November 7, 2014 by Julia
I sometimes randomly think of the Israelites of the Old Testament, wandering the desert after escaping slavery in Egypt, on the brink of starvation until God sends them manna – a sweet white bread that covers the ground like snow every morning – and quail to cook in the evening. This is what they eat for forty years, as they search for a new home. Sometimes they grumble because they are thirsty, and then God has to help Moses strike water from a rock.
I think the lesson of this is supposed to be: God will provide, no matter how dire the situation. But I also hear a less comforting lesson about people, which is that we might escape slavery only to find ourselves in the desert with another reason to despair. I don’t say this in judgment of the Israelites. Wouldn’t you be complaining if all you had to eat in the desert was manna and quail, for forty years? I would be. I would be relieved at first, like everyone else, and then grow tired of it, because that is human nature.
Are we supposed to correct this behavior in ourselves? Can we improve our lives by constantly tweaking our outlooks, turning our faces to the sun again and again, in a kind of determined optimism?
Part of me thinks yes, because I have read about happiness and watched documentaries on it, and what I’ve picked up is that our own well-being depends on the quality of our community (we need people) and on how pro-active we are when dealing with what life hands us. Governing our own reaction and attitude can turn tragedy into opportunity.
But…I don’t believe that we are always capable of changing our emotions, and certainly not our circumstances. (The Secret has always disturbed me. At the height of its popularity, self-help “gurus” stated that sufferers of poverty or even illness brought these things down on themselves with “imperfect thoughts.” Infuriating much?) To make a statement like “You are responsible for your entire life and every feeling you have” is to simplify life and people in dangerous ways. It can lead to victim-blaming, lack of compassion for others, and the repression of natural emotions.
So: should we allow for some negativity, or fight it all the time? You’d be surprised at how often I ask myself this throughout the day. As a mostly introverted person who has been diagnosed with clinical depression (I still feel weird saying that last part, because I assume everyone experiences life basically the same way I do, with ups and downs), my lifelong struggles apparently involve summoning energy and motivation for, uh…normal, daily tasks, fighting off vague anxieties, and finding a social balance that doesn’t overwhelm me. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? Not in the grand scheme of things, certainly.
But sometimes all it takes for me to melt down is an over-scheduled weekend on the horizon, a cranky kid, a messy kitchen, and the sense that I’ve left about five different people hanging – a friend, a teacher, a dentist’s receptionist, both kids. And I haven’t really spoken with my husband for two days. Or called my mom for a week. And what I really want is to be alone for a while. FREAK OUT TIME. It gets really bad some days. I wish I weren’t so easily overwhelmed.
I try not to be. I realize my overwhelm-ment is not always rational. I do yoga to help relieve stress. I talk about stuff honestly with people I am close to. I take my medication, I take breaks and I get out of the house or stay in, depending on the mood. I force myself to take the next step, whatever that may be, so that a million tiny procrastinations (be they social or practical) don’t snowball. I often find that things are okay, after time, as long as I keep moving. But depression (I suppose that’s what it is) pulls like sludge at my feet, sometimes, despite all that.
I know that I have it good. Really, really good. For real. I am grateful beyond words for the life I’ve been given, filled with kind, interesting people and more than enough food, shelter and stuff to be comfortable. I know that if I were placed on a totem pole measuring the misfortune of every human being, with the worst circumstances placed at the bottom, I’d be closer to the top. I get that, and I do remind myself of it if I ever feel that an attitude adjustment is in order.
But I still need to complain, sometimes. I need to talk about problems that feel out of my control until I figure out how much of the situation I can control. And yeah, I may sound overly sensitive or pessimistic or illogical or upset at times – all qualities in myself I am highly sensitive about, by the way – but that doesn’t mean I don’t know how good I have it. I always know that. It’s often part of the reason I am crying. Like, what is wrong with me? Why am I struggling? I have no excuse. And still, I struggle.
Which partly explains why it’s easy to fall into passive-aggressive comparisons over whom has a harder life than whom. In order to feel truly validated in our complaints, we have to prove that we’re working harder than others, or we’re up against more challenges than others…we’re getting less sleep, we’re volunteering more, we’ve been sick longer. In this social climate, it’s hurtful to imply that someone has an easier life than yours, which is why it always drives me crazy when someone says to a college student, “Just wait until you get out into the real world…” as if constant studying and all-nighters are somehow easier than the jobs of the “real world.” Or the seasoned parents of teenagers who tell new parents with babies, “Just wait until they can talk. This is the easy part – enjoy it!” (I mean…yes, enjoy it, but easy? How dare you, Ms. Rose-Colored Glasses.)
There are some parents, on either side of the work force, who seem to believe life would be easier “If only I could stay home with the kids instead of being in the office all day,” or “If only I could get out of this house and accomplish something other than making a grilled cheese sandwich.” Which – yes, one might suit you better, personally – but there is no guarantee that one will be easier than the other.
Meanwhile, this is a compliment: “Wow. I don’t know how you do it! How are you still standing upright!?” I say that all the time to people, and I mean it. I also love to hear it, because then I feel like I have good reason for my exhaustion. We all have this need for others to acknowledge our suffering and give it meaning.
Anyway, I do have a point. Actually, five points, which I will try (ha) to put simply.
1. Positive thoughts and actions are essential to our well-being. I’ve found this to be true through experience. Some of my favorite habits include: reflecting on what I have with gratitude every day, looking for the good in myself and others, practicing forgiveness toward myself and others, finding beauty in art and nature, making life changes when necessary, or taking care of myself physically.
2. I can’t always be happy or even positive, and that is okay because such a goal is impossible for human beings in an imperfect world. (Besides, wholeness is the goal, not unblemished happiness.) In my case, depression might be my downfall for a few days, weeks or even months. Am I to blame for a mental health issue that I struggle with? No. In a world that includes social injustice, special needs, genocide, infertility, corruption, war, poverty, illness, and natural disasters we won’t always be able to put a positive spin on everything, and to expect this of ourselves or others is ridiculous.
3. That being said, it is our job to advocate for ourselves, fight the darkness, and scrabble our way toward hope. The more we claim this job for ourselves, the more empowered we will feel in our own lives, regardless of our particular challenges. (And yes, some challenges are much, much harder to face than others. I don’t claim to know how to find hope in every situation. But I believe it is a worthy thing to…hope for.)
4. We shouldn’t judge people who are being “negative,” because most of the time we have no idea what the whole story is. We have not lived their lives or been inside their heads. By the same token, we shouldn’t force positivity upon the loved ones we do know well, especially when they are telling us about their problems. There will come a day when we will struggle, and we will need that loved one. Chances are, on that day we will want compassion more than platitudes.
5. Negative feelings do not have to be justified by circumstances. We all have crappy days, whether we are millionaire CEOs with beautiful families and vacation homes, or living in a gutter with sick and starving children. That is the nature of life, and people, and we might as well accept it, and stop judging each other for those bad days. I will if you will. None of this, “Well, she has a regular babysitter/unlimited budget/cleaning lady/dream job/easy kid, she has no right to complain,” stuff. I wash my hands of it! I exercise my God-given right to complain, and I will allow my fellow human beings that right, too.
Of course I spend more time on the dark side of positivity than the bright side. Typical.
Anyway, the goal is some elusive mix of striving and resting, righteousness and compassion, happiness and empathy, sadness and emotional intimacy, which according to my calculations adds up to: wholeness, communion, goodness, beauty and fulfillment. That is all. Simple, right?! I mean, am I asking too much here??
Maybe. But it can’t hurt to hope, and try.