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The Curly Question

Dr Mark Byrne*

A version of this paper appears in Uniya Occasional Paper no.11, December 2006


One looks into the abyss in order to see beyond it.
Robert Jay Lifton

There is a scene in City Slickers in which the gnarly old cowboy Curly (Jack Palance) turns to the jaded city slicker Mitch (Billy Crystal) as they ride along the trail.

“Do you know what the secret of life is?”
“No, what?”
Curly holds up his gloved index finger.
“Your finger?”
“One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit!”
“That’s great, but what’s the one thing?”
“That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.”

According to Google, the Curly Question has been invoked by smokers to help them quit and by sales people to improve their figures. But it is essentially the “meaning of life” question. Why am I here? Does my existence have any value, my life any purpose?

Human beings have an innate need to find meaning in their lives. The trouble is, the things that people used to rely on to give their lives meaning — for the most part family, work and religion — are losing their grip for many in the modern West. Where does that leave those of us wracked by doubt, ambivalence and insecurity? Are we forced to choose between existentialist despair, materialist denial or fundamentalist certainty? 

The traditional markers of meaning

In City Slickers, Mitch is stuck in a mid-life rut, and plays the cowboy on a two-week cattle drive with two mates to try to sort himself out. Having been through confrontations with birth, death, trust, loyalty and courage earlier in the film, insight comes as he struggles to stay afloat while rescuing a calf carried away in a swirling stream. The “one thing,” the thing that makes him want to live, turns out to be his family, and he returns to them renewed (and with the calf in tow).

Corny perhaps, but not uncommon. According to Freud, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” [1] If Freud is right, our lives are likely to carry value and meaning if we are able to have close, loving relationships with family and friends and work that not only pays the bills but which also seems worth doing.

There is now a large body of research from around the world devoted to understanding the factors that contribute to people’s sense of happiness — or subjective wellbeing, as researchers prefer to call it. [2] They include a basic level of financial security, good health, sociability, and being married. [3] Contra Freud, work itself is not usually high on the list, but the sense of purpose and the financial security it brings are certainly conducive to wellbeing. Interestingly, beyond a basic level having more money doesn’t make us happier. [4] According to some studies, neither, in the long run, does having children. [5] In fact, there appears to be a self-regulating mechanism that prevents our sense of wellbeing from changing greatly over the course of our adult lives. There is also a strong genetic component: we are likely to be about as happy or unhappy as our parents.

Although it wouldn’t have pleased Freud, there is also evidence of a correlation between religious beliefs and happiness. [6] When it works, religion provides a sense of belonging to a community, a moral compass, a system of beliefs and values that helps us to deal with the big questions such as “What happens when I die?” — and occasionally, a means of direct experience of the transcendent or mystical dimension of life.


What do family, work and religion have in common? A relationship to something outside of, and usually greater than, ourselves. [7] Monks, mendicants and madmen aside, few of us feel that we are living a meaningful life while we hid our light under a bushel, contemplate our navel or retire to bed to spend decades writing our magnum opus. It’s not just a matter of “connecting”. While relating to others is a fundamental part of human life and a prerequisite for sanity, the connections that bring meaning are usually those which give us a sense of belonging to some greater whole. [8] We might even postulate that the bigger the “greater whole” to which we are related, the easier it is for it to give us a sense of meaning. [9]

At the same time that they connect us to something beyond ourselves, work, family and religion also connect us to the everyday, the here-and-now and the earth, locus of death and rebirth. They bring routine, grounding our intellectual speculations and spiritual yearnings in the demands of everyday life (how many of us have been saved from the spiral of depression by the demands to show up for work or to feed the kids?). They also bring ritual. Especially in times past, religion as well as work connected us to the rhythms of the seasons and an awareness of the relationship of death to life: painting Easter eggs at the oestrus of the moon; slaughtering the fatted calf; marking the passage of time through the night sky; mourning and celebrating the death and rebirth of the corn god or the Son of God.

Social changes

If you were a peasant in medieval Europe, the troika of family, work and religion would have formed the cornerstones of your life. Marriage was near-universal and divorce rare; children were plentiful, though child mortality was also high; you were probably either a farmer, tradesman, merchant or soldier, and changes of career were also rare; and few people rejected the Church they were born into, which also took care of their moral lives, death and afterlife.

