Live Through This

Hello, Darkness

The sad parts of life are just as important as the happy ones.

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.

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27 Comments

  • CBM July 15th, 2014 4:02 PM

    I’m loving all the “live through this” articles! Great job Jenny, I really related to this.

  • mimsydeux July 15th, 2014 4:08 PM

    Jenny, I’m on a train that’s stuck somewhere along the Hudson River in New York. I’m on my way to visit family in the States I haven’t seen in 5+ years. Thank you for expressing so beautifully what I’ve felt over the past few weeks I’ve been travelling. I haven’t always felt like the bubbliest person in the room, and I feel like there’s so much pressure to “prove” myself with relatives I don’t see too often. You’ve made me feel better about staying my authentic self and letting my light shine that way.

  • alexithymia July 15th, 2014 4:31 PM

    this is really inspiring and the tough week I am having just got a different view. thank you.

  • catharinerf July 15th, 2014 4:42 PM

    I’ve thought about this so much, especially dealing with anxiety etc.. I’ve given up the idea that happiness is the ultimate goal and I’m trying to just experience being a whole person

    http://www.chassagnewaterfalls.blogspot.ca

  • leighann July 15th, 2014 4:52 PM

    I think most of us think this way.
    I believe if we are good in our hearts we never die completely. I have a deep hope to see everyone again after I leave this not so perfect world

  • Estelle July 15th, 2014 7:54 PM

    I LUV YOU JENNY

  • JGrace July 15th, 2014 9:01 PM

    THIS IS FANTASTIC. I really, really love this. Thank you.

  • Abby July 15th, 2014 9:35 PM

    This is amazing. AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING. Thank you. I feel like I get a lot of flack for being sort of like this… I’m really passionate about social issues (as a soc/psych major it comes with the territory), and people always tell me I talk about bad things too much, or bring up the problems with the world too often, or just am a “downer” in general. But it’s not that I like to be miserable or anything, it’s just that I see a lot of problems that I think we need to work to fix, and my passion is to talk about these problems and their solutions.

    Also, that part about Jenny’s friend who wanted the flag tattoo really resonated with me. My dad works for the government, and he gets annoyed when I criticize America, because he thinks I’m attacking like patriotism or the american dream or some shit like that. But seriously, America has done some really fucking bad shit. And we’re STILL doing some really fucking bad shit. And I can’t say I’m proud of my country for the good things without acknowledging the bad things. I guess I’m that way with everything. I don’t really LOOK for the bad in everything… it just seems to stick out to me the most.

    Anyway, thank you sooo much for this article, Jenny… it means so much to me.

  • kimchi July 15th, 2014 10:06 PM

    It is weird how being dark or introspective is often perceived as being negative or antisocial. Sometimes I just won’t feel like talking to anyone at a party and then I’ll end up taking pictures of pretty lights for a few hours. A lot of times people will come up to me and ask me if I am okay because they think there is something wrong. There tends to be a misconception that certain people are shy and have low self-esteem, when really they are just thoughtful and extremely in touch with themselves and their emotions. Jenny’s piece makes me think of the first episode of Daria. It is important to be true to yourself and your emotions, but I suppose it can also be useful to show the world the fake grin they want to see to in order to get them off your back sometimes. Recently I’ve felt very weird about volunteering too. Certain types of volunteering such as working in kitchens or charity shops are pretty accessible to everyone, but the types of volunteering which involve travel often seem to only be available to those in positions of relative privilege. Volunteering itself is a noble thing to do, but in this new realm of social media it often seems like travel volunteering is often done to get on the radar of others more than anything else. I’ve come to know many people who have done volunteering, but it seems like travel volunteering is only available and accessible to a specific demographic of people which really sucks.

    http://glitterous-clitoris.blogspot.com.au/

    • Catrine July 16th, 2014 3:03 PM

      “There tends to be a misconception that certain people are shy and have low self-esteem, when really they are just thoughtful and extremely in touch with themselves and their emotions.”

      I love how you just said that. That is one of the most spot-on assessments of quieter people I have ever seen. Speaking for myself, I am not shy or intimidated easily, but there are times when I feel like being quiet and in my own head.

  • TessAnnesley July 15th, 2014 10:54 PM

    how do i find another way to say that everything Jenny writes is amazing

  • cestlaviee July 15th, 2014 11:40 PM

    this article was OMG SO AMAZING!!

  • juliamaine July 16th, 2014 12:26 AM

    This is honestly so beautiful and I can relate to it so much. People often tell me I spend too much time thinking about things that others tend to just ignore. I am always wondering if anything we’re doing on earth right now has any real meaning, because I know we’re all going to be dead eventually. As depressing as that sounds, it never makes me sad. I just see it as another fact of life. It does, however, hinder my ability to just GET THINGS DONE (“things” dealing with school, money, jobs, etc.) I am still trying to figure out how to function in society when, in the back of my mind, I am always asking myself, “What’s the point? I’m going to be dead one day.”

    Anyway, this made me feel a lot less weird about my own thought process. I’m also a lot more hopeful now that one day I will find someone to discuss these darker thoughts with. Thank you so much!

    • Abby July 16th, 2014 4:53 PM

      I totally feel this. Like… I constantly think, “why am I doing this?” when I’m doing something for school. I’m studying hard in college so that I can find a good job and get into grad school so that I can get a better job so that I can pay off my debt from grad school and have money to live so I can exist in society for so many years until I die. Like literally everything I do is so that I can just… function in society until I die. That’s so fucking shitty.

      Whelp, I just made myself feel bad lol. Anywayyy… Thanks, and I feel you.

  • Kal July 16th, 2014 1:42 AM

    Jenny I related to this so much. A lot of the times I feel like my ability to find some sort of darkness in everything is not an ability but a major character flaw. Although I agree with what you said about there being some sort of clarity there entirely.

    Such beautiful writing.

    Kali
    zymurgyprocess.com

  • Sophii July 16th, 2014 10:22 AM

    This is one of the most beautiful things that I have read on Rookie (and there have been a lot of wonderful articles.) Whenever I talk about the darker parts of life or call out casual racism/sexism/transphobia, the people around me just laugh like “here she goes again…” It’s kind of disheartening to recognise how terribly cruel human beings can be, but being aware of that is a benefit when it comes to recognising the great love and tenderness that people can show to each other. Seeing the bad makes the good appear even better, I think.

    http://prettypassionsfinefashions.blospot.co.uk

  • Knee-KeyK July 16th, 2014 3:18 PM

    I find “to love despite all that she has seen” quite difficult.

  • Me_Magalloway July 16th, 2014 5:14 PM

    My dad says that he likes to maintain a constant level of emotion. He describes it like a spectrum: While normal people go up and down, there’s generally a “line of best fit” (he’s a scientist, so you know). He likes to remain just slightly below that line, constantly, so that he doesn’t have to drop as low as other people do.
    And all I can think is, why would you want to give up those highs? By making your world “dim” you are missing the dark and the light. Cliche, I know, but still.
    Dark thoughts have permanent residence in my mind, and I’m always the one to share bad news and get in heavy political debates. You can’t ignore all these bad things, because nothing will ever change if you do.
    And the part about the American flag- to me, the worst thing is when a person is blindly patriotic. Those people who see images of freedom, equality, and bald eagles when they hear the national anthem.
    It just doesn’t seem honest. That type of optimism seems like the surface of an ocean- all you get is the reflection of the sky. I would prefer a deep sea, because you can swim in it and accomplish things, and see the whole picture.
    Thank you, Jenny, for writing these thoughts so eloquently.

    http://navigating-fairyland.blogspot.com/

  • Lillypod July 16th, 2014 5:25 PM

    The last few paragraphs really resonate. And it’s so true — I find these “happygolucky” people flake out in a crisis, too emotionally immature to deal with the reality of life. These people are literally scared of the darkness. Its not a good way to be and it makes you a crap friend.

  • Berries July 17th, 2014 11:06 AM

    I can relate to this a lot. I also thought a lot about death and dark things when I was younger, and I still do. I can look like a pessimist, when I think I am just more realistic than most people are. My mother keeps saying that other people are cheerful and deny their problems ‘to keep their heads up’. I was never like that and I think I can never be like that. I don’t even know how to do that, actually. I don’t understand that ”naievity” (though often it’s more a choice to see things ”too brightly” I guess, than actualy naievity).

    However, I think it also brought me beautiful things. I can appreciate things – not because they are PERFECT or JUST WHAT I WANTED or GORGEOUS but because they are beautiful, a sparkle of light when I need it, etc. I don’t take shit for granted, ever. I can write poetry, feel deep love for my friends and can experience compassion for about everyone because I too experience such a wide range of emotions. I also often think ”it could have been much worse”.

  • RobinF July 17th, 2014 1:01 PM

    I looove reading your writings, Jenny! You seem like such an interesting person.

  • hazylenses July 17th, 2014 5:57 PM

    I love the way Jenny examined living in a balance between pessimism and optimism–a difficult challenge for everybody. The very last sentence in particular I found to be extremely powerful.
    Beautiful article.

    hazylenses.tumblr.com

  • maggiehab July 18th, 2014 8:47 PM

    I relate to this so well. Didn’t know that anyone else felt the same way… Love this piece.

  • IrieJane July 19th, 2014 6:30 AM

    Jenny, I really love this article. I thought i was alone when it came to feeling this way. This article really helped me. Thank you so much.

  • calinash July 23rd, 2014 1:57 AM

    yes. thank you.

  • xomarielorene August 12th, 2014 9:17 AM

    OMG this article is amazing. I kept copying and pasting paragraphs to that sticky note thing on my desktop because YES. I’m going through a (mildly) dark period – I just broke up with my first boyfriend and it has made me aware of my own darkness and just the complexity of the world – nothing or no one is ever 100% great or 100% terrible. So YES. Thank you.

  • The Wandering Bird August 16th, 2014 10:13 PM

    I honestly think like this all the time and I never thought anybody would or could ever think the same way. Thank you.

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