For a Sister: It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

It’s okay to not be okay.

Every drama of human perseverance and achievement starts with some poor person, full of passion and talent, with no outlet, scraping by at a an unfulfilling job.

Small apartment, maybe eating cereal straight out of the box for dinner – handful after handful – leaning on the kitchen counter staring into empty space above their cheap linoleum floor, wondering what they’re going to do – they’re not okay. They’re unfulfilled, underutilized, unhappy – an underdog.

Bradley Cooper practicing his hundred mile stare in limitless. He may look like he has no idea how to turn his life around, but he’s about to discover something* that will change his life forever. *It’s drugs. Don’t do drugs like BC, he def dies in the end with a melted brain

Your current situation does not reflect the depth of your talent, passion or character – and that’s not your fault.  You do not reflect your situation, your job, your housing.  You are you.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not frustrating, that doesn’t mean you won’t doubt yourself.

I do know hard work goes a long way when you’re in a rut, a funk, a low spot, on that last ledge before rock bottom.  But I also know that you can become your own worst enemy if you work hard enough at it.

Knowing that you’re capable of more than you’re currently doing can quickly turn into manic, wasted efforts to do it now or paralyzing doubt that you’ll be able to later.  A desire to do great things one day can turn into disappointment that those things aren’t being done now.

Impatience and pressure can send you flailing against your situation, wasting energy sending out stacks of resumes to jobs you don’t really want instead of waiting for something that truly grabs you.  You become a caged bird flapping madly at a closed door where it will do no good.

Lack of opportunity can feel like your own inability to change your situation and inspires self doubt, hopelessness, and depression.  When we need something to change so badly, it can become paralyzing to try to enact that change for fear of failure. This caged bird is so scared it won’t even look at the door so it can avoid ever having to recognize that it is closed.

There are a ton of ways to make a bad situation worse by getting in your own way.  Sometimes you’ll feel like your own worst enemy, like the only thing holding you back is you, that you’re somehow broken and will never be able to get off your own back.

Think of it this way:  If you have gotten this good at being a roadblock for yourself, how good could you be at something else?  If you’re the best person in the world at getting in your own way, think what you could do if you directed all that effort at being the best dancer, political volunteer, sidewalk chalk artist, repair technician, stylist, youtube celeb, charity haunted house coordinator…

If you’re frustrated that you’re not doing more, it’s because you know you can.  Keep that belief alive by reminding yourself that you can work at and excel at something, even if it seems trivial.  Remember that if you can master juggling while you’re “just a fry cook”, you may be able to juggle multiple cases as an environmental lawyer one day.

Stay strong and realize just how much energy and direction and dedication you have in you, even if it’s not going toward something you dreamed of doing.

Life may have you in a bit of a cage, but find something you can work at there to keep your wings fresh.  Life has a way of opening doors at unexpected times, and those who are flailing or avoiding may miss it.

You’re not okay.  That’s great.

If you’re not living to your full potential and that bothers you… that’s a great prognosis for your future.  A springboard has to depress before it can launch, and the further it depresses the bigger the force it comes back with.

Once you find something you love, an opportunity to do what you love, or an opportunity to do something new that you end up loving, how great is that going to feel when you look back to all those nights alone in your subpar apartment eating cereal out of the box, leaning on your counter and wondering what you’re going to do.  What are you going to do?

I love you – you have a lot in you.  Your current situation does not reflect the depth of your talent, passion or character – and it’s not your fault.  Finding somewhere to direct all your energy is very hard, but I believe you will.  Breathe, let life flow, and you will come to a place that does reflect you.  When you get there it will mean so much more than anything handed to you or shown to you.

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On Joy and Loss

I recently happened upon an essay that rekindled my love for life – but not in the way the author intended.

From Zadie Smith’s Essay on Joy:

“The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live? Joy is such a human madness.

Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do, relationships with animals being in some sense intensified by guaranteed finitude.

The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.”

-Zadie Smith

My knee jerk was “Who wouldn’t accept such a crazy deal?”

Barnes is right, the loss of true joy “hurts just as much as it is worth”.  If something or someone is worth nothing to you, its loss will not hurt – just as the loss of a simple pleasure will not destroy you.  This means two things.

First, the entrance of joy into your life for a moment or for an extended period naturally creates a potential future grief equal to its importance and value.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Each joy has an equal and opposite grief.  If we choose to focus on this aspect, as Zadie Smith seems to, joy is something to be feared and avoided, a “madness” or “crazy deal”.

Second, true joy has real worth so important to our soul that we cannot help but become linked with it, perhaps find ourselves changed by it.  We may crave pleasure as we do joy.  We may fantasize about, lust after, find our brains madly occupied with many things that are joys, or just simple pleasures – brief, replaceable, and shallow.  We may sometimes have trouble telling them apart.  But a joy is something deeper, something that nourishes the soul like no pleasure can. Joy gives life meaning.  Where and how we find joy can define us, connect us, create us. If we focus on this aspect, joy is the most important thing – despite the precipice of loss upon which it leaves us teetering.

