In Perspective

Celebrities: We hear all the time about their money, lovers, homes, and jet-setting lifestyles. Yet they are among the unhappiest people on earth. Nothing seems to satisfy them for long.

An article in Touchstone magazine hints at why this is so: They have lost any sense of wonder in the ordinary.

In a piece called “The Romance of Domesticity,” philosopher Nathan Schlueter writes that to be human is to suffer the ravages of time, of change, of suffering, and ultimately, death. How we respond to these experiences determines how happy we will be.

Christianity teaches us to see reality as it is. But many moderns live under the influence of what Schlueter calls “a dangerous heresy that twists both the truth and a good many lives.” He says the heresy is Romanticism, by which he means “the impulse to escape, through passionate idealization and fancy, from the real world … of suffering and change,” and biological limits.

Schlueter points to the French novel Madame Bovary, in which author Gustave Flaubert offers “the essential pattern” of this type of Romanticism. First, Schlueter writes, Flaubert “locates Romanticism in a disordered imagination.” Flaubert understood the “connection between the imagination and desire, and the … power of art to shape the imagination.”  Reading the wrong kind of novels, Flaubert observes, shaped Emma Bovary’s view of happiness, particularly in marriage.

A second aspect of the Romantic imagination is itinerancy. Emma Bovary, views her small-town life as deeply dull; she presses her husband to move elsewhere—Paris, for instance, where she is sure she will find happiness.

Consumerism is a third element of Romanticism, pandering, as it does, to the wish to constantly re-invent oneself. In Madame Bovary, consumerism takes the form of the merchant Lleureaux, who Schlueter writes, “profit[s] handsomely at every step of [Emma’s] demise.” But the consumerist promise—which today includes not merely clothing and jewellery, but Botox and tummy tucks—is futile: These things can’t re-make us; they can merely change us superficially.

A fourth feature of Romantic escapism is adultery and promiscuity. When Emma takes a lover, she believes that she will finally find true happiness. But in time, the affair becomes as stale as her marriage.

Romanticism is ultimately about existential escapism—”a revolt against … one’s limits as an embodied soul and creature,” Schlueter writes. And the end is ultimately unhappiness.

As humans made in God’s image, we will always long for something better than this life: That of course is eternity with Him in Heaven. But we can find a measure of real satisfaction here on earth in the gifts and life that God has given us.

Schlueter suggests that we need to develop an imagination that “captures and reveals the extraordinary quality of ordinary life.” We must learn the romance of domesticity: taking pleasure in the smell of baking bread, the sight of a sleeping baby, the sound of a fire crackling in the hearth, conversation with a friend.

So for the sake of our marriages, our relationships, and our spiritual lives, let’s ignore the news about celebrities. Let’s not imagine that somehow some thing will give us happiness.

Instead, with grateful hearts, let’s cultivate a sense of wonder and joy in the ordinary things of life.

From BreakPoint, 7 February 2011. Copyright 2011 Prison Fellowship, PO Box 17500, Washington, DC, 20041-0500, USA. Web site –

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