Walker Percy is our most astute analyst of what ails the American soul.
Walker Percy is likely the best writer on what are today aptly called “first world problems,” those trifling inconveniences experienced by people who have been relieved of the serious struggle to provide for daily necessities. Classic first world problems include things like being forced to endure malfunctioning Wi-Fi or discovering Starbucks ran out of their signature syrup to make your favorite seasonal hand-crafted latte.
Much this mockery is self-mockery. Calling attention to your fleeting first world problem is a way of coping with being unhappy and feeling alienated (and being embarrassed by that alienation) despite otherwise comfortable circumstances. Americans are materially well off, enjoy robust protections of civil liberty and personal liberty, and remain (mostly) free from arbitrary government. So, while first world problems are typically trivial, they helpfully point to a deeper spiritual dislocation, our reluctant self-awareness of it, and an all too often bitter helplessness to do something about it.
Walker Percy takes very seriously the fact that people are unhappy—and that people are even unhappier because they believe they should be happy. Alienation is a first world problem. Underneath the self-ridicule heaped upon first world problems, there is an acknowledgement that despite the relief of our estate, all is not well. As Percy likes to say, something has gone wrong.
Studies show that depression is up, especially among young people. If you teach high school or college students, then you’re probably all too aware of their depression and anxiety. Deaths of despair, the catchall phrase commonly used to describe deaths related to suicide, drug, and alcohol, are on the rise. The Social Capital Project, a Joint Economic Committee chaired by Senator Mike Lee, connects the rise in self-reported unhappiness to the increased demand for ways to numb that pain.
Obviously, something is not working in our lives together—spiritually, politically, and economically. Yet we should also recognize that this sense of dislocation has been true for some time. One of the great gifts reading Walker Percy offers is that homelessness simply a reality of life. We can draw some practical lessons for how to live in light of that.
Happiness and the Search
The main problem, as Percy sees it, is the pursuit of happiness itself. Happiness is not the sort of thing one becomes by chasing after it, especially if chasing it involves the creation of a new identity or some form of “self-discovery.” The flip side of the pursuit of happiness is the fleeing of unhappiness. Instead of fleeing unhappiness, we Americans should consider what our discontent tells us about ourselves.
Our unhappiness can either lead us to search for more sophisticated diversions or, as he hopes, guide us to understand ourselves as lost beings in need of each other. The pursuer of happiness views other individuals as goods, or objects, to be possessed for the sake of happy life—means to an end. It is a lonely pursuit of happiness that isolates the individual. This is why, for Percy, the idea of living life in pursuit of happiness is a non-starter.
The search, as Percy argues, provides a real alternative to the pursuit of happiness. The searcher learns how to be himself when he sees another person as a mixed-up being like himself. In The Moviegoer, it is that moment when Binx sees Kate looking for him that he realizes that she is a person like himself—a being who is also troubled, in a predicament, and in need of help to live well. The search can be shared in a way that the pursuit of happiness cannot. The search unites individuals in a joint activity not focused on happiness but that brings mutual felicity.
Looking for Help in the Wrong Places
In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Percy playfully leans into the American desire for self-reliant, step-by-step techniques for happiness. Armed with self-help manuals, or YouTube videos nowadays, Americans believe they do not need anyone else to help them, because they can help themselves. Yet, as Percy recognizes, the popularity of self-help books points to a broadly-felt desire for self-knowledge and guidance that reveals self-awareness that the self needs help.
While self-help books promise autonomy in five didactic steps, Percy’s self-help book ends with a choose-your-own-adventure scenario. The space odyssey with Captain Schuyler is open-ended and incomplete—just as our own stories are up to us. As the leader of Earth’s few survivors after nuclear war, Schuyler must choose either to found a utopian society on Europa (New Ionia) dedicated to scientific well-being or risk staying on Earth in Lost Cove, where neighboring communities threaten violence and division.
