Maybe my father was right. I sought out darkness and indulged in it while everyone else was trying to find the light. I saw so much misery in the world, and the elaborate lengths people went to avoid naming, discussing, encountering, or even having to look at it. (If anyone is looking to hire a professional bummer for their next party, I am available!)
I couldn’t stop the voice in my head that asked me to examine every little moment of joy. And not just my joy, but other people’s too. I saw how certain girls in my school would gush and gush when they were dating someone, proudly declaring that they had already picked out a wedding dress, because “I seriously think I’ve found my soulmate,” only to trash the dudes mercilessly once they broke up: “He had a small penis anyway, and I feel sorry for whatever poor sap gets him next.” The extremes made my head spin. It seemed like, to most people, others were either angels or they were hellish monsters. Where were the in-between stages? What about honestly expressing your fears and your ambivalence and your uncertainty? Embracing darkness was a way to allow for nuance and contradictions and all the other messy stuff that has always made it hard for me to write someone off completely or fully idolize anyone. My darkness helped me see things—and people—on a spectrum.
I find that the people who insist on their resolute happiness and refuse to show any kind of negative emotion are often the DARKEST of all. (Cue the people you’ve blocked on social media for starting too many posts with “So grateful for my amazing boyfriend/girlfriend… I’m the luckiest person in the world!!!!!” Cue that one person who flits from person to person at parties, laughing the loudest and making joke after joke, but, weirdly, with whom you’ve never had a single conversation that lasted longer than three Tostitos Scoops.)
I made a friend in college who never seemed to see the ugliness I saw in the world. Where I saw an instance of vicious racism, she saw an innocent nothing-comment. Where I saw an instance of horrible mansplaining misogyny gone unchecked, she saw a guy trying to be helpful.
“He’s a horrible person,” I would say.
“He’s so sweet!” she would retort.
Once, during a particularly frustrating conversation, I decided to get right to the point. “Do you ever have dark thoughts?” I asked her. “Do you ever let yourself get, like, really dark?”
She didn’t even pause to consider the question before saying, “No. I’m a glass-half-full kind of girl. Life’s too short to be negative all the time. I like people who face every day with a smile.”
Then why are you friends with me? I wondered. Was I passing for an optimist?
“You’re just like my mom,” I said. “I wish I could be more like you guys.” Why not face each day with a smile, I wondered. Wouldn’t I be happier if, instead of fuming every time someone said something messed up, I could just think, They didn’t mean anything by it. I’m sure their intentions were good. Maybe, for me, it would take a certain amount of willful ignorance to be happy, but why not try? Instead of finding most things disturbing, I could find them cute or awesome or funny. It was too emotionally taxing to name and face all the things that disturbed me.
While I was contemplating jumping ship and joining the shiny, happy people, I watched my friend’s upbeat veneer chip away. As I got to know her better, I started to see how she needed that cheerfulness to survive. One night, over cheap vodka mixed with orange juice, she confided that she had been abused by a family member as a child, and that she fundamentally did not trust men. She said that deep down, she believed all men were brutes—violent and disgusting—and that, for this reason, she would have a baby only if she could do in vitro so that she could choose the gender.
“I don’t know if I could love a boy,” she said, “even if it was my own child. I know that’s bad. But it scares to me to think about giving birth to a child who could turn out to be a monster, or a rapist, or a violent woman-hating psycho.”
All along, I had thought I was the dark one, but that night, I saw why my friend couldn’t allow herself to ever express sadness in everyday life, because when she did, it was biblical.
For a long time, I was the opposite way—I couldn’t acknowledge a moment of happiness without a sad preface or rejoinder, which was, I admit, annoying as hell, but also the only thing that felt true to how I saw and interacted with the world. When I came back from six life-changing weeks volunteering as an English teacher in a Romanian mountain village a year after graduating college, I refused to describe what I did as “selfless,” as some of my peers characterized their own experiences.
“If anything,” I said to my friends, who were very likely tired of hearing me tear everything down all the time, “It was the most selfish thing I have ever done. I went and disrupted these people’s lives, ate their food, slept in their beds, and learned about their world, which was ridiculously interesting to me and probably something I will write about one day and be praised for, and on top of that, I get to feel good about myself because I volunteered! It’s more honest to just say, ‘You know what? I feel guilty about the privilege I was born into, which I do not deserve more than anyone else in this world, and I do very little with that luck to change the world for the better. I truly care the most about myself above others, and that is just something I have to live with.’ Sorry. I think I’m ranting. What was the question again?”
“So you had fun,” my friends joked.
“Actually,” I said, “I did.” And I meant it. I had the time of my life. I woke up every morning to the crisp mountain air and a bouquet of freshly picked flowers that my host sisters would eagerly present to me. Somehow, I found a way to communicate with an entire village of people without knowing their language and without them knowing mine. If anything, my skepticism about the virtues of volunteering made me more open to forming relationships with the people there. Instead of idealizing the villagers I met as poor, virtuous salt of the earth people, I was able to just see them as people, like you and I are people: flawed, messy, selfish, sometimes incredibly kind, and sometimes incredibly cruel.