Very early in life, we started learning phrases like “Be positive” or “Look on the bright side.” But these isolated statements, in their Copperplate Gothic font underneath classroom pictures of foggy mountains, fast became trite. They are short and sweet, and they come out of emotional context, which makes them unpersuasive. They simply aren’t enough to sway the tall psychological structures in our heads that determine the way we perceive our lives.
Yet we gravitate toward them, convinced they’re the best possible coping mechanisms. We tend to play exhausting games of forced optimism and say bright, empty things to other people to qualify the difficulties we’re facing. And, after all of the drama is over, we wave it away with “I guess it was all in my head.” This is how we can reminisce on high school and mock our silly “dramas,” and then move right into lamenting our current ones. And on we go.
There’s a subtle bit of ex post facto pointlessness here. I don’t know if we truly expect our convenient, all-inclusive philosophies like “choose happiness” and “just be happy” to resolve any short- or long-term dilemmas. But I’ve noticed that in this entire process of learning how to be satisfied with everything in life, the emphasis is always on one single person and their mind. We’re constantly learning how to have our own great days by our own supposed mental powers. Just me. Just you. So simple. Really?
When I was 11, my parents got divorced, and for a while I forgot how to live normally. Most of us have gone through something similar: an event happens, and everything else goes out of focus. I was told by various people to not be so sad, to look on the bright side, to smile, to remember [insert buzz-word-of-choice-associated-with-“optimistic” here]. But these expressions still directed everything back to me and my inner mental mess (which solves few important things on its own).
As I began earning more of my family’s trust and personal histories, though, I began to see how many other people were implicated in an event I had assumed was exclusively mine. It was preposterous to assume that all of my troubles were, well, all of the troubles there were. There was more, and I was humbled. Recovery wasn’t about being “positive” about myself. It was about escaping emotional self-indulgence and considering that there were other complications for people beyond me to which I was unhelpfully contributing. Years have passed, and I’m still trying to tone down my volatility.
Fast forward to last Friday. My woes: little homework accomplished, less cash in my wallet than anticipated, annoyance that I was tired before a ball that night, a denser weekend than I wanted…These aren’t necessarily little concerns, of course; altogether, they create the burden sustained by many of us students. What concerned me most, though, was that these thoughts, which were centered completely on me, were soaking up the attentions of the people around me. They gave me the spotlight and I gave them my attitude. It wasn’t that I needed to be more positive and less negative. It was that either way, I was all about me.
I often see my day as a pie chart, and I feel uncomfortable knowing that self-satisfying matters usually color the majority of it. Yet by now, I am quite aware of the irony — that the more I withdraw, turn inward and analyze my highly individual issues, the more I start self-destructing. “Self-improvement” campaigns are my weakness: a personal obsession with “healthy eating” that caused my worst health issues, or a period of time raging selfishly through unfair family dynamics that actually had little to do with me. The world always seems like it’s ending when I forget my world is not the world. I forget that there are more people than me — an exceedingly better place to send my concerns.
I used to be comforted by the fact that my life was all mine. It was all about control and superior mental states and feeling great and pretending to be constantly upbeat. But I would hope that there is more that I can offer to this world than just that. I’m sure that there’s more to the day than just feeling good about my own day.
But to be honest, it really would make Nina’s day to hear from you. Don’t be shy! Email Nina at ninamc “at” stanford “dot” edu.