New Ionia may promise happiness, but, in Lost Cove, there are happier people. Lost Cove is the choice for individuals making their way in life guided by particular human relationships. In Lost Cove, Captain Schuyler is married and is also the leader of an ethically and religiously diverse group of misfit survivors. In this light, New Ionia offers little more than a kind of hedonistic form of survival for the species than the richness, and even excess, of human ties known in Lost Cove.
Staying in Lost Cove is the riskier alternative from the perspective of survival of the species, but it is the better option for the relational goods that make human life politically and morally serious and responsible. In Lost Cove, Captain Schuyler takes joy in being needed as a political leader and husband. Moreover, the people of Lost Cove must deliberate about what political goods to pursue rather than chase after the phantom happiness of feeling good in New Ionia.
Saving the World Doesn’t Save You
In Love in the Ruins, Percy poses an unsettling question: why do people help each other during bad times but are indifferent to each other’s needs during normal times?
Percy’s insight is that heroic virtue, contrary to conventional thought, is easy. Exceptional events call for transcending routine considerations that narrow our everyday moral horizons. Everyday virtue is challenging, because there is no event to dispense us from the usual moral economy. The greater challenge is to accept the duties and responsibilities of living in a community with others during ordinary times. Prudence and magnanimity are needed to negotiate everyday affairs and even then results are likely to be mixed.
Despite his desire to save the world, Tom More is surprisingly indifferent to the people within his community. He might have been able to prevent the worst of the riots that damaged the city when his friend and co-owner of Paradise Bowling Lanes refused a lane to a black couple. More is relieved that he was absent. There is no easy fix for the mixture of racism and resentment that characterizes much of small town life, which is why More has so little interest in it. There is no international award for intervening to stop one act of racism at a bowling alley. Scientific breakthroughs bring honor and fame whereas More is likely loose friends and strain relationships by sticking up for a black couple.
On the other hand, More believes he save the United States from catastrophe and reverse 500 years of Cartesian philosophy with a gizmo he created. He is indifferent to the lives of his neighbors, but hopes to have his article published in a prestigious journal and win a Nobel Prize. Saving America and restoring the western soul are, More believes, the proper scope for his talents.
By contrast, The Thanatos Syndrome begins like a detective novel in which Tom More observes his fellow community members so well that he notices small changes to their personalities. He notices that they seem more animalistic and unable to form complex sentences. Inspired by St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “little way,” More follows “clues” to investigate this loss of consciousness and so saves Feliciana Parish from two eugenicist scientists.
Life as a Work in Progress
Percy reminds us that the endings of stories shouldn’t be completely happy or resolved. None of Percy’s novels end with neat and tidy conclusions. Percy excels at incomplete, unresolved endings in which the main character has discovered that he is in trouble and realizes that he needs a fellow searcher, often though not always a love interest, but some evil, bad thing remains. There’s the deaths of Jamie in The Last Gentleman and Lonnie in The Moviegoer. In Love in the Ruins, Tom marries Ellen and finally confesses and reconciles with God while America continues to decay. The students of Feliciana Parish still murder professors; monks continue to retreat to their libraries. Most dramatically, in Lancelot, the events of the novel merely bring Lance Lamar to the point in which he may enter into dialogue with his friend Fr. Percival. Recognizing other people as fellow wayfarers and caring for our admittedly imperfect communities goes a long way towards providing relief to our restless hearts. We will never quite be at home in this world.
Despite Percy’s criticisms of the pursuit of happiness, he shows that the right kind of search is possible within America. The Declaration may, so to speak, casts us adrift from our traditional moorings, but in a deeper sense, individuals are already adrift. Using one of Percy’s favorite metaphors, individuals are like castaways who find themselves on a deserted island, do not know what to do, and have only each other to help. Being a being with consciousness isn’t easy.
As Percy observes in Signposts in a Strange Land, at the heart of a human community is a paradox. Its “members are both alone yet not alone, who strive to become themselves and discover that there are others who, however tentatively, have undertaken the same quest.” Percy’s novels may have unresolved endings, but all of Percy’s stories end with good news—that relief from our unhappiness begins by realizing that there are fellow wayfarers.