Tuesday, March 15, 2005

"Lost and Found: Left in Nepal at 3, Daja Takes Decades to Find Out Why"

Column 1 in today's Wall Street Journal featured a story that seemed to me almost purely of human interest (as opposed to capital interest, which occupies the paper most of the time). Usually the quirky, strange or just offbeat human-interest stories go under the "A-hed" in Column 4, but not today, which had me wondering: "Why this?" and "Why now?"

(I'd link to the article, but the Journal is one of the relatively small number of news outlets that charges for its online site. I have a hard-copy subscription, but didn't have to pay for it directly, having traded in some frequent-flier miles to get it.)

So I was intrigued by the article -- which runs down a whole column and fills an entire inside broadsheet page -- and I managed to read the entire thing throughout the day. It was a great read, the kind of gripping narrative that the Journal's known for, the kind of narrative it (and this reporter, Clare Ansberry) won awards for, post-9/11. But it didn't seem very timely to me, just more of a general feature/profile.

Now: I can be an easily beguiled reader. I let down my guard if I'm reading for pleasure, often, and don't parse the text with much of a critic's eye. So here I enjoyed the tale, but then I hit up Technorati to see what other people were saying about it, and discover that the only other person out there I could find at the time was a freelance New York writer named Rob Horning, who's written a very persuasive critique of the article, drawing out what he sees as its inherent metastory: the idea that such narratives, while offering a bit of armchair adventure, in the end prove that New Age-y liberals who seek enlightenment outside the capitalist mainstream are really rather selfish and likely to cause irreparable harm to their kids by, say, dropping them off as toddlers in a Buddhist monastery and then failing to follow through on the whole parenting thing. He argues that this article thus exists as a comforting agent to the Journal's regular (affluent and conservative) target audience.

Normally, I'd be open to such read-between-the-lines interpretations, but here I was taking the article at face value, so once again, I felt disappointed about being supposedly taken in.

But setting all that aside, before I read Rod's entry, the article spoke to me because it seemed a worthy rhapsody on differing worldviews. It reminded me of sitting in World Religions class and learning of Buddhism's view that: All of life is tinged with suffering; therefore, emancipate yourself from the attachments that will add to that suffering. And how Buddha's early life was also one of wealth and privilege, before he looked at the outside world and saw much impetus to seek truth elsewhere.

I thought about how Daja's life might have been different if he'd lived longer in the East, before being exposed to the wealthy life of his mother's family, so that maybe he never would have desired to live again in his parents' birth country.

I was touched by the feeling that -- no matter the circumstances -- parents make choices for their children; parents choose to love their children in one way or another, or not at all. This is true whether you're sending your kid to a monastery or to a prestigious boarding school in New England, whether you bring up your child to be a devout fundamentalist Protestant or as an atheist focused only on the things of this life. I guess I was touched overall by the fascinating twists and turns traced in the article and how each person got through. But just as I don't think we're supposed to take from the movie Mary Full of Grace the idea that the drug trade is ultimately a means of upward mobility for poor Colombian women, likewise, I don't think we are meant to take from this WSJ article the idea that seeking fulfillment outside the norm is a selfish and futile journey.

I've since gone back to Technorati and found another reference to the piece: "I'm pissed at his parents and the damn buddhist system he grew up in," this author writes.

Perhaps this is the kind of response the author of Marginal Utility worried about. But there are more than merely two opposing ways to view the actions depicted in this article as well as this article itself. I concede that the reporter might have consciously or unconsciously chosen certain words that shape readers' views, but I do believe it's possible to look beyond that to see a great piece of reportage.

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