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A Place for the Malaise
On being of America but not belonging to it.
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
― Joan Didion
America is a place to find one’s place: for the fearless ready to start the beginnings of a new life from overseas; for those escaping persecution looking to her shores for refuge; for those who see her singular place in the world as one where dreams can be fulfilled unhindered by the trappings of social or economic status. Even in the western migration — most notably the Great American Land Run of 1889 — men and women dropped their apprehensions and past eastern life along the dirty, crowded streets to find a new life, a new place, as a center of a community with only their vision of a better tomorrow as a guide.
It grew, prospered with these dreamers and castaways, and the disjointed places came together in a tapestry of cultures, traditions, food, lifestyles, and structures. It was at once an improbable mix of people pursuing their individual dreams and a natural place for people to pursue them.
When I was a young girl, my family took long road trips crossing the country in a GMC conversion van, striped with various grades of pink. It had velvet mauve upholstery from top to bottom punctuated by track lighting along the middle that lit up the van at night like a mini airstrip on the ceiling. With my dad driving and mom navigating, we kids occupied the captain chairs and cushioned bench seat in the back. It wasn’t the typical, comfortable family Roadster station wagon, but it took us where we needed to go — and it took me to see America. We would often drive through the night to get to the next stop or that trip’s destination. I would stare out the window at the endless blackness if we were going through Iowa, New Mexico, or stretches of Montana, punctuated only by pinpoints of light from a distant town. Going through Texas, Oklahoma, or California was to leap-frog from city to small towns and truck stops.
I learned more about what it was to be an American and live in America on those trips. The great American road trip isn’t just about the historical landmarks and the battlefields, and the national parks, I learned about who and what is in between. The truckers crisscrossing the interstates are the pipeline bringing us the food, goods, and livestock this country needs to sustain itself. There were families like ours out exploring the wide-open roads. We ran into modern-day Okies, their lives packed up in a truck headed for the hope of a better life in a new homestead. The occasional hitchhiker, head resting on his backpack, taking a nap in the shade of the overpass. Little towns and cities are scattered off the beaten path — just the blink of any eye when traveling by train, completely missed from the windows of an airplane.
As I looked out the darkened windows of that van into the vast openness of possibility and dreams, I thought someday I’d find myself in a place — somewhere that belonged to me and I to it; where my work was meaningful, and I lived a life of fulfillment and purpose, and happiness. But as I grew up to meet my hopes, I found that those things dissipated into the air, as if I was walking on the hard, dark, burning pavement of highway towards the mirage I could never reach.
I now live in the same town in which I was born and raised. Life’s detours traced a circle back to Minnesota, but now as I drive through my town, I don’t feel connected to it. It feels like I’m back in that van as a girl, a temporary visitor, passing through with no intentions but to get along with stops for gas, food, and rest. I’ve lost my place. Even in work and friends, I thought there would be a place for a nerdy athlete who grew up as a heard-headed tomboy with no thought to fearlessly meeting the world with whatever challenges it proposed. I see my community through the lens of a foreigner with no connection to what it’s become — a stranger in a strange land.
I’m not alone. There are hundreds of towns and communities in which residents, even life-long and generational community members, no longer recognize their surroundings. Shuttered storefronts, surrounded by quality-of-life crimes, lost employment, drugs and addiction, depression, and resentment. People move in and out of homes and apartments without knowing their neighbors’ names. We welcome co-workers only to see them leave in the following weeks. There is a temporariness to the air that signals instability, uncertainty, and pessimism, and the only certainty seems to be coming from a nagging malaise.
Walker Percy, an American author who ceaselessly examined the connections between place and condition, presciently diagnosed the ailments of society in this Paris Review interview from 1986:
INTERVIEWER: Is there any concrete issue that engages your attention most in connection with what is going on in America at the moment?
PERCY: Probably the fear of seeing America, with all its great strength and beauty and freedom—“Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A.,” and so on—gradually subside into decay through default and be defeated, not by the communist movement, demonstrably a bankrupt system, but from within by weariness, boredom, cynicism, greed, and in the end helplessness before its great problems. Probably the greatest is the rise of a black underclass. Maybe Faulkner was right. Slavery was America’s Original Sin and the one thing that can defeat us. I trust not.
INTERVIEWER: In connection with what is going on in the world?
PERCY: Ditto: the West losing by spiritual acedia. A Judaic view is not inappropriate here: Communism may be God’s punishment for the sins of the West. Dostoyevsky thought so.
A prolific writer who understood the motivations, or even lack thereof, of man and his search for purpose, and one who defied the stigma and label of a “Southern Writer,” Percy had a kinship with place as a way for the pilgrim and wayfaring vagabond of America to anchor himself to the community, and ultimately fulfillment. In Commonweal, Jeff Reimer writes
Earlier in his career, Percy had written about a related phenomenon, what he called “the malaise”— a sense of spiritual illness and alienation. It emerges in The Moviegoer as one part of a larger moral taxonomy of the modern world: awareness of everydayness gives rise to the malaise, and the malaise in turn gives rise to “the search.”
“The search,” says Jack “Binx” Bolling, in some of the most famous lines Percy ever wrote, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” Binx goes on, “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” The malaise, by contrast, occurs when one becomes aware of everydayness and finds it unbearable. Hence the book’s epigraph, from Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death: “The specific character of despair is this: it is unaware of being despair.” And despair, says Thomas Aquinas, “is the first and most terrible daughter of acedia.”
This diagnosis is not so different from what America is descending into, even as we live in it yet feel voiceless about what it’s become. Being of America but not belonging to it.
Instead, we retreat into the comfort of entertainment, shallow pleasures, and the race to prove our virtue through allegiance to so-called victimized groups. If we say the right things, put out the acceptable lawn signs, and eventually think the correct thoughts, we are insulated from the pain and search of how exactly we got here and what we can do to reclaim our place — to take responsibility for the direction and shape of our community, family, and lives. We’ve grown accustomed to being outside observers in a world that demands active participants. Robert Putnam alludes to this in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,
Light-touch government works more efficiently in the presence of social capital. Police close more cases when citizens monitor neighborhood comings and goings. Child welfare departments do a better job of “family preservation” when neighbors and relatives provide social support to troubled parents. Public schools teach better when parents volunteer in classrooms and ensure that kids do their homework. When community involvement is lacking, the burdens on government employees—bureaucrats, social workers, teachers, and so forth—are that much greater and success that much more elusive.
It's hard to realize you grew up waiting for an America that would never materialize. You are ultimately betrayed by the false promises of those who never cared for the American Dream. That people in power are more concerned with containing your hopes and aspirations within a suffocating cynicism and disillusionment of overbearing government and nonsensical political games. They insist we accept their reality and deny us a place for our own. It takes surprisingly little time to erode the optimism of our grandparents and replace it with resentment and apathy, so we soothe ourselves with platitudes, occupy ourselves with petty battles, and distract ourselves with technological toys rather than search for fulfillment, place, and meaningful relationships. We are of this place but no longer belong to it, together.
“I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach themselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges the wanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history.”
― W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence
Thank you for reading this post. If something about it strikes you, please share your thoughts — and A Pilgrim’s Progress — if you’re inclined. I appreciate and am ever humbled by the feedback I receive. And, if you were curious, here is a picture of our family van through the windows of which I saw America.