Like many, or possibly most writers, I am tempted to write about trauma or struggle or pain. After some distance from the event or emotion or both, there is something healing about finally putting these stories on the page. A transference occurs between something that was solely inside me into a shape also recognized to the outside world. I become a little freer from the pain, better able to dissect it and see what makes it come alive.
Getting this far in the process of transcribing my emotions may or may not happen, but, when it does, I am empowered by this action and the release that follows. Writing about the devastating parts of life is more than challenging, it is an act of excruciating vulnerability. Yet, writing about the happiness or joy or excitement or reverence I feel in life is much more challenging to take on.
I recently wrote an essay about the importance of retaining and preserving one’s soul in our work life based on David White’s argument in The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. The religious undertones inherent in the word “soul” still makes me internally squirm. But, I couldn’t help but identify with White’s argument about the importance of this elusive foundation of the self and the need for its preservation at all costs.
At first, this essay was an attempt to understand how the busyness of life has washed away certain aspects of myself—like my love and need to write. Then, it became important for me to write through the discomfort (and cheesiness) of the subject matter, which made me question why I felt this way to begin with. I realized it’s because I’m not accustomed to celebrating or promoting positive aspects like happiness in my life—just as it is informally poor social form to answer anything but “Good!” when someone asks us how we are doing.
There feels to be an acceptable social state of being so as not to make other people uncomfortable. It’s acceptable and encouraged to be reasonably happy; however, it is frowned upon to be too publicly sad or angry. When writing, though, the inverse occurs. With the rise in popularity of the personal essay, it is now acceptable to write about difficult life situations, like abusive parents or the atrocities of capitalism; however, it is uncommon to explore the happiness or joy in our lives, like pulling over to help someone change a flat tire. It feels like boasting to share this action. Worse, it can even come across as inauthentic, as one’s desperate desire to be praised. This is unfortunate when happiness and joy are two things women, especially women of color, are lacking due to the rigid gender constructs of society according to Jill Filipovic’s exploration of feminist happiness in her book, The H Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. If helping someone change a flat tire made me feel good, why do I feel uncomfortable celebrating this action and consequential feeling?
Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, however, has challenged these notions of what is and what is not acceptable to share by creating