In which I pull apart a Weltanschauung
*CW: suicide ideation*
German coming along, is it? LOL I learned that word years ago from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Good weekend, all. This is not a Beatles post; sorry to anyone who may feel misled. Today I’m wondering whether, or when, to say you’re fine if you’re not.
I talked a while back about the inherent limitations of asking how someone is doing, especially in English; that was a discussion of semantics, whereas this is a meditation on…emotics? (Nobody submit that to the OED, I’m going straight to Urban Dictionary.)
Recently I was prompted to remember a teacher at my old primary school. I was never in his class, but we all knew him. His sunny disposition was renowned throughout the building. Whenever you asked how he was doing, his invariable reply was “outstanding.”
An admirable approach; there’s much to be said for it. I would bet that he was not doing outstanding one hundred percent of the time—although he biked to and from school, which jacks up endorphin levels—but he certainly lifted others’ spirits, and probably his own, by saying so. At least one person was okay, or so the message went. In fact, you got the sense that if he was okay, the world was okay. The mystery, in my mind, is whether he managed to speak himself beyond a temporary mood-booster into a permanent sense of happiness.
I’m not saying you can be permanently happy. Life has its highs and lows, and you will inevitably experience corresponding emotions, and they will affect your worldview. Some highs or lows will last longer than others. But can you convince yourself that you are happy? Or trick your brain into thinking you are?
Let me lead you to where you likely guessed this was going: this approach, for the most part, has not served me. I’ve always had a pretty optimistic outlook (and been fortunate enough to live a life that supports that outlook), but I can tell when a ‘good’ mood is strained or disingenuous, and it doesn’t sit well. It feels like toxic positivity. I can’t manifest cheer if something is wrong. I can’t use a blanket word like outstanding and make it so. No amount of convincing or trickery can persuade me; these tactics usually make the situation worse.
And not for lack of trying. In late college I did go around saying “great!” when people asked, which only served to highlight in my own mind that I was anything but. I was overworking myself in efforts to wrap up my studies a semester early; I had the loosest of plans for what to do next; I took the stress out on my body, which felt more like a war zone than a home. The disconnect was glaring—I thought there must be someone itching to call me on my dishonesty with them and with myself. “Can’t you see how not great I am?” I wanted to shout. But I didn’t know how to do that, how to admit that I was carrying more than I could hold. The world at large was not great by any means either, and the stream of bad news didn’t help. It reached the point where, at the tail end of a frosty November, I experienced my first and only tangible suicide ideation. I was lucky to have a support system to rely on, with whom I could securely share these thoughts, and once I had the space to look back at the darkness and hopelessness and terrifying anxiety of that former state of mind I vowed to do whatever I could to keep from ending up in that place again.
What I can do most consistently is express my feelings openly and honestly. Not being melodramatic or excessive about it, but (for example) informing people when I’m not in the best of moods as a frame of reference for how I might behave toward them that day, or asking a trusted someone to help me put a problem into perspective. Just, you know, not resorting to the knee-jerk reaction of “great!” if that isn’t in fact true. And—mutually exclusive—foregoing the intrinsic impulse to appear chipper. Nice. Non-confrontational. I hardly enjoy confrontation; but I’ve learned that you can’t always be true to yourself or say what you really mean without causing some upset along the way.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that you not think before you speak, or antagonize people for no reason, or spill the contents of your brain to anyone who will listen. This sounds straightforward but can prove hard to resist in the heat of the moment: I’ve had times where I was definitely inclined to react in anger or defensiveness but knew in hindsight that doing so wouldn’t have helped my case. I mean that if there’s something on your mind or in your heart that cannot be kept to yourself, whether for reasons of principle or safety, you have the right to take up the space you need to put it out there. That goes for all your interactions with everyone. Sometimes these things might not make you very popular, but you need to be willing to assess—and, if called for, take—that risk. For what it’s worth, I tend to regret the things I left unsaid more than the things I said. And the fact is that if you don’t speak up, the chances decrease of your getting what you need, whether that be material resources or respect/decency/support.
But I’m also not going to pretend this isn’t gendered. “Outstanding” was a voluntary choice for that male teacher (and probably not a difficult choice, him being a white man with a full-time job) when there is much less flexibility for women and modes of female self-expression. The aforementioned risk skews higher for us across the board. We are under external and internal pressure to be not only liked but likable, to make ourselves generally palatable and inoffensive, until the line between what is genuine and what is performed blurs within our own consciousness. Merely expressing ourselves as we feel necessary can, in certain contexts, be enough to vilify us; a woman getting what she needs is all too often painted as selfish, and selfish all too often equated with evil. A woman whose emotions get the better of her even once is haunted by the incident long afterward, especially if she is in the public eye. Saying something with the chance of it not being popular comes with extra ramifications. We frequently hazard being branded as dislikable at best and being dismissed from the situation or cut off from people at worst; thus we frequently opt for silence, and settle for alienation from ourselves. And then a silent woman who declines to engage is called cold or a bitch. Hence why so many women alive today confront inherited rules about what makes a ‘lady,’ about what a lady ought to be instead of what she can be or chooses to be. As if all that weren’t enough, these concerns divide women across race and class and lock us in conflict with one another instead of unifying us against common adversaries. Each generation has their own ways of challenging and subverting the narrative, and still the sea change has yet to be fully accomplished.
Well, if I’m going to be a bitch, I’d like to be an authentic bitch.
As for my teacher’s method, I used to wonder if I was doing it wrong or not trying hard enough. But I don’t think so. I think what’s good for the gander simply can’t be assumed to be good for the goose.
The irony that tops all? I am happier for it. Acknowledging whatever unhappiness I detect frees me up to experience happiness. Being more generous with my expressions has allowed me to tap into what I need (time alone, time with friends, a return to a hobby) and sit with unpleasant or unwelcome feelings. I continue to be blessed with wonderful people who share in my burdens as I share in theirs. Because I have been authentic with them, they know that they can be authentic with me, that I am a ‘safe’ person who will handle their worries and struggles with care. I can take stock of myself and of how much I feel able to give them—and, as a result, I have more to give.
Over the course of the harrowing psychological journey that has been this pandemic, when asked how I am doing, the phrases I’ve gravitated toward are “I could be worse” and “I’ve been worse,” because both are true. I don’t unleash the complexities of what I may be feeling at any given moment on an unsuspecting small-talk partner, nor do I claim to be dandy when I’m not. It’s a comfortable grey space that accentuates the greyness of that space.
And, you know, sometimes even this year I am just plain doing well. Sometimes I have an energetic day, or am in a bright mood for a minor or nonexistent reason, or got a good night’s sleep. If I say I’m doing well, you can count on it being more or less accurate.
I’d like to stress that I speak to my experience. If you find it easiest to say you’re outstanding, or great, or even fine, when it doesn’t fully reflect your state of being, please absolutely feel empowered to say that. Do what’s good for you, to quote an album I just celebrated, or you’re not good for anybody. It doesn’t happen to be the most effective strategy for me, and I doubt I’m alone in that.
What I remind people—and often have to remind myself—at this particular standstill in human history is that no one is where they thought they’d be or anywhere near as happy as they hoped. Give yourself a break. Having self-compassion will make things more bearable in the long run. This is a universal predicament, and, like everything else, it won’t last forever.
By the way, I hope that teacher really is doing outstanding. He deserves to.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US is 1-800-273-8255. Resources in the UK and Europe are listed at www.suicide.org.