Bobo has taken it upon himself to tell us “What Suffering Does.” He gurgles that in a culture obsessed with happiness, we should remember that coming to terms with suffering is instructive to the soul. “Gemli” from Boston had this to say: “It’s hard to know exactly what Mr. Brooks is selling in this sermonette, but whenever conservatives wax philosophical about the benefits of suffering, I feel a little uneasy.” As well you should, gemli, as well you should. Mr. Nocera considers “G. M.’s Cobalt Crisis” and says how the company handles all the recalls and inquiries will show if anything has changed. In “The Water Cooler Runs Dry” Mr. Bruni says with so much to watch and read and listen to, we have fewer cultural experiences in common. Here, FSM help us, is Bobo:
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.
But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.
Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.
But some people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.
But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.
First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.
Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.
People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.
It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”
The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.
Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.
The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined.
I’ll just bet he “found himself in a bunch of conversations.” More likely he wrenched a bunch of conversations in the direction he wanted them to go. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
The Chevrolet Cobalt is in many ways the perfect representation of the bad, old days of General Motors, when quality didn’t much matter, market share was more important than profitability, and financial decisions came before design and even safety decisions.
First manufactured in 2004, the car was a clunker from the start. “Owners complained about power steering failures, locks inexplicably opening and closing, doors jamming shut in the rain — even windows falling out,” according to Danielle Ivory and Rebecca R. Ruiz, writing in The Times last week.
And then there was the ignition defect that could cause the power to shut down, which led to a huge recall two months ago — and has spiraled the company into crisis. The more we learn about it — and with a handful of investigations underway, there is much that is not yet known — the worse G.M. looks.
The company apparently knew about the defect as far back as 2001, when it discovered the problem during testing of the Saturn Ion. It saw the problem again in 2004, as the Cobalt was about to be rolled out with the same ignition system. According to documents obtained in congressional investigations, engineers came up with a proposed fix, but it was nixed on the grounds that it was too expensive and would take too much time.
Finally, in 2006, engineers at General Motors appeared to have fixed the problem, but they did so without changing the part number, which is a shocking violation of engineering protocol, wrote Micheline Maynard at Forbes.com. It makes G.M. appear to have been engaged in subterfuge, hiding the fact that its ignition had been defective all those years.
Meanwhile, at least 13 people died in accidents that were clearly the result of the faulty ignition design. There are also another 140 people who died in accidents involving the Cobalt in which the cause is unknown. Yet for more than a decade, General Motors did nothing.
What makes this a particularly difficult crisis for G.M. is that it comes at a time when the company is trying to prove to the world that the old G.M. is dead. With a new chief executive in Mary Barra, 52, and a handful of newly designed cars, G.M. wants the world to believe that it has emerged from its bankruptcy as a smarter, nimbler, more transparent company. And maybe it has. But the Cobalt fiasco does not instill confidence; rather, it reminds people why General Motors had to be saved by the government in the first place.
On the one hand, Barra has met with the families of people who were killed in Cobalt accidents, something the old management would never have done. She has also hired Kenneth Feinberg, who has become famous for parceling out money to victims of 9/11 and the BP oil spill. He has been brought on to help the company figure out how to compensate victims and their families — a tricky bit of business since the company is legally off the hook for any accidents that took place prior to the 2009 bankruptcy. Of the many investigations into the Cobalt, one has been ordered by Barra herself, an internal review aimed at, among other things, answering the question of why General Motors took so long to order a recall. These are all gestures aimed at reinforcing the idea that this G.M. is a different kind of company.
On the other hand, Barra was forced to acknowledge before Congress that she hadn’t even known about the problem until the end of January — just a few weeks after she became the chief executive — when she was informed that the company planned a recall. She told Congress that General Motors was a place that had “silos,” and that information was too often not shared. She said so little of substance during her two days of congressional testimony last week that she came across as stonewalling at times. Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, accused her of presiding over “a culture of cover-up.” These are the kinds of moments that make you wonder if General Motors really has changed.
The Cobalt crisis will eventually fade. Feinberg will figure out how to pay victims. Plaintiffs’ lawyers will sue and settle. The investigations will be completed and the results announced. Presumably some heads will roll.