For many people medieval life would have fulfilled Hobbes’s nightmare of being “nasty, brutish and short”; but it would seldom have lacked meaning, which came almost pre-packaged: sum ergo I procreate, work and worship. It may also be relevant that the medieval peasant worked at, or close to, home; went to bed and rose with the sun; and participated in a round of religious rituals to mark the rites of passage through life and the round of the seasons. In other words, life may have appeared oppressively circumscribed by modern standards, but it is also likely to have derived meaning by being connected, less to other people through transport and telecommunications, than through rituals, routines and stories to the natural, social and supernatural worlds.

By Freud’s time, social and geographic mobility had greatly increased, while religious devotion was already much diminished, in Europe at least. Over the past century, these trends have greatly increased. A recent car advertisement summarised the change in family structures by suggesting that it was “for the modern Australian family — whatever that is.” Work has become increasingly insecure, while also becoming increasingly disconnected from the production of life’s basic necessities. And statistically, the overall number of actively religious people is declining in Australia as elsewhere in the Western world, while the young and the restless trawl the spiritual supermarket in search of myths, rituals and dogmas to suit their proclivities.


How have these social changes affected the way we find meaning in our lives? In particular, how can the “one thing” be found by those for whom work is all-consuming but insecure, relationships are unreliable, and God is not a living presence?

Of course, many people still manage to construct meaningful lives in nuclear families with more or less steady jobs and with their religious beliefs intact —although the rising rates of casual work and divorce and the falling rate of religious participation suggest that this is becoming harder to sustain. 

Others continue to find meaning by adapting to new forms of the old structures: for instance, in serial monogamy and blended (or curdled) families; in juggling study, jobs and careers; or in serial religiosity, changing churches, religions or belief systems over the course of their lives in response to their changing needs.

The rest are forced to look further afield for sources of meaning. One way we can still make connections to “something greater than ourselves” is via secular spirituality, or what American sociologist Robert Bellah understood by the term “civil religion”, [10] in which a variety of public and private spectacles and ideologies — sport and tourism, gardening and nature conservation, blogs and multiplayer gaming, drug and gang cultures — answer the human needs to belong to something bigger than ourselves; to celebrate birth and mourn death; to mark the passage of time; and to be drawn out of ourselves into the great beyond.

From this point of view, we might come to the clichéd conclusion that in the postmodern world, meaning can potentially be found anywhere, in any activity. We might even be thankful for the opportunity to make or discover meaning in our lives, rather than being told what it is, or should be, by a king, priest or parent. And while we may mourn the loss of the extended family household, the corner shop and the country town, we might argue that communities of interest allow us to overcome our social and intellectual isolation, often at the touch of a button, and to avoid prejudice and parochialism.

Pathologies of the quest

Yet there are many casualties in this new world of polymorphous meanings. For instance, the relationships we construct online are no substitute for face to face ones, as many who’ve just met their online lover have discovered to their disappointment; and there is evidence that those who spend much of their free time online or playing video games have diminished social lives and communication skills. [11]

The downside may be much broader and deeper. American psychologist Martin Seligman speaks (as others have done) of an “epidemic of depression” in wealthy countries. [12] He suggests four factors that may have contributed to this epidemic, including “the depredations of the self-esteem movement”, “the rise of victimology” and “the growth in ‘short cuts to happiness.’”

Likewise, the venerable American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has shown in his work on psychic numbing — the reduced emotional responsiveness associated with exposure to traumatic events — that it takes a lot of energy to block out stimuli we can’t deal with. The more complex the world seems, and the greater our exposure to it through the media, the harder we have to try to block it out if we are to cope with and respond to our immediate needs and environment.

In the Australian context, social researcher Hugh Mackay argued in 2005 in response to then-proposed tougher anti-terrorism legislation that

We have begun to see ourselves as a different kind of society from the one we used to be — more media-driven, more drug-saturated, more commercialised, more competitive, less egalitarian, more closely engaged with Asia, more multicultural. Is it any wonder so many Australians now talk about their yearning for "balance", or describe their lives as being "out of control"?

Our uneasiness in the face of these upheavals is reflected in our skyrocketing consumption of tranquillisers and antidepressants, our escape into relentless materialism, our backyard mentality, and our obsession with the renovation of everything from teeth to terraces. It is also reflected in our disengagement from politics…" [13]

Likewise, as the Director of The Australia Institute, Clive Hamilton has for a decade been questioning our relentless drive for material wealth at the expense of quality of life. In Growth Fetish (2004), Hamilton and co-author Richard Denniss argue that

The Western world is in the grip of a consumption binge that is unique in human history. We aspire to the lifestyles of the rich and famous at the cost of family, friends and personal fulfilment. Rates of stress, depression and obesity are up as we wrestle with the emptiness and endless disappointments of the consumer life. [14]

Behind the loss of meaning

Epidemics of depression, psychic numbing and consumerism may, however, be symptoms more than causes of a crisis of meaning. Let us look at a few possible underlying causes.

