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
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?”
Curly holds up his gloved index 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.”
 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. 
They include a basic level of financial security, good
health, sociability, and being married.  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.
 According to some studies, neither, in the long run,
does having children.
 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
Although it wouldn’t have pleased Freud, there is also evidence
of a correlation between religious beliefs and happiness.
 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.
 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.  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.
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.
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”,
 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. 
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.  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
In the Australian context, social researcher Hugh Mackay argued
in 2005 in response to then-proposed tougher anti-terrorism legislation
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…" 
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. 
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
Another is spelt out in the title of James Gleick’s book Speed:
The acceleration of just about everything.  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.
 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?
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. 
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.  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.  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.
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.
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.  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
The meaning of life: a mini-survey
The author asked some friends to respond by email to the following
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
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
Here are the results.
Questions 1 and 2
The average response to question 1 was 6.8 — below the Australian
average of 7.7,
 but not statistically valid (n=15), and skewed
by one response of 2.
The most common responses to question 2 were, in order: 
1. Relationships with partners;
5. Having an inner or spiritual
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.  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.  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
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?”
 While this quote is regularly attributed to Freud,
its origin is unclear.
 See, e.g., the World Database on Happiness (www1.eur.nl/fsw/happiness).
 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).
 See Kahneman, D. Science, June 30, 2006,
vol 312, 1908-1910. But the evidence is equivocal: see, eg, www.newscientist.com/article/dn9642.html.
 See, eg, Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness,
 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.
 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).
 “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,
 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.
 Robert Bellah, "Civil Religion in America",
Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96,
1, 1967, 1-21.
 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).
 Ross Gittins, Why all this living it up gets
us down, Sydney Morning Herald, February 22 2006.
 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/
4 2006), and discussed changing meaning of the word “family” (“Just
what is this thing called family?”, The Age, August 12
2005/08/11/1123353439407.html, January 4 2006).
 www.growthfetish.com, January 16 2005.
 James Gleick, Faster: The Acceleration of
Just About Everything, New York,
Pantheon Books, 1999.
 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).
 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.
 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”.
 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.
 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).
 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).
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.
Sister Nadine Gautier.
 Source: World Database of Happiness (www1.eur.nl/fsw/happiness/hap_nat/nat_fp.htm,
accessed 3 January 2006).
 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.
 This is probably because question 2 was about
ultimate values rather than wellbeing — and also reflects the
kinds of friends the author has.
 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
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