The oppressiveness of optimism

Stop trying to optimize my feelings, world

No matter how you access your own customized firehose of headlines these days, it is not news that we’re living through some especially dark days. As time goes on, the darkness seems to be trickling down to an individual, almost cellular, level. I can’t think of too many people who aren’t struggling right now for one reason or another.

We are aging, wondering if we made the right choices, wondering if we’ll amount to anything. We said we would see people we love and then they go and die on us. We worry about our kids, we are always worrying about our kids. We know people are anxious but we can’t get out of our own anxiety long enough to help them. We miss people — desperately — and want real human connection but no one has time for it anymore. We wish each other happy birthday on digital walls or substitute a string of emojis in a text for a handwritten letter. We don’t sit across tables from one another and just talk. Or we leave Facebook entirely and suddenly find we have no idea what the fuck is going on anymore. We don’t know when people get engaged or have a baby because we’ve all outsourced the maintenance of our relationships to a platform. We put so much effort into things that don’t matter and so little effort into the things that could save us. We are struggling. We want more. And somehow, also, less.

But this is America so good luck not running face first into someone who tells you to just think positively or start your day at 4:30 a.m. or JUST BE GRATEFUL FOR WHAT YOU HAVE or that you can meditate (or mediate) your way out of just about anything. None of this advice is terrible. In fact, I believe all (most) of it. But we have a real bias against letting people just feel and accept their various sadnesses. Sometimes sadness isn’t depression, sometimes sadness isn’t suicidal ideation, sometimes sadness is just … feeling sad. Or feeling worried, uncertain, a bit lost, yet somehow trusting you’ll be on the sunny side of the street again soon enough.

As a culture, boy, are we uncomfortable with sadness. Like age, we want it cured and we want it cured yesterday. We want to pretend it doesn’t happen. We want everyone to be smiling, high fiving, and living their best lives 125% of the time. We want you to frost your sadness cake with Things-Will-Def-Be-Okay icing and make an extremely optimistic wish while you blow out your What-The-Fuck-Is-Even-Happening candles. We want you to call your sadness something more palatable like “not enough sleep” or “probably should see a therapist” or “maybe eat more protein” instead of what it is — the opposite of feeling happy.

You know, when someone’s happy you never see a bunch of people trying to counsel them out of that shit. “Maybe you should drink less water to really tone down all that stupid grinning” or “maybe get more darkness and less exercise first thing in the morning to really crater all that optimism you’re feeling right now.” God, if only.

Happiness makes our lives easier. Sadness makes our lives harder. Net-net every person in your life who is happy makes your own life exponentially easier. I get it.

But this sadness is the space I’ve been in, on and off, for the past year. There are real, tangible reasons for this that I do not owe you. They have nothing to do with anyone’s health or safety. But I have forced myself to push past these feelings, to practically schedule my sadness. But for these last few weeks I have been letting that go. I have had to, because I was losing my mind.

I have stepped away from some social media (but not all). I have stepped away from social obligations that would require I put on an act and I have paused difficult relationships. I have moved toward reestablishing friendships in the real world, I have (sort of) let go of an incredibly high bar for productivity on the writing front, I have dropped pitches and abandoned stories I wanted to write because as the kids say … I just cannot with that shit right now. I have let myself sleep in more, read more books, watch more Netflix. I have said ‘no’ a lot. I am trying to figure out what to say ‘yes’ to right now. I am trying.

I am uncertain what my future holds. There are simultaneously exciting things that are happening at the exact same time that incredibly difficult things are happening because life likes to endlessly fuck with all of us that way. I keep thinking of this line from a recent Anne Helen Petersen newsletter (one I have linked to previously), “I thought our life was one way. But no: it’s another.” This is the best description I have of my own life, and I didn’t even write it. Perfect.

I can’t say I know everything will be good again (what do any of us ever know?) but I somehow trust this feeling deep down that they will be. I’m trusting in the process of letting go and being honest with myself. And I’m trusting that there is no other way I can be right now. All of this has reminded me of when I was terrified of childbirth (and who shouldn’t be), I had one mantra I repeated constantly, “The only way past it is through it.” It isn’t a bad mantra for any of the hard days we may find ourselves in, or for the dark times we are all living through.

It is okay to feel scared, it is okay to feel lost, it is okay to not know what the hell is going on. I am right there alongside you, feeling the absolute shit out of those feelings. And we can say it together:

The only way past it is through it.
The only way past it is through it.
The only way past it is through it.

• REAL SIMPLE: I have a new humor piece on the back page of the November issue of Real Simple, on newsstands now! Sadly I don’t have a link because I’m talkin’ ‘bout print, bitch. Here is a tiny little peek from the final proof, you gotta go buy a copy if you want to read the whole thiiiiiiiiing:

• RADIOHEAD: Sure don’t need to worry about bumping into any errant optimism with Radiohead! How have I even gotten this far into the whole newsletter thing without bringing them up? A bunch of friends and all our kids went to see Portland Cello Project perform OK Computer and it got me thinking about this article I’ve been meaning to read for months. Radiohead x multiple LLCs x complicated business goings-on = Exponential level of nerding out.
• MOVIES: Remember Broadcast News? I have loved it since the very first time I saw it, and every time I watch it I appreciate some new aspect of it (especially as I’ve gotten older, worked longer, yet somehow understand the world less.) Plus it contains my favorite line of all time. When the newsroom goes through a major layoff, the boss extends an olive branch to the guy he just fired and tells him to reach out if there’s anything he can do. The response: “Well, I certainly hope you’ll die soon.” So. Good. This is a must-read piece if you’re a fan. For what it’s worth, the title doesn’t do this piece justice, there is just so much to dig into here: “How ‘Broadcast News’ Predicted Journalism As We Know It.”
• HUMOR: An unfortunately evergreen piece by Sarah Hutto from McSweeney’s: “Things More Heavily Regulated Than Buying a Gun in The United States.”
• OBITUARY: Related to the topic of this newsletter, let’s honor Dr. Jimmie Holland, who pioneered the field of psycho-oncology. An excerpt: “In treating cancer patients’ mental well being, Dr. Holland rejected what she called ‘the tyranny of positive thinking.’ ‘It’s bad enough to have cancer,’ she [said] … ‘but when all of your family and friends are saying that you have to be positive and you have to fight this thing, and the patient is exhausted and beaten up by the treatments — it seemed to me that adding that burden to be positive was just ridiculous.’”
• FROWNY FACES: I sent out the original version of this newsletter yesterday with a different cover image, even though a much better option was staring me right in the face. Literally. From my own desk. I had a custom Frowny Face doll made for my birthday for obvious reasons (I couldn’t resist once I saw her version of Emma Allen). Sidebar: I didn’t request she include the Wonder Woman hat, that was just one of three photos I had sent in with my request. Because as it turns out, Trump has also ruined wearing fucking red hats. But now that I have her, I very much appreciate that Wonder Woman is frowning too. You can order yours here :(

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