Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Freedom, Happiness, Location-On Earth and Beyond

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Freedom, Happiness, Location-On Earth and Beyond

Article excerpt


THOUGH WE AMERICANS revel in our freedom, a procession of sages has challenged our easy assumptions. How free we are, they say, depends on what this slippery word means, and that definition may in turn be shaped by where in the world we find ourselves.

Indeed, the cliche among real estate people is that the three important considerations in house hunting are "Location! Location! Location!" To wit, the environment of a domicile matters more than does size, price, interior, or lawn. Such a judgment raises an interesting question: What ultimately is the role of location not just in lodging but in all of life? Obviously to be born in the English-speaking or Scandinavian countries will result in a far different quality of life than to be born into the Congo, Afghanistan, or (for most of the twentieth century) Poland, Russia, eastern Germany, Colombia, or Vietnam. Geography, as much as biology, is destiny.

Despite such geographical differences, people in all countries have certain territorial limitations in common. No matter where one is born, individual human beings normally occupy a severely limited portion of the earth's surface. Those few square yards, to be sure, constitute a lot more than the space we cover as infants or, at the other end of the life span, as "three-footed" oldsters in a nursing home, not to speak of the 300 or so square inches six feet under that is our ultimate destination. But next to the range of the imagination--and even those with limited imagination watch movies or TV shows that take them to far off places--that area is not impressive. Though each person has around his or her head an invisible sphere (known as "consciousness") which potentially encompasses the universe, that sphere is anchored to, and limited by, a small patch of earth.

We try to enlarge it; if not important or wealthy enough to go on business trips to Dubai or London, we yet take vacation trips to New York or the Grand Canyon. Most of the time, however, we are ensconced at home and in office or coal mine. We walk, drive, or commute between these two bases, usually by the same route. The place of true lodging--to be defined as where, when awake, we deposit our buttocks for long periods--is the living room and the workplace. Modern life consists mainly of going from one room to the other. Add the bedroom, kitchen, and toilet, and we have all of some fifty square yards as our main habitat. Birds, fish, and land animals may be forgiven for smirking.

This well-known area is, along with the furniture there, our inanimate companion for most of our adult lives, say from 25 to 65. Our horizon, indeed our sensibility, is consequently defined in good part not only by what we see and hear in the living room and what we do in the office or coal mine but by the company we keep there, by the furniture (including now the modern home "entertainment center") of the locale, as well as by the play of natural and artificial light at different times of the day. These are the mute witnesses of many of our greatest triumphs and disaster, such as they are. The Byrons and Napoleons of old and, even more, the jetting presidents and popes of today cover vastly more territory and (presumably) participate in important actions. But for the vast majority of people, the little details of daily life unfolding within a small area--familiar and recurring and boring--shape our character and our fate.

Because of this relative inertia, we are--in the face of the glorious and exotic variety of cultures out there--shockingly ignorant of the human panorama. We Americans have some Sense of what life is like in other American cities, but then, in direct proportion to the increase in distance away from us, our ignorance mounts. We are therefore occasionally surprised to discover via TV, usually when a disaster occurs, that there are skyscrapers as well as tribal dances in the Congo, supermarkets as well as yurts in Mongolia, Yankee caps as well as story tellers in Marrakesh. …

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