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Wanting it all and getting little satisfaction

This magazine cover image released by The Atlantic magazine shows cover from July/August 2012 issue featuring an article by former

This magazine cover image released by The Atlantic magazine shows cover from the July/August 2012 issue featuring an article by former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter. The piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter describes her struggles balancing a high-powered career with raising her two sons. Since her magazine story last week burst open the debate on the difficulties for working mothers, she has heard from hundreds of all ilks, most of whom were grateful that such a high-flying career juggler has spoken up about the need for more flexibility on the job. (AP Photo/The Atlantic)

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Updated: August 12, 2012 6:08AM

The fallout from the essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in the current Atlantic Magazine is still loudly echoing in the blogosphere. But for the most part, the cacophony of voices in response has rung as hollow as the original piece.

In her essay, Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote that, as a very successful middle-aged woman, she’s heard from young professional women that they don’t want to make the tradeoffs that she did to have a career and kids. Moreover, she says, it makes sense to her. They’ve seen how high the price is. She essentially laments the reality that the feminist dream was not to be, notes there are differences in how men and women approach work and family, and then offers some platitudes about how employers can do more to make it easier for women to get more, even if they still can’t get it all.

Cue the blogosphere going crazy talking about women and men and who gets more of what. After many days of this I was left hoping we could get rid of the phrase “having it all” altogether! Not because — as some commentators have argued, most notably Rebecca Traister in Salon — no one really “gets it all” anyway, and then when today’s women don’t “have it all,” they blame it on feminism having set the bar too high. And that’s not fair. (Slaughter herself now says she agrees with Traister and isn’t going to use the term “having it all” anymore.)

But, rather, because what Traister and others are suggesting is essentially changing one’s goals to a more reasonable, well, “having a lot” and — that’s really no change at all.

Enough. No wonder Slaughter ignited a firestorm. Perhaps never before have as many people who have so much been so miserable and even angry about not having more. I don’t mean feminism’s daughters here. I mean humans in Western civilization.

The debate that raged over the Slaughter piece and who gets what should really be seen as a bellwether for the fact that we are increasingly consumed with what can’t satisfy ourselves in the pursuit of happiness.

This isn’t a knock on trying to wisely think through one’s choices when it comes to career and family and relationships and success. But the question is, to what end? For our own happiness, however narrowly we define it, or for the well-being of the fabric of the human community we are connected to? I’m not suggesting for a minute that I always get this right myself. I do know that when I talk with my children about their lives and choices, I never say that my hope is for them to be happy. But, rather, that my hope is that they will lead purposeful lives where they use their gifts well and enrich and serve others, even if that means they are sometimes not “happy” in the moment.

Of course, it’s this kind of living that is most likely to produce real happiness, more commonly known as joy. In contrast, I genuinely hope that my children don’t ever feel satisfied that they “have it all” in a worldly sense, because that probably means they are living selfishly.

John Stewart Mill, the 19th-century British philosopher, rightly said that “happiness is not likely to be achieved if you make it an end in itself. It is the byproduct of other more noble deeds.”

How telling that such a sentiment is unlikely to light up today’s blogosphere. Sadly, there’s just not enough in it for “me.”

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