The New Better Off: Courtney Martin on Reimagining Our Ethos of Success and Reclaiming Our Sense of “Enough”
By Maria Popova
“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1925 as he explored how we limit our happiness, cautioning: “Neither love without knowledge, nor knowledge without love can produce a good life.” But something in the near-century since — the so-called “century of the self” — made us deviate further and further away from these parallel pillars of the good life, misled by the increasingly limiting mythos of success seeded by the rise of consumer culture.
Half a century after Russell, the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm examined the deceptive dream we had been sold in a short treatise he titled To Have or To Be?, which later became the indispensable The Art of Being. Another generation later, Kurt Vonnegut crystallized the crux of our predicament in his poetic tribute to Joseph Heller, in which he distilled the secret of happiness into “the knowledge that [you’ve] got enough” — a knowledge that seems to only grow exponentially more elusive as our civilizational clock continues ticking.
How to attain that elusive knowledge and reclaim the most substantive dimensions of the good life is what Courtney Martin examines in The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream (public library) — a book both patriotic and animated by deep trans-national relevance, the culmination of Martin’s decade-long quest to “reinvigorate our language around the concept of ‘success'” and to “paint a more accurate picture of the way creative, principled, scrappy people are actually living.”
Martin offers an inspired and insightful inquiry into the most elemental questions of human flourishing: how we spend our energy, attention, and resources; where the line between a calling and a compulsion lies; how much affirmation, admiration, and affluence is “enough”; what makes us feel truly seen in our chosen field of endeavor and in our very selves. What emerges is a largehearted field guide to answering the question Mary Oliver poses in one of the most beautiful poems ever written: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
A century and a half after Thoreau contemplated defining one’s own success, Martin writes:
That’s the thing about success… it’s only satisfying if it’s defined by you and influenced most deeply by the people you love and trust. Every era will have its dominant narrative about [what success is]… It’s easy to swallow that narrative whole without inspecting it first, inspecting it constantly.
But the good life is not about easy. It’s about rigorous discernment. It’s about playful dissent. It’s about constantly holding your life up to the light and asking, Where is the potential for connection and creativity? What can I let go of because it’s somebody else’s idea of what would make me secure/happy/accomplished? Who are my people and how can I build a life where I am with them more of the time in a less distracted way?
Using “the new better off” as shorthand for a modern reimagining of the good life, Martin draws answers — always pluralistic, always personal — from the growing groundswell of people who are making choices decidedly different from those our culture has codified as optimal in the past century or so. She writes:
So many people continue to reevaluate, turning away from job opportunities that are prestigious but not courageous, making families out of friends and neighbors, buying less, giving away more, sharing and renting rather than owning, reinventing rituals and ritualizing reinvention. So many people are looking compassionately and critically at their own parents’ lives and choosing to do things differently, sometimes even reclaiming edifying, abandoned elements of their grandparents’ lives.
Echoing Nietzsche’s assertion that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Martin is careful to point out that the insights in the book aren’t prescriptive but, rather, illustrate that life, especially the good life, is an act of improvisation and we’re all making it up as we go along — even, perhaps particularly, the people who best exemplify the “new better off” mindset. In doing so, she extends an invitation to the kind of introspection that allows each of us to unearth the building blocks of our personal bridges, or at the very least the life-rafts, by which we must cross the river of life.
To a large extent, the book is a contemporary counterpart to Composing a Life — anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s seminal 1989 challenge to our cultural mythos of achievement and self-actualization, which had invigorated Martin’s existential imagination when she first read it as a young girl. With an eye to Bateson’s classic, Martin examines these individual commitments as inseparable from our belonging to communities, polities, and movements, and the commitments we make in them collectively:
We may be artists of our own lives, as Bateson tells it, but we are not self-made men and women. We live in communities, and beyond that, we live in polities.
The “creating a beautiful life” portion of the New Better Off mindset is about our personal choices, but it’s also about the neighborhood and city and state and nation that we live in, and what their policies say about our rights and responsibilities. One of the sicknesses of privilege is the mistaken belief that we are all islands — when really we are archipelagoes.
Alongside our connection to others, Martin argues, our connection to our own past is a vital piece of the meaningful life:
We don’t create this little life in a finite moment in time. We create our lives informed by our parents and our grandparents and all the decisions they made in the America (or the Mexico or the Iran or the Ethiopia) that they came of age in. Or, as author Paul Elie puts it, “We enter the story in the middle.” In this manner, while the New Better Off mentality is about the continuous exploration of what is in front of us, it’s also fascination and sober reckoning with what lies behind us.
And yet what lies ahead for us, both individually and collectively, is Martin’s primary object of inquiry and invigoration. Nearly half a century after James Baldwin, that great poet-philosopher and seer, observed that “we made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” she writes:
Living in America, at this unequal, messy moment, can break your heart—but it doesn’t have to break your spirit. Living in America is so interesting, so fertile, so up-for-grabs. It’s also disintegrating and reconstituting and recalibrating. It’s up to us to make lives that we can be proud of — and to make communities and systems and policies to cradle those lives. It’s up to us to reject tired narratives about success, instead authoring new ones that are less about exceptional heroes and more about creative communities. It’s up to us to reclaim the best of what previous generations did that made this country so unique and so beautiful — as well as to own up to the destructive legacies that we’re a part of, to expose them to the light, and to figure out how to fix them. It’s up to us to be humble, to be brave, to be accountable to our own dreams, no one else. It’s up to us to be iconoclastic, to be together, to stay awake.
How to do that is what Martin goes on to explore in the remainder of The New Better Off, which radiates the uncommon and uncommonly difficult combination of lucid idealism and unrelenting commitment to nuance. Complement it with Nietzsche on the journey of becoming and what it means to be a free spirit, the revelatory findings of Harvard’s 75-year-study of happiness and what makes a good life, and Parker Palmer — Martin’s beloved mentor — on how to let your life speak.
Published September 15, 2016