“Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion.”
According to some very smart people, the rates of anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide have between doubled and tripled for college students in the past 15 years. We’re a demographic that has everything, and that’s exactly the problem – The incredible amount of information we’re expected to take in, the ever-increasing standards perpetuated by rapidly sinking admissions rates, and, most recently, the 24-hour social examination created by social networking like Facebook have left us exhausted and, in many cases, unable to cope.
I was taught the perfect word for this feeling back in 9th grade. “Malaise” is “a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being, cynicism and despair.” Perhaps despair is a mildly melodramatic term, but there’s no doubt that we’ve got plenty of cynicism. Is there a guide to handling this feeling? A story of overcoming moral unease and cynicism to become a more fulfilled world citizen?
Nope, but there is Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.
“You live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual, because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”
I’m going to be honest, I didn’t enjoy The Moviegoer the first time through. I wasn’t ready to think, and there’s no easy climax to skim towards; the payoff of the book is in its examination of an emotional state actually defined by vagueness. That being said, I generally don’t expect kids coming out of middle school to identify with malaise anyways, hormones are much too serious to be bothered with things like a nagging sense of ill-being. Back on track: The novel follows Binx Bollings, a stockbroker and Korean War veteran in New Orleans, as he struggles to define himself in terms of his few unsatisfactory relationships and the hollowness of day-to-day living. Seems relevant.
What makes this story so interesting to me, and, I think, so applicable to today’s widespread feeling of unrest is how commonplace everything seems. Binx is not an extraordinary Ubermensch embarking on some great quest to find himself, or battling the demons of his (*Insert very dramatic mental illness or perhaps addiction*) in order to save himself and his true love, or anything like that. Instead, he struggles to find fulfillment in the small and simple interactions that make up an average day, frequently (almost religiously) turning to movies for comfort and for the soul-soothing stories they tell. In some way, we’re all struggling to find our place in a world that seems to be moving at an impossibly fast pace, and where stress and cynicism are afflictions as widespread as the plague. Unfortunately, despite what we (I) would like to think, our lives are not always Homeric adventures, with obvious antagonists and clear-cut conclusions. We do look to movies and TV for comfort and familiarity.
“I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see.”
Last week, H.G. Wells warned us about the dangers of complacency in a technological society. Percy’s thoughts on companionship actually tie into our time in a less apocalyptic and more ironic manner – As new electronic means of communicating sprout from store shelves like so many high-priced heads of cabbage, we are getting worse at building relationships and at getting along with one another. When every piece of information, endless entertaining games, and addicting acerbic articles abound on the Internet, why should we invest ourselves in one another? The idea of surprise at finding that another person is genuinely interested in what I have to say is not a foreign one. I know I’m not always super at interacting or going out of my way to form relationships. It’s downright scary to strike up conversation with new people, and I do find myself feeling detached. In other words, Binx Bollings speaks to me personally as well as to me as a member of my generation.
There’s a disclaimer that I’m obligated to provide here: Percy writes a beautiful and real portrait of loneliness and the search for fulfillment in the face of spiritual unrest… but doesn’t offer a prescription (this is funny because Percy was an M.D., so LAUGH!). I can’t pretend that reading this book is going to reveal the secrets of spiritual well-being, but that would be too easy anyway. Instead, read it because a deeper understanding of the problem is the only way we can find our own personal solutions. Read it because your life is too short to waste on malaise.