How Does a Wife Interfere with Her Own Happiness? by Anne Fielding
There Are Wives Seminar: May 4, 2006

Part 4.  Would We Rather Be Important or Happy?

The upshot of Joan Didion's very intense memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, is that, despite all the literature she read on the subject of grief, and the persons who tried to be kind and useful, there is no answer to her pain.  She writes:

[T]he survivors of a death are truly left alone.  The connections that made up their life—both the deep connections and the apparently…insignificant connections—have all vanished.

This is simply not true; “the connections” have not “all vanished”—for one thing people are reading about them. A big interference to a woman’s happiness, I’m personally grateful to have learned, is our desire to be important, which often takes the form of a preference for seeing ourselves as tragic.  In a class, Mr. Siegel explained:

Many people feel if they’re dismal they’re honest.  The equation of the ego is: the worse you feel, the more honestly you’re facing the facts.  People feel they prove the largeness of their emotion by collapsing.  

Ms. Didion writes:

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it, that unending absence, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.


       This sounds deep, but it’s not sincere, it’s conceit, not love for a husband. In his essay on “The Meaning of the Hebrew Kaddish”—the Jewish prayer for the dead--Mr. Siegel explains in some of the kindest sentences ever written what I believe is working in Ms. Didion:

When a great grief comes, there is a tendency to retreat into ourselves, and there be glumly dismal.  Grief can make for a flat, formless privacy; an indifference unwilling to see color in anything, goodness in any person, meaning in the universe. Selfishness is a great muffler, a great duller, a great hider; and grief often makes us more selfish, not less so.

       Would Ms. Didion’s husband want her to collapse, to be “glumly dismal,” not to see goodness in any person? Is this the way to honor him? I think he might say, in his lively way, “You did too much of this when we were together, my dear Joan, and I didn’t have the good will or knowledge to criticize you then.” 

On the last pages, Ms. Didion writes:

The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.  I look for resolution but find none.


      Were Joan Didion to have Aesthetic Realism consultations, I’m proud to say she would find that resolution, that clarity.  We would ask her: “Do you think you have a chance to try to know who your husband was--not just in relation to you, but as a full person in his own right?   Meaning itself, we learned from Aesthetic Realism, is the relation a person or thing has to all the things it or he has to do with—reality itself.  It seems your husband was interested in many things: the film industry, baseball, international politics, the lives of other people—and, of course, you.  Can knowing what he cared for, what he had against himself, be a means of your understanding him, feeling honestly closer to him even now, and seeing new meaning in your own life—and in the world itself?  Do you think your husband would be very much for this?”

5. Being Just to What Is Real Makes a Wife Happy

In the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, there are sentences I love by Ellen Reiss that stand for the uninterfered-with happiness that every wife is hoping for as she thinks about her husband.  They stand for me as I think about mine:

“This person, whom I care for very much, is meeting the world in the form of traffic, and sky, the office he goes to, his mother, the people he knows at work and passes on the street, books, his memories, and much more.  I want—with all of me—for him to see as much meaning as possible in these things and people,….And through knowing him, I want to be clearer and deeper about everything. I know I would betray him if I didn’t use him…to be fairer to every person, to try passionately to be just to what is real, because he is real and stands for reality.”

The meaning of these sentences represents a big change in the marriage of Eliza and Andrew Meadows.  The possibilities of happiness are growing in both of them.  Mrs. Meadows told us that on a Sunday outing with their children, her husband was very much interested in two other people—a man taking photographs and a woman who needed assistance with her car. She told us-—and I end my paper with these sentences:

Seeing Andy proud of the good effect he had on others and they had on him, made the snobbish way I have held myself back look stupid.  I smile as I write about this because I realize that Andy is dearer to me through his relation to the world.  Had he focused himself solely on our children or myself or just blindly walked down the street at these times, we all would have been a little bit colder.  This shows me that the more interested in and fair to the world I am, the happier I will be.

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