It’s Okay To Not Be Okay

When it comes to our relationships with ourselves, one of our most hazardous and insidious beliefs is that we must always be happy. A product of a culture that extols us at every waking moment to enjoy and sap as much pleasure from life as possible, we are reminded everywhere that happiness is the supreme goal in life. Disinterest in seeking out ever new and unique forms of happiness is seen as a sickness. Unhappiness is seen as a deformity, one which must be immediately rectified before anybody notices. Happiness is considered a-priori that normative state, and any deviation from this state is seen as an abnormality, if not a failure.

The dark underside of this belief is how it is offensive to be sad or, even worse, that we might want to be sad, to feel this other aspect of our humanity so often relegated to the shadowy margins of our psyche.

Unlike happiness, our culture meets sadness with a toxic mixture of repulsion and refusal. We want to make the sadness go away and lift the heart out of the pit of despair.

We have all been victims and likely (well-intentioned) perpetrators of denying sadness. We tell our bereaved friends that it is going to be okay, that things will get better soon, perhaps things are bad now, but they will not remain so forever, or that being sad gets us nowhere so we might as well be pragmatic and toss sadness aside. We engage in all forms of mental and emotional gymnastics to make the sadness disappear.

One of the unintended consequences of this behaviour is to widen the abyss between ourselves and our saddened counterpart. They are painfully aware of their own condition. The daughter of a dying mother knows the feeling of her internal organs twisting from anguish is not “good”, and that crying every day is interfering with her life. Of course she knows this. We might try to coax her out her misery, to dissolve it, and to lead her to a happier place, but for someone incapable of anything except sorrow and grieving, the call to be happy only affirms the distance between themselves and others. The result is not communion, but alienation.

It might seem intuitive to try and remove sadness, but there is another approach, no less intuitive, but perhaps more affectionate and considerate of the other. We could, instead of trying to remove sadness, feel it. We could extend a helping hand and empathetic ear to our friend and hear them out. What they need, even if they may not put it in these words or realise it themselves, is to accept that, in the piercingly simple words of Miranda Devine, ‘it is okay to not be okay’. We can sit with our friend and do something we might not be used to doing: listen.

If we can begin accepting that it is okay to not be okay, rather than rejecting our sadness as something deformed and separate from ourselves, we will be in a position to accept that it is an uncomfortable but necessary part of what it means to be human. It will, in turn, allow us to feel more fully, and lead more intense and emotionally fulfilling lives. What others require of us, is not instructions on how to be happy, or second-hand advice on dealing with pain or sorrow; ultimately, what the other needs is so painfully simple it is easily overlooked: a mind ready to listen, and maybe, two arms ready to hug. The beautiful thing is that this is something all of us can do.

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