One is the fact that the postindustrial, pluralistic, multicultural, postmodern West lacks a collective story or ideology (such as belief in the same god) that might constitute the bedrock of social structure and interaction. Meaning is no longer a given for many people but must be negotiated, not via a single rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood or midlife to old age but through a process of reinvention throughout our lifetimes — even on a daily basis.

Another is spelt out in the title of James Gleick’s book Speed: The acceleration of just about everything. [15] It’s not just cars and computer chips and fast food. It’s not the fact that you can see five-minute performances of Shakespeare plays, or read haiku versions of the world’s great books. It’s not even our ever-greater subservience to the god of time (atomic clocks, on-time running, billable hours, late fees). It’s the very pace of change itself that is accelerating. [16] Gleick is sanguine, even messianic, about this development, but if we stand still for long enough we might ask, how much speed is good for human beings? [17]

A third reason behind the contemporary crisis in meaning is the growth of individualism in Western societies — a trend which began with Renaissance humanism (think Copernicus’s telescope and Da Vinci’s classic star-shaped Vitruvian Man), continued in the Enlightenment (Descartes’ dictum cogito ergo sum, which radically opposed the thinking human subject to all other life) and continued into the twentieth century (from Freudian introspection to Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum, “There is no such thing as society; there are only individuals”). The downside is that, as economics journalist Ross Gittins paraphrases Seligman:

"The more I believe that I am all that matters, and the more I believe that my goals, my success and my pleasures are extremely important, the more hurtful the blow when I fail," he says. And life inevitably brings occasions of failure and helplessness. [18]

We respond to the stresses that these developments have created by withdrawing into private worlds we imagine we can understand and control, and in which we can feel safe; by arming ourselves, one way or another, when forced to drop the drawbridge and venture into the wilderness without; or by freezing — not just by numbing ourselves to pain, but stagnating, afraid to move forward (or even back) because we don’t know where to go next.

This is limboland, where we live a temporary life because the world and our own lives are too unstable to commit to anything more. Casual and contract work; serial relationships; twentysomething stay-at-homes; rent instead of buy. However, add them to the cultures of disposability and instant gratification, and we live for today because we cannot trust the future to be there for us. [19] Meanwhile, many multinational corporations and governments are infected by “short-termism”, changing their identities and compromising their ethics to minimise risk and maximise profit and spin.

Limboland is accompanied by the sense that, while everything is possible, nothing is real — or at least, more real than anything else. [20] It’s a world of ambivalence and ambiguity, where there is no good reason to choose or do one thing and not another because there is no sense of being rooted in the world and in one’s own being.

Embracing chaos

However, the apparently chaotic nature of postmodern life presents us with opportunities to discover a sense of engagement and meaning that is based on much more than the life of safety and stability and the tangible rewards we think we want and deserve.

The obvious answer to the disconnectedness many in the postmodern West experience is to seek ways to connect with things outside and greater than oneself: whether this means embracing the frustrations and joys of family life; taking on social and political issues that demand a collective response; or surrendering to a religion that has a living sense of the transcendent.

We can go further, though. Whether individually or collectively, great periods of change usually involve a liminal or “betwixt and between” period, a “dark night of the soul” – a symbolic death, in other words —through which it is necessary to pass, sometimes without even the comfort of hope and faith, in order to be reborn into a new world. [21]

In the 2001 film About Schmidt, Warren Schmidt, the anti-hero played by Jack Nicholson, discovers on retiring that the things held up by others as the markers of his meaningful life have not satisfied. After the sudden death of his wife he goes on a clumsy and outwardly unsuccessful road trip to visit his long-neglected daughter as she prepares (wrongly, in his opinion) to get married.  Along the way we gain an insight into his inner world, such as it is, as he reads aloud the letters he writes to Ndugu, an African orphan he has recently started to support. When he returns to his big empty house, he opens a letter from a nun on behalf of Ndugu, who is recovering from an eye infection. [22] The film ends with Schmidt crying as he looks at a painting by Ndugu which the nun has enclosed. It is of two brown people smiling in the sun.