It is what happens over the ensuing months and years that will tell the tale of whether General Motors is truly a different company or whether this has all been for show. The government has sold its stake in G.M. The company is making money now. It is unquestionably a leaner, less bureaucratic place.
What it now needs to prove is that it makes cars that will cause us all to forget about the Cobalt. That’s when we’ll really know if it has changed.
What should happen is some folks who knew about the faulty switches being indicted for voluntary manslaughter. Here’s Mr. Bruni:
If you’re closing in on 50 but want to feel much, much older, teach a college course. I’m doing that now, at 49, and hardly a class goes by when I don’t make an allusion that prompts my students to stare at me as if I just dropped in from the Paleozoic era.
Last week I mentioned the movie “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” Only one of the 16 students had heard of it. I summarized its significance, riffling through the Depression, with which they were familiar, and Jane Fonda’s career, with which they weren’t. “Barbarella” went sailing over their heads. I didn’t dare test my luck with talk of leg warmers and Ted Turner.
I once brought up Vanessa Redgrave. Blank stares. Greta Garbo. Ditto. We were a few minutes into a discussion of an essay that repeatedly invoked Proust’s madeleine when I realized that almost none of the students understood what the madeleine signified or, for that matter, who this Proust fellow was.
And these are young women and men bright and diligent enough to have gained admission to Princeton University, which is where our disconnect is playing out.
The bulk of that disconnect, obviously, is generational. Seemingly all of my students know who Gwyneth Paltrow is. And with another decade or two of reading and living and being subjected to fossils like me, they’ll assemble a richer inventory of knowledge and trivia, not all of it present-day.
But the pronounced narrowness of the cultural terrain that they and I share — the precise limits of the overlap — suggests something additional at work. In a wired world with hundreds of television channels, countless byways in cyberspace and all sorts of technological advances that permit each of us to customize his or her diet of entertainment and information, are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?
Both literally and figuratively, the so-called water-cooler show is fading fast, a reality underscored by a fact that I stumbled across in last week’s edition of The New Yorker: In the mid-1970s, when the sitcom “All in the Family” was America’s top-rated television series, more than 50 million people would tune in to a given episode. That was in a country of about 215 million.
I checked on the No. 1 series for the 2012-13 television season. It was “NCIS,” an episode of which typically drew fewer than 22 million people, even counting those who watched a recording of it within a week of its broadcast. That’s out of nearly 318 million Americans now.
“NCIS” competes against an unprecedented bounty of original programming and more ways to see new and old shows than ever, what with cable networks, subscription services, YouTube, Apple TV and Aereo. Yahoo just announced that it was jumping into the fray and, like Netflix and Amazon, would develop its own shows.
In movies, there’s a bevy of boutique fare that never even opens in theaters but that you can order on demand at home. In music, streaming services and Internet and satellite radio stations showcase a dizzying array of songs and performers, few of whom attain widespread recognition. In books, self-publishing has contributed to a marked rise in the number of titles, but it doesn’t take an especially large crowd of readers for a book to become a best seller. Everyone’s on a different page.
With so very much to choose from, a person can stick to one or two preferred micro-genres and subsist entirely on them, while other people gorge on a completely different set of ingredients. You like “Housewives”? Savor them in multiple cities and accents. Food porn? Stuff yourself silly. Vampire fiction? The vein never runs dry.
I brought up this Balkanization of experience with Hendrik Hartog, the director of the American studies program at Princeton, and he noted that what’s happening in popular culture mirrors what has transpired at many elite universities, where survey courses in literature and history have given way to meditations on more focused themes.
“There’s enormous weight given to specialized knowledge,” he said. “It leaves an absence of connective tissue for students.” Not for nothing, he observed, does his Princeton colleague Daniel Rodgers, an emeritus professor of history, call this the “age of fracture.”
It has enormous upsides, and may be for the best. No single, potentially alienating cultural dogma holds sway. A person can find an individual lens and language through which his or her world comes alive.
And because makers of commercial entertainment don’t have to chase an increasingly apocryphal mass audience, they can produce cultish gems, like “Girls” on HBO and “Louie” on FX.
But each fosters a separate dialect. Finding a collective vocabulary becomes harder. Although I’m tempted to tell my students that they make me feel like the 2,000-year-old man, I won’t. I might have to fill them in first on Mel Brooks.