quite frail. He has been very brave and, considering the circumstances, cheerful about the situation. I am glad to do almost anything I can to make things easier for him. But there is one big area of disagreement: except for our kids, who are both in school hundreds of miles away, and of course our doctors and lawyer, he refuses to tell anyone about the cancer, and has sworn me to secrecy. He says that he does not want people to feel sorry for him or treat him differently from before.
I think this is a bad idea that is getting worse. He already looks sick enough that people have started asking about it if he happens to run into them. He tells them that he’s getting over a slow virus. But mostly he has stopped going out, and we never invite anyone over any more. Although so far he is able to email, text, and phone people without their catching on, I am worried that we are becoming isolated from our neighbors and from the people we would usually see in person. I do try to see, or at least talk to, my (and our) closest friends often enough not to offend them, but keeping up appearances is getting hard, and feels dishonest.
I think that it might do Albert good to open up to some of the people who care about him. I also think that several of them—especially his sister and her family, who live on the other coast—have a right to know what is happening.
Another problem is that I get lonely. And I do not want him to leave me alone to face people who will be very shocked by his death and may be angry at him and at me for keeping silent and seeing so little of them.
I ask him when he will let me tell people, and he just shakes his head. I would like to hear your thoughts on this. Part of me wants to insist, or just go behind his back, but then I realize that I cannot go against the wish of my husband, who trusts me and is dying.
—Widow-to-be in Won’t-tell-you-where
I am so sorry that you are in this terrible situation. I think I understand—and I think you do, too—why your husband is reluctant to tell people about his cancer. Once people know about it, they cannot un-know it. Most or all of them will never be able to think of Albert, or treat him, the way they did before, and he will have irrevocably lost one more part of his normal life to the disease. Telling people will also cause them pain and distress, which Albert may want to delay for as long as possible.
These two considerations—not wanting to lose his pre-illness interactions with people, and not wanting to upset them—are certainly valid. But they are not the only considerations; and although, as the person with the cancer and the terrible prognosis, his wishes and opinions are entitled to very great weight, they do not automatically outweigh all other opinions and everyone else’s wishes.
This is a time when you need to see more, not less, of your close friends and extended family, and to be open with them. They can give you and Albert practical and emotional support as he declines. You will also need to strengthen, not weaken, your relationships with other people so that they will be available for you when he is gone. I think that you have a strong case here, and should make it before too long.
It might be wise to bring a professional into this conversation. The ideal person would be a counselor connected to your husband’s oncologist’s practice, who understands how Albert’s cancer may progress: you and Albert will both want to be prepared for changes in Albert’s condition, including sudden declines. You will want to know the warning signs. And you will need to know what level of care he is likely to need when changes occur. Open discussion of how quickly change can occur, and the kind of support both of you will need at each step, should pave the way for realistic talk about the value of including your friends and relatives.
But even if there is no such ideal counselor to be found, or if Albert refuses counseling of any kind, you should still talk to him about what specific changes are likely to happen, what kind of help he and you will need, how his mind may be affected, and how difficult it may become to hide his illness at various stages. Perhaps you could bring one or both of your children into this discussion. Or you could raise the issues of illness progression, and when to tell other people, with the oncologist directly at Albert’s next visit. There are also great resources and support groups out there for almost every kind of cancer: they can not only give you advice but also connect you to other patients, caregivers, and survivors who have been in your situation and have had to decide whom to tell, and when.
I also think you are right to consider the interests of Albert’s good friends and extended family. Although their need to know about his illness strikes me as less urgently compelling than your need to tell people who can help and support you—you are the one who has to live with the cancer and care for Albert every day, while preparing to cope with widowhood—I believe that his siblings and closest friends, at least, should be informed at some not-too-distant point. Even if you and Albert do not tell them immediately, you should make sure you give them enough time to digest the situation, come visit if they can, take care of unfinished business, and say goodbye to your husband while he is still alive and lucid and his pain is under control.
I hope that, for the time being, you and Albert can at least work out some compromises. There may be a few people you can get Albert to agree on telling right away, and others at later dates or later stages. For example, he may concede that his sister and her family should be told soon. For his sister, the pain of not having been told could well outweigh the pain of knowing Albert is sick. Since she lives on another coast, she is unlikely to spread the news locally. She may be motivated to come and provide some real help once you have included her in the circle.
And you may be able to convince Albert that one or two of your closest local friends should be told, not just because they would like to know but also because you need them now, and may soon need them more—and because they are likely to figure it out anyway if, for example, they live nearby or call and visit often.
With any luck, each person who is told will make it easier to tell the next one, and the circle of knowledge will grow in a natural-seeming way, giving Albert ime to adapt.
If Albert will not compromise and absolutely refuses to budge, I would go to a counselor alone—or, if you cannot find or afford a good one, to someone else who already knows about the situation, such as your own doctor or one of your kids—to work out a plan. You may need to defy Albert, or deceive him, when it gets to the point where you just cannot cope unless you tell at least one discreet, indispensable friend, or some members of your own family.
But I hope that the two of you can settle this between yourselves. If you can manage to be patient about some disclosures, and if he fully understands that you see how hard it is for him to lose his privacy, maybe he will grasp how hard it is for you not to tell anybody at all. Best wishes to you both.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.