Lan Samantha Chang in Literary Hub:
While chatting with a dear non-writer friend of mine, I mentioned that I had been thinking a lot about the significance of the inner life. My friend, a medical doctor married to an Ivy League professor and the proud mother of two perfect children, looked puzzled. “What do you mean by an ‘inner life?’” she asked. “When we say a person has a ‘rich inner life,’ isn’t that a way of saying that they look like a mess from the outside?” To her, describing someone as having a rich inner life is a backhanded complement similar to the dodge in Mao’s China where, when trying to describe a young woman who was not physically attractive, people would say, “She is very patriotic.”
My friend’s question illustrates the considerable pressure on people in this society to have a strong and well-defended outer life. In New York, this might include real estate and private schools. In Iowa, this might include regular family dinners made from personally gathered, wild edibles. This pressure began way back with our country’s founders, many of whom believed in the existence of the elect—in the idea that some of us are predestined to salvation. This idea can be logically extended to mean that some of us are not. Because we have no way, when we’re alive, of knowing which of us is predestined, it is important to behave as if.
I’m not trying to blame anyone for wanting or having nice real estate, good-looking children, or a glossy pet. I’m only pointing out that people live in anxiety or even fear about whether their outer lives are enough. It’s easy to believe that if we look good enough, perhaps it might be true that our lives are meaningful or even blessed. Everywhere we go, we can see evidence of this. Walking along the Seine, one sees dozens of people from all over the world standing with their backs to the view, smiling hopefully up at their iPhones. Millions of selfie sticks are purchased out of hope and fear.