This little thing he has done — the sending, with the stroke of a pen, of a pittance to a boy he has never met on the other side of the world — and the difference this has made to the boy’s life, turns out to be more meaningful than all the things he has achieved at great cost to himself and to the people he was supposed to love and cherish the most: his wife and daughter. There is thus a spiritual journey in About Schmidt, as its protagonist discovers how near and how simple, yet how immensely difficult, it is to have meaning in his life.

The idea that one must die and be reborn in order to live a full life is universal in religious traditions. In Christian doctrine, for instance, one must become a “twice-born”, as did Christ by being crucified and resurrected, in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. From this point of view, the moral of City Slickers was not the fundamental importance of family, but that Mitch had to lose himself in order to discover this. This is no small thing, as it demands a vulnerability that few of us are willing to risk for long. A meaningful life then becomes less a worldview we either inherit or latch onto, or even a series of behaviours, relationships and values we hold dear, than a sense of openness to the “here and now” in all its terror, mystery and beauty.

The day before he died my father whispered to my mother, “I’m lost and scared and I don’t know what to do”. At the time I saw this as a mark of failure. Now I see it as the bravest words he ever uttered; the mark of a man surrendering each of the certainties by which he had marked out his life. On the morning he died he looked up at her with what she describes as the most peaceful, beatific smile she had ever seen on his face, and entered the great beyond.




The meaning of life: a mini-survey

The author asked some friends to respond by email to the following questions:

1.      All things considered, how satisfied would you say you are with your life as a whole now?
2.      What makes your life most worthwhile or meaningful?
3.      Think back to the very worst time or event in your life. What was the most important thing (thought, person, drug, experience, whatever) that got you through it?  Has it changed the way you have viewed or lived your life since then?

Here are the results.

Questions 1 and 2

The average response to question 1 was 6.8 — below the Australian average of 7.7, [23] but not statistically valid (n=15), and skewed by one response of 2.

The most common responses to question 2 were, in order: [24]

1.      Relationships with partners; friendships
3.      Children
4.      Work
5.      Having an inner or spiritual life
6.      Nature; living ethically; thinking about the past and making plans for the future
8.      Creative pursuits such as playing music and writing; having time to oneself and to relax; relationships with extended family members and pets.

Most respondents reacted enthusiastically, if a little sceptically at times to the idea of giving a single number to their subjective wellbeing. As one person said in respect of question 1, “It varies from day to day, even moment to moment”.  Overall, these responses were not dissimilar to the consensus among researchers around the world about the factors that contribute to wellbeing.

Where they differed from the norm was in their emphasis on the importance of having an inner or spiritual life. [25] Responses to question 2 included “The magical mysterious quality that exists in all of life”, “Living in a way that travels me along some path to holiness”, “Knowing that I am creatively living a myth” and “Learning to like/love/accept/approve of myself.” These responses reinforce the importance of both the ability to reflect on our lives, and of having a transpersonal dimension to life, in order to create or discover meaning. This does not, however, need to be at the expense of everyday life: as one respondent said, “Life’s meaning is in the living of it” — that is, the meaning is life not necessarily a quest for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow but may be about the quality of attentiveness and the connecting and transforming power of love as they manifest in our closest relationships and our work.

This focus on the inner life also reflects a tendency among my friends for what psychologists call an inner locus of control, which researchers correlate with above average scores for happiness or wellbeing. In other words, the more we believe we can influence the course of our lives, the happier we are likely to be. On the other hand, excessive introspection has been found to contribute to depression and unhappiness. [26] The key may be the ability not only to think, feel, imagine and reflect, but also to give expression to the inner world in everyday life — eg to relate well to others and to express our creativity.

Question 3

While those surveyed were not asked specifically to recount what their “worst time” was, some volunteered it anyway. Predictably, these events mostly concerned relationship breakdown, financial problems, illness (of family members and friends as well as oneself) and death. Among the common traumas of life in Australia not recounted were sexual or child abuse, drug addiction and being the victim of violent crime. Were we living in another time or place, we might have listed homelessness, war, starvation, economic or political collapse, and so on. These responses therefore reflect the relatively privileged lives many of us lead. This is not to discount the pain involved; suffering finds its way into all our lives in one way or another sooner or later, and one experience of it cannot easily be compared with another’s.

