Daria arrived for the interview more confused than nervous. When she got a call from Romana Hernandez saying that Alan Hapgood would like to interview her—interview her even after that bizarre session with his family the week before—she almost said she wasn’t interested.
But here she was with a front-row seat—awesome office, awesome suit. Alan Hapgood had a way of making you feel appreciated and special. Charisma and poise were words she usually hated because they were just the Vogue words for decent plastic surgery, but here she made an exception. She couldn’t believe he’d ever been a priest. Maybe if he were gay and closeted. After all, even someone as brilliant as Quentin Donahue could think that wanting to be a priest was the reason for himself. Now she did remember the writer Jim Carroll from her time at Harvard. Nice man, but he definitely didn’t look like this.
“Have you done your homework, Daria? Brushed up on the psychology and economic theory that underlies our empowerment work?”
She smiled. “I hope so.”
“I hope so, too, because I don’t want to go through it here. You should know the players from which all thought springs eternal. Marty Seligman led the charge to make positive psychology a field, creating a market for pop writers and other kinds of psych researchers who packaged their findings for a mass audience—people like John Bargh, although now they’re saying Bargh cooked his results. And the economists—Dan Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, Robert Frank. The person we hire needs to be a fast learner, able to drink in all that Malcolm Gladwell stuff about any social psychologist with a sexy theory.”
She nodded enthusiastically at “sexy theory.”
“The bottom line is that we all have a story we tell the world.”
“People like to hear yours.”
He closed his eyes when he smiled. “Ex-priests are fallen saints—ashen wings, well-trod territory.” He paused and moved an expensive-looking pen off a small stack of papers on his desk. “The priesthood as ‘solution’ to what I felt was a vocational calling wasn’t working for me. That’s not supposed to happen. I was a functioning priest who no longer believed. So I left that world. It was painful and difficult. I needed work, something to do, but I wasn’t going the academic route because I was tired of theology and philosophizing the nature of the universe. I looked at the skills I had, what I was good at, and it turned out to be delivering sermons that made frustrated, dispirited people feel better. So I stumbled into what is called ‘motivational speaking.’ But what I started doing was quite different.”
“That talk you gave in 2007,” she said. “They even watch it in grade schools.”
He smiled. “You’re very good at telling people what they want to hear.”
She laughed. “I learned it from a Will Ferrell video of Bush interviewing Bush.”
He appeared satisfied and relaxed back into the beautiful leather and chrome chair she knew from the window of Design within Reach. “A year after that talk,” he told her, “I was back at TED, planted in the audience this time. That’s when the parade started—people in their twenties who knew the secret to happiness because they went to prestigious schools; could work nifty software to present complex data in simple, cool ways that could be branded; and were exceedingly nice.”
She found herself nodding aggressively at this.
“It struck me like a lightning bolt,” he continued. “The middle-aged people around me were willing to believe that a twenty-six-year-old knew how you could do it. With me, the story was that I’d been there and back, had experience behind me.”
“That’s what everyone wants to see.”
“Before the millennium,” he continued, “happiness had been called ‘subjective well-being’ and wasn’t considered a hard science based on data. All you had was M. Scott Peck’s Road Less Traveled—which always seemed to me like a drawn-out version of the Beatles song: Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, carry that weight a long time. But now here were these kids smiling ear to ear, sure they had the answer. I thought, if that’s how it is, I’m gonna steal the show. Not with myself, but with people their age who were a lot better looking.”
She laughed. “That’s refreshingly cynical.”
“I think you heard our guiding principles.”
“Yeah,” she said, nodding, “and I don’t get it.”
“You gotta love rock and rock music, Daria, if you wanna dance with Hap.”
She didn’t know where this was going and continued to stare.
“Our belief, Daria, is that life is nasty, brutish, and short on justice.”
She wanted to say that that didn’t explain anything, but her compulsion for affinity was strong. “That’s kind of my belief too, but . . .”
“But, well, I hope I’m wrong. It don’t want pessimism to be proven true.”
“Do you know what solutionism is?”
“It sounds kind of obvious.”
“It was coined by the Evgeny Morozov, the Belarusian at Stanford. The guy’s all over the place, but he’s spot on with his thought. Solutionism is an intellectual pathology that posits that all problems are alike in that they can be solved with a nice, clean technological solution.”
She laughed. “I wish!”
“I wish, too, Daria. But it’s hard to make for genuine happiness when everything people do is for revenge; when complacency, servility, materialism, and consumerism are their driving ambitions; when every system in the American culture undermines originality for paltry material gain.”
She felt like she did when she heard about the Madoff scam. “What I don’t understand,” she told him, “is that so many people say they’ve been helped so much by Hap. You have such serious followers. Huge fans! In priest-talk, they would be like apostles.”
He laughed. “We’re selling a product, Daria. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the service employers pay Hap to deliver is keeping their toxic workers away from the herd and keeping the herd immune by keeping them so busy with happiness projects they don’t notice the void of merit raises and bonuses. What we do is workplace propaganda. Corporations want employees to ‘get happy’ on their own. They don’t want breakdowns on company time. Employees want to keep their jobs. The whole enterprise is a cheap fix. People who want a cheap fix deserve an épat.”
