“There is no good answer to being a woman,” writes Rebecca Solnit in a recent essay. (“The Mother of All Questions,” by Rebecca Solnit, Harpers’, October 2015, pg. 5) Expanding on that thought she explains, a mother is under the gaze of society’s judgment. Too much or too little mothering and she becomes a monster, the source of all her children’s ills. Leave her child alone in a car for five minutes and the police will arrive. Who arrives when a father abandons his family, she asks. Surprisingly, taking parenting seriously can lead to disrespect in the workplace. A woman might face job discrimination because a potential employer might be afraid she’ll either get pregnant or, heaven forbid, put her family above the demands of her job. In sum, the best work for a woman is to serve as “angel of the house,” yielding to society’s expectation that females should to “be self-sacrificing handmaidens to domesticity and male vanity.” (Ibid pg. 5.)
Solnit isn’t male-bashing when she makes these observations. She’s attacking conventional norms that teach us to ask the wrong questions about ourselves. For example, is the goal in life to be happy? And what does happiness look like? If we observe traditional models, it would involve family, wealth, success, fame and even power. But people who have it all are not beyond the impulse to kill themselves and, sometimes, they succeed. For women, having children is considered to be the highest bliss possible but that isn’t the case for all women.
Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University reports his finding on the pursuit of happiness after years of study: “people who think being happy is important are more likely to become depressed.” (Ibid pg. 7.) Giving a meaning to one’s existence is more important. Perhaps that explains why a young man like Edward Snowden could abandon his high salary, secure job, and a home in an Hawaiian paradise to become the world’s most sought-after fugitive. (Ibid, pg. 7)
To find meaning, we sometimes have to break through society’s clichés. That means looking past definitions of what it is to be a woman, a man… to be human. Breaking through the Matrix of what we are taught is difficult. But the disruption may not be as scary as it appears. Breaking free means losing prejudices that cloud our perceptions. It means reexamining inherited notions about marriage, race and gender roles. What’s important to remember is that when we allow others to break free, we free ourselves.