The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Good For You” by Scott Korb

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There have already been many great essays of 2016, but what really stuck to me this month was Scott Korb’s “Good For You” in the Winter 2016 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. The essay spans a lot of life’s bigger touchpoints—cancer, spirituality, parenting, aging and the prospect of aging even more—the various imports of which are not diminished by their commonality. If anything, the familiarity of these topics, which many of us have experienced, makes the whole thing more compelling. It’s easy to identify with this essay, and with Korb.

The best thing about “Good For You” is that it’s based not so much on a specific experience or event horizon, but on just a sort of a feeling we have sometimes; and that Korb succeeds in not only conveying the precise feeling he meant to convey—getting us to recognize it in ourselves—but in giving it context and meaning. It’s something we’ve all likely thought about and never really taken the time to articulate.

What do we actually mean when we say things are “good for” us? How relevant is a choice’s supposed benefit to why we actually make it?

…I’ve grown allergic to the phrase, in part because I’ve lived out selfish notions of goodness, versions of living that I believed set me apart from other people, above them and their fray. And in very real and sometimes painful ways, it did set me apart. I would hate to convince my son to be as self-centered as I once was, and sometimes still tend to be. My allergy also comes from the look my wife gave me that morning—she was in the lead, our boy between us—knowing I was saying something I didn’t mean to say, because ultimately it was something I didn’t mean.

Clichés are clichés for a reason; people found the same things to be true over and over and over again, until they entered the vernacular and it became acceptable to rely on them without questioning them. When we read them, we don’t really read them—our brains begin to read them, and then, having identified them for what they are, skip over the rest because we know how they end, sort of the way it’s hard to find typos in your own work because your memory autocompletes what it presumes to be there. In this way, we almost never really look at clichés and actually consider their meaning. Korb isn’t necessarily saying it’s bad to do things because they’re “good for” us—maybe a little—just that we often don’t think about it, and maybe we should. The idea of what drives our choices is no small thing.

I am not religious, and it’s a personal failing of mine that when people write about their private lives and suddenly bring God into it I tend to immediately lose interest, as though the writing’s been devalued, the logic cheapened. And though I’m not arrogant enough to say I’m certain I’ll still feel the same way in a decade, I also don’t want children, and tend to empathize more with people who also do not want children. Fortunately, good writing is good writing.

I’ve read reasonable and compelling arguments against having any children at all, though these arguments are often diminished by editors who provide headlines like this: “Having kids is terrible for the environment, so I’m not having any.” I’ve seen eight- and nine- and ten-point lists in recent years that explain why not having any children is the best life choice a certain person has ever made. This seems like an exaggeration designed for the internet, but who am I to say? I don’t know these people. Many of the reasons people often give for not wanting to have children—and I’m not making the opposing argument here—have to do with the way that they shut out certain other options in life, which children do.

Korb is like this throughout the whole essay: contemplative, lightly philosophical, considering all sides. His ability to generate empathy and a feeling of personal identification—and I mean actually generate, as in create, not just scoop up the agreement of already like-minded readers—is considerable. He goes on to say that, rather than serving as a panicked crutch against loneliness—and, I think we can assume, purposelessness—having children can heighten our awareness of mortality and our own essential, inescapable aloneness, much the way pain and illness do.

Each of these limits and directs our choices, but there’s still satisfaction to be had in making the remaining choices; whether or not we make them because they’re “good for us.”

Here was our youth bubbling up in all its incongruity, in all our middle age, at the simple idea that we cannot have it all, that some things that are good for you will preclude others that might be, too. The notion distresses young people because it seems unfair, and it would be for them. But it’s mostly fun, and funny, to be a grownup, because there’s pleasure and comfort in making choices, even hard ones, and when you do it enough you realize that you are where you are—reading to your wife on the couch, “finally locked in and stuck on one path”—because you’ve made them.”

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Read a great essay this month? Tweet me @kastaliamedrano. Not kidding, please do that. I can’t read all the journals and the whole literary nonfiction Internet on my own.