He smiled. “I’d be able to explain it only if you worked for us. With us, I mean.”
She didn’t know what to say.
“Did the Divinity School make you a better person, Daria?”
This made her laugh. “Getting laid off from there was what they call a life-changer.”
“I really did change in some fundamental way around that time. I was a jerk of a person, a stupid person. And for some reason I just went from one kind of life to another.”
“Did you know you were being a jerk of a person?”
“I guess I always did know. I was only being like my friends, I suppose, falling in line. If you wanted to be ‘intellectual’ you had to change the way you talked and change all your friends.” She paused. “I was lazy.”
He smiled. “But not anymore.”
“You did that, didn’t you—go from one world to another?”
“It’s basically the disruption economic theory. Clayton Christensen. You must know him—he’s a Harvard guy.”
She shook her head. “Like I said, jerk of a person.”
“Goes like this,” he said, leaning forward. “You stake your sad-sack position in the world and you try to do good work. And while you do your good work, you plot out ways in which you can use the quality of your current performance to elevate yourself in the ranks. Three things can happen, Daria: you can fail and remain in your sad-sack position forever; you can get kicked up a notch, and then another, and another so that you climb the corporate ladder and prove true the clichés; or something can come along in your field to upset the applecart, so that the rules by which you did your plotting for advancement no longer apply. When the third thing happens, the stakes in either direction are weightier. You win big or lose big.”
She shook her head. “I hate that about America.”
“In some sense people who never experience a disruption are being shielded from insight. You have to be grateful, Daria, that Harvard gave you the kick.”
She continued to shake her head. “But people like my stepfather get ‘disrupted’ and never find jobs again. I guess what it does to your work life is a lot different from it does to your personal life. I was so bad in my before life. I was terrified of getting old. I’m turning thirty this summer, and I was freaking out about turning thirty when I was twenty-four.”
He smiled. “Just like my d—”
She smiled and waited. “Your what?”
“Dear parishioners . . . the kids who came to talk to me.”
She nodded even though she knew he made that up. Again she hoped this guy wasn’t a pedophile and world-class villain.
“That must’ve been a lot of responsibility—always being the father figure.”
He seemed to mediate on this. “We lost Ethylynn last fall.”
“She was a beautiful young woman with a beautiful soul. I loved her like a daughter.”
She swallowed hard. That didn’t sound good. “I’m sorry you lost your daughter.”
This caused him to grin tightly, like she remembered John Roberts doing on Inauguration Day.
She now felt she had to know. “So why did you want to become a priest anyway?”
His grin softened to a smile. “There are too many different answers to that.”
“Give me one at least.”
It was obvious that he didn’t want to resort to the past, but because he had earned the words charisma and poise, he didn’t let her down.
“When I was a kid I saw this movie from the sixties called What’s So Bad about Feeling Good? It would be a curiosity piece to you—Mary Tyler Moore and George Peppard, the guy from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But I suppose with the Mad Men craze it would actually have some resonance. George Peppard plays an adman who becomes disillusioned and drops out to join a downer beatnik community in the Village. Mary Tyler Moore is his girlfriend. They get infected by this happiness virus spread by a toucan—the bird from Fruit Loops. And all of New York eventually gets it and turns nice. The beatniks turn strangely Moral Majority clean-cut while high on happiness. They sing and hold hands like the children in The Sound of Music. I found it pretty terrifying.
“But the point is that the government—fearing the breakdown of capitalism from too many hapniks—desperately works to find an antidote, and when they do, they put it in the water supply to make everyone miserable again. Except Mary Tyler Moore, who was actually immune to the virus but went along for the ride. And of course being Mary Tyler Moore, she convinces the boyfriend to stay happy too.
“It’s period schlock, but it made me realize three things: that people don’t even understand what a world of happy people would look like; that happiness is divided down to the most infantile state for mass consumption; and that important things might not get done in society if everyone was happy all the time. I remember thinking: That can’t be what we’re here for.”
It took her a moment to recover from his campfire story. When she did she laughed. “I was expecting Come to Jesus, not Come to Mary.”
He considered this proposition seriously. “Maybe Mary offers better odds.”
It occurred to her that she was now effectively interviewing him, so she indulged herself more.
“I read that you were a Jesuit. What school? I don’t suppose it was my alma mater.”
“I’m afraid the place where I received my training has been shuttered.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” she said. “Catholics are putting everything up for sale.”
“They need liquid assets.”
She smiled. “I need liquid assets.”
“Do you live in one of those apartments with part of your kitchen in the bathroom?”
“I live in the Heights, on 172nd.”
“Isn’t that near the Reverend Ike’s church?”
She nodded. “Only it’s called a palace. I certainly don’t live in a palace. In fact, I wish I lived with the Reverend Ike and not my roommate, Jenna.”
He pressed his fingertips together in a way she thought priestly—suggesting the buttresses of a cathedral or maybe all the little babies in His hands. “Perhaps if you find the right job,” he said, “the palace will come next.”
She smiled. “Is that how it works?”
He leaned forward. “Are you really that good at making people happy, Daria? That’s what the recruiter told us. Daria Rahill has an astounding track record of making high-net worth donors happy.”
She looked intrigued, as if this were news to her.