"If you think life's a vending machine where you put in virtue and you get out happiness," a character on the TV show Six Feet Under once noted, "then you're probably going to be disappointed." Most people find this out the hard way. I suspect you did. The times when you obeyed all the rules and got punished anyway, ate righteously and still got sick, worked yourself half to death to achieve a goal only to feel depletion and disappointment rather than the happiness you expected—the happiness you paid for, by God!

For thousands of years, wise observers have pointed out that whatever's in charge of the universe "maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." And for thousands of years, the rest of us have answered: "Wait—what?" No matter how routinely it happens, we're shocked and appalled to see good folks shivering in downpours of ill fortune while their villainous, luxuriantly tanned enemies send postcards from sunbaked beaches.

Perhaps this indignation arises from some innate sense of justice. That's what the French doctor Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard started testing in 1801, when he took on the care of Victor, a "wild child" who'd spent an estimated seven of his first 12 years in the woods (being raised by wolves...or squirrels—we'll never really know). Victor had only a rudimentary understanding of human language and social convention. Yet when Itard experimented by punishing him for behavior that usually earned him a reward, the poor child struggled mightily against his punishment.

Whether or not we're born with it, we're certainly socialized into the belief that the nickels and dimes of virtuous acts will drop snack-size potato chip bags of happiness into our lives. Our parents offer praise for obedience; our bosses give productive employees promotions and unproductive ones pink slips; our courts (at least try to) punish misbehavers and recompense the wronged. And of course, an endless stream of books, movies and TV shows offers us narratives in which the good guys win, over and over, while the bad guys ingloriously fail.

No wonder we're stunned when we follow the path of compliance into catastrophe. This doesn't feel like bad luck; it's like an unfathomable malfunction that, in the words of Anne Lamott, "would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish." While we're coping with our misfortune—the cancer, the divorce, the bankruptcy—we may also lose faith in the basic rightness of life itself. Some of us spend years kicking the cosmic vending machine, raging at anyone (parents, psychiatrists, lovers, politicians) who might be in a position to cough up the happiness we've paid for, or at least give us our money back.

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