Grieving

It has often struck me how interconnected emotions can be, as if the human heart is a crazy ven diagram of feeling.  In joy exists fear, in sadness exists comfort, in grief exists celebration.

In a culture where death is hidden away, where sadness is a disease treated with SSRIs, where taking time to sit with one’s emotion is seen as weak and unproductive, it can be incredibly hard to grieve a loss.

Grieving is different for everyone, there is no correct way and there should be no expectations.  However, a huge loss is not something one gets a lot of practice at, hopefully.  No one knows themselves exactly how they will feel or what they will need.  Some built-in methods of grieving in our culture might act as street lights on an otherwise dark path.  A death may be marked by a wake, funeral or memorial, but the public nature makes many feel they must be actors without revealing their true emotions. Many losses are personal with no pomp and circumstance, no remark from the outside world.

In grief we may feel despair, anger, hopelessness, emptiness, betrayal.  We may feel we can’t bear it.  We may even feel that having the thing could not have been worth the loss.  But, as Barnes said, “it hurts as much as it is worth”.

In grief, I have always begun to feel celebration.  I have prolonged and delved into my pain to show to myself the importance of that lost thing, to respect its worth.  In a way, my soul would have felt betrayed if I had turned away from the pain, I wouldn’t have been acknowledging the value of something that had true soul meaning to me.

Many cultures have rituals, timelines, grieving practices that can be cathartic and healing.  Perhaps this can be unhealthy and confining too, but more openness around death, trauma and hardship, and an understanding of grief in our culture would be absolutely positive.

Pre-Grieving

Just as walking a tight rope may require ‘not looking down’, sometimes the fear of loss can cause us to behave in ways that actually result in the loss we feared.  I sometimes find myself grieving the loss of things I still have, focusing on the wrong end of the experience, like Zadie Smith.  If we focus this way we hold too tight, we try to protect ourselves.  We look down into that crevasse and vertigo takes over.  Some of us miss the joy in front of us.  Some of us fall.

A song that really kicks me in the heart is Smother by Daughter.  The song is about someone who smothers their relationships and is so hopeless about making one last and guilty that they wish they were dead.  I have been in that place and know how heartbreaking it can be to lose something because your afraid of losing it.

Even before the fear of loss kicks in, joy itself can overwhelm us. Have you felt beauty that makes you cry, seen something so cute you clench your teeth and want to ‘eat it up’, felt so connected so someone you want to squeeze the life out of them?  This ‘cute aggression’ or dimorphous expression seems to be the brain dealing with an absolutely overwhelming emotion.  This may be the brain allowing the emotion to spill over and activate other nervous systems responses or the brain may be activating responses usually associated with sadness, anger etc as a way of bringing us back down. At a biological level, our bodies may try to protect us from a joy overload.

Joy can be a difficult thing to accept and look in the eyes.  It is complicated, powerful, terrifying and not at all like the slow motion run through the rain at the airport to a swelling, triumphant, orchestral soundtrack.

Palliative Pleasure

Because joy and meaning are not necessarily easy, it is easy to fall back on low risk, low reward replacements.  Our lives are so filled with wonderbread substitutes for meaning.  We are hungry and myriad social networks, screens, etc. make us feel like we are eating but, like wonderbread, they have no nutrients.  We can pretend we are getting what we need without standing on that terrifying edge.  Perhaps some people can live a whole life without many deep, meaningful moments, perhaps that is not a universal need.  I doubt it, but humans always surprise me in their diversity.  The prevalence of unfulfilling social interactions is a very common topic these days, and I doubt that I will illuminate any new information if I continue.  Suffice it to say (although I’m sure this loses some weight as a facebook note) I hope we begin to shift back to more real face time and less facebook as a culture.

 

Life

My feelings in the matter (and I can tell you the exact moment I came to this realization) are that without risk there can be no reward, without lows there are no highs, without the potential for loss and grief the connections and joys in your life lose the meaning that make them special.

I believe Tennysons’ Tis better to have loved and lost is omnipresent, however cheesy,  because everyone at some point has wondered “Is this really better?  Wouldn’t ignorance be bliss?”  Tennyson knows, and I think Barnes would agree, that the beauty of life is not found in the fleeting pleasures, but in the wild, deep experiences and relationships that can lead to pain.

 It is almost invariably better to walk that tightrope, to stand at the edge of that precipice, and sometimes to fall and fall completely.  To be truly alive with meaning and intention.  With joy and pain.  Maybe it’s a crazy deal, but it’s one I’ll shake on.