Again, the things that got people through their worst times were mostly a combination of the support of partners and friends; the routines of work and family life; and a ray of hope for the future alongside the fear and emptiness. One characteristically Buddhist response that differed significantly from the others was that “My worst time was actually when all my ways of getting me through ‘my worst times’ failed. Sex, religion, therapy, work, social networks, meditation and routine all failed… Even the hope of labelling it the dark night of the soul offered no support.” What got him through was a realization of the self-inflicted nature of suffering, and the acceptance of “the raw nakedness of being” free of the crutches that support “normal” life. Still, a subtext of my question might have been, “What kept you alive, rather than deciding to suicide?”, and it is a rare person who can survive the worst of times with no visible means of support — whether it be willpower, faith, routine, the needs of others, or (for Buddhists) the refuge they take in the Buddha, dharma and sangha.

Another friend put what might be a similar message in a slightly different way, and spoke of

learning to become unattached to the 'story' in my head about what was happening, and stay mindful of the present moment; noticing when my thoughts were careering down the path of 'poor me and isn't it awful and I must be.... (woeful, pathetic, worthless, unloveable/unloving, powerless etc)...' and stopping the thoughts, breathing, and dropping that story. Or looking for stories beyond the obvious (considering 'What is my part in this? What can I do differently?') It wasn't helpful to go back over events and beat myself up over things I had done in the past. But it was useful to consider my behaviour now and in the future.

This goes back to the “inner locus of control” referred to in reference to the earlier questions in this survey: the idea that while we cannot control everything that happens to us, we have choices about how we understand and interpret these events as well as how we respond. That is, the story we tell ourselves about bad times can make them better or worse. One respondent reframed his own experience of marital breakdown by reference to a Greek myth (Orestes) that spoke of the healing power of taking responsibility for one’s actions: “For not blaming the gods, Orestes was granted absolution and the Furies [who had tormented him for killing his adulterous mother] were transformed into gods of grace.”

With respect to how these experiences have changed people’s lives, it was a case of being touched by the help offered by loved ones and thus feeling a profound and enduring sense of loyalty to them; being kinder thereafter to oneself and more tolerant of others; being less inclined to see things in black and white; not taking life so seriously; making time to sit with one’s negative emotions and unpack them for lessons; and becoming more aware of the presence of a higher power in the machinations of one’s life, as in “I’m getting what the doctor ordered, yet I do not suffer alone, and this suffering has purpose, and anyway who am I to argue with or resist God?”



[1] While this quote is regularly attributed to Freud, its origin is unclear.

[2] See, e.g., the World Database on Happiness (www1.eur.nl/fsw/happiness).

[3] On the predictors of happiness, see, eg, Table 1 in David Myers’ entry in Psychology, 7th Edition, Worth Publishers, NY, 2004 (excerpted in www.davidmyers.org/Brix?pageID=48), summarising the data in DeNeve and Cooper (1998), Myers (1993, 2000), and Myers and Diener (1995, 1996).

[4] See Kahneman, D. Science, June 30, 2006, vol 312, 1908-1910. But the evidence is equivocal: see, eg, www.newscientist.com/article/dn9642.html.

[5] See, eg, Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness, Knopf, 2006.

[6] See, eg, David G. Myers, The Pursuit of Happiness, Avon Books, 200?. The causal relationship isn’t clear, though: it may be that happier people are drawn to religion rather than vice versa, for instance. See, e.g., Michael E. Nielsen, Religion and Happiness (www.psywww.com/psyrelig/happy.htm, January 3 2006) for a summary of research by psychologists of religion on the link between happiness and religious beliefs.

[7] There are, naturally, other ways of understanding the quest for meaning: the Wikipedia entry for the meaning of Life, for instance, lists atheist, existentialist, humanist, nihilist, positivist, pragmatist and transhumanist views (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meaning_of_life, February 6 2006).

[8] “Greater” here could mean quantitatively bigger, in the sense that the things we connect and relate to ground us in our bodies, orient us in place and time, and contribute to our identity: “I am… female, Anglo-Australian, married with children, etc.”. Or it could mean qualitatively different, as in “I believe in an afterlife/reincarnation”, “The shape of my life is influenced by fate/faith/karma”, “I experience God’s love”; or, as Jung put it in the first sentence of his memoirs, “My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious”, Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, New York, Vintage Books/Random House, 1961/1965, 3.

[9] This proposition follows from the fact that religious belief is a better predictor of wellbeing than family relationships. Why this should be so is a moot point, however. Perhaps the bigger the “greater whole”, the less it (and thus we) is subject to the vicissitudes of change. It may also reduce the sense of personal responsibility we feel for creating our own happiness or sense of meaning, thereby reducing stress.

[10] Robert Bellah, "Civil Religion in America", Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96, 1, 1967, 1-21.

[11] See, eg, Susan Villani, Impact of Media on Children and Adolescents: A 10-Year Review of the Research. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 40(4):392-401, April 2001, and Debra D. Buchman, Playing Violent Video and Computer Games and Adolescent Self-Concept, The Journal of Communication, 46, 2, 1996, 19 (www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1996.tb01472.x, 21 December 2006).

[12] Ross Gittins, Why all this living it up gets us down, Sydney Morning Herald, February 22 2006.

[13] Hugh Mackay, “Seeking security in turbulent times”, The Age, October 1 2005 (www.theage.com.au/news/hugh-mackay/seeking-security-in-turbulent-times/
2005/09/30/1127804654646.html, January 4 2006). He has also attacked our “frenetic busyness” (“Busy? Mind your own busyness!”, The Age, September 17 2005; www.theage.com.au/news/hugh-mackay/ busy-mind-your-own-busyness/2005/09/16/1126750124980.html, January 4 2006), and discussed changing meaning of the word “family” (“Just what is this thing called family?”, The Age, August 12 2005, www.theage.com.au/news/hugh-mackay/just-what-is-this-thing-called-family/ 2005/08/11/1123353439407.html, January 4 2006).

[14] www.growthfetish.com, January 16 2005.

[15] James Gleick, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, New York,

Pantheon Books, 1999.

[16] For instance, according to Moore’s Law, the speed of computer chips doubles every 18 months. Likewise, according to Bill Clinton at least, the sum total of knowledge doubles every five years (www.aaas.org/spp/yearbook/chap1.htm, 21 December 2006).

[17] This acceleration is, ironically, happening at a time when humans are actually doing less and less exercise.  But there is, thankfully, at least one counter-movement: Slow Food, the heart of which is  Italy.

[18] Gittins, op. cit. Seligman’s other ”best guesses” for the rise in depression are “the depredations of the self-esteem movement”, “the rise of victimology”, and the growth in “short cuts to happiness”.

[19] This is not to suggest that these are merely lifestyle choices. In many cases they are not: a casual workforce is the product downsizing and deregulation, the rent trend is related to housing affordability; serial stay-at-homes is related to income, the need for a double degrees and work insecurity; and so on.

[20] To put it another way, we live in a time when a vertical cosmos has been replaced by a horizontal one; the triumph of quantity over quality (see Renee Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times, 1945).

[21] See, eg, Life Sentence, Compass, ABC TV, Sunday, 27 August 2006 (transcript at www.abc.net.au/compass/s1708257.htm ). As artist John Olsen puts it, “You cannot paint true beauty, true happiness, unless you also understand the depths of despair and sorrow” (quoted in Janet Hawley, The masterly Mr Squiggle, Sydney Morning Herald, September 2-3 2006, 22-27). The classic exposition of rites of passage is Victor Turner, “Betwixt and between: The liminal period in rites de passage. In Symposium on new approaches to the study of religion: Proceedings of the 1964 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, edited by J. Helm, Seattle, American Ethnological Society, 4-20 (widely reprinted).

[22] The letter reads:

Dear Mister Warren Schmidt,
   My name is sister Nadine Gautier, of the order of the sisters of "the secret heart". I work in a small village near the town of Embeya in Tanzania. One of the children I care for is little Ndugu Umbu, the boy you sponsor.
   Ndugu is a very intelligent boy, and very loving. He is an orphan. Recently he needed medical attention for an infection of the eye. But he is better now. He loves to eat melon and he loves to paint.
   Ndugu and I want you to know that he receives all of your letters. He hopes that you are happy in your life and healthy. He thinks of you everyday. And he wants very much your happiness.
   Ndugu is only 6 years old and cannot read or write. But he has made for you a painting. He hopes that you will like his painting.
Yours sincerely,
Sister Nadine Gautier.

[23] Source: World Database of Happiness (www1.eur.nl/fsw/happiness/hap_nat/nat_fp.htm, accessed 3 January 2006).

[24] Two or three items on the same line indicates that these answers attracted the same number of responses. No respondents indicated that they had scored their answers in order of priority, so they have been given equal weight.

[25] This is probably because question 2 was about ultimate values rather than wellbeing — and also reflects the kinds of friends the author has.

[26] See, e.g., psychologist Raj Persaud on the pessimistic nature of the Western intellectual tradition, “Being human, being unhappy”, Background Briefing, ABC Radio National, Sunday 25 December 2005 (www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/bbing/stories/s1537316.htm, accessed 3 January 2006).


Dr Mark Byrne is Senior Researcher at Uniya Jesuit Social Justice Centre.

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