Sometimes, disavowing the dark shit makes the world even darker. Last week, I was explaining to my friend Sasha that I had to watch all the USA World Cup matches by myself because I couldn’t bear the thought of being in a room full of people chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”
He said he felt the same way me and told me that at one point in his life, he had wanted to get a tattoo of the American flag because, as he said, “I want to look at it every day and remember all the shit this country has done. I want to remember slavery, the genocide of natives, Jim Crow, racist immigration policies, building a fence along the US–Mexico border, criminalizing women’s rights to make choices about their own bodies. I want to remember all of it because it tests my love for this country. I do love America, but I will not forget the blood on our hands.” It was the greatest expression of national pride and love I had ever encountered.
“That’s how I want to love this country, too,” I said.
“That’s the only way I can love this country,” he said.
When Woody Allen fans crusaded to discredit Dylan Farrow’s account of being abused by her father, it seemed far scarier to me that anyone would go to such lengths to prove that their favorite director could not possibly be a sexual predator and abuser than to simply accept the possibility that maybe, yes, the person who made those movies that changed your life forever is a complete and utter irredeemable piece of shit.
My own paragon of optimism, my mother, won’t watch any movie or TV show that isn’t a straight-up comedy. When I was in high school, she somehow got sucked into watching American Beauty, a movie about repressed, disconnected, nihilistic, morbidly depressed people in the suburbs. She found it so deeply disturbing that she couldn’t sleep that night. In the middle of the night, she came to my room and asked me to confirm her hope that “everything in this movie is nothing more than a twisted, made-up fantasy.” She asked, “Are Americans really like that? You don’t know anyone like that, do you?”
I wanted to say, “Yes, I do know people like that, and actually, I’m kind of one of them. If only you weren’t so afraid to see that, maybe you would actually see me and actually come to know me.”
I want to be seen and known by people who are unafraid of seeing the admirable, the execrable, and everything in between. I’m not advocating party-pooperism, or defending the kind of person who’s always bringing everyone down with them by, like, going to someone’s birthday party and screaming at the birthday girl about global injustice, or showing up to a friend’s graduation dinner and talking nonstop about how shitty their life is (but congrats on graduating!). Wanting to confront darkness doesn’t mean being an overall negative person, a narcissist who is only interested in your own pain, or trying to find ways to downplay other people’s achievements or invalidate their feelings. I’m just wondering if there’s a way to acknowledge, every once in a while, the possibility that we are not always good people, that we do not always live up to the promise of who we want to be, that we may never get what we want, that sometimes we aren’t as brave as we wish we were, that we’re capable of being awful to the people we love the most, and we can act spitefully instead of honorably, and sometimes we’re lonely and terrified. I know I just dumped a whole lot of sad on you, but what if it didn’t have to be the saddest thing in the world to acknowledge that these are possibilities? What if acknowledging some of that stuff could feel like a moment of clarity, instead of one shrouded in darkness?
As I’ve gotten older, my desire to follow my dark thoughts to their fathomless origins has both diminished and bloomed. There are days and weeks and months where I binge-watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians or whatever other frothy TV show will give me a break from my brain (MAD RESPECT to any TV show entertaining enough to do that). I go through long stretches of time when the last thing I want to do is think about my hopes and fears, my disappointments, my selfishness, my monstrousness. Mostly, though, I find that confronting my darkness isn’t a choice I’m making. If it were, I could choose not to. But no one can ignore or outrun their darkness forever—eventually, it catches up with you, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. I’m not sure if that’s comforting or depressing, or if it just is.
Sometimes, I think it’s easy for me to acknowledge that the world is a scary place because I’ve never really had to deal with anything that scary. I think maybe the reason I’m able to dwell in darkness is that my darkness isn’t all that dark. When I’m feeling uncharitable toward myself, I think all of this is just evidence of my having had a fairly trauma-free, privileged life. And there I go again—seeing the worst in myself and focusing on that, while ignoring the good.
So here’s the good: My darkness makes me more compassionate and better able to relate to others, because I’m not afraid of other people’s suffering or sadness or pain. I think our little souls are capable of so much—they can handle the darkness with as much patience and grace as they do the sunnier parts of life.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s terrifying to be five years old and thinking about death between mouthfuls of cotton candy. But I’ve learned since that birthday that confronting what I’m most afraid of makes it way less terrifying. And when you realize things don’t have to either fall into OMG SO INSPIRING or OMG SO DEPRESSING, you can give your responses to the world room to be complicated (but also legitimately OMG SO AMAZING).
There’s no better time to set yourself on the PATH TO DARQUENESS than when you’re a young doe. The older we get, the more we tend to fall into the habit of fearing our old friend and doing anything to ignore it. So go forth, my dark army of Rookies! Embrace your darkness! Or at least test it out? Be lionhearted, be happy, be sad, be vast, be honest, be compassionate, be open, and let the darkness set you on the righteous path—the path of the true lover who is not afraid to see it all, and to love despite all that she has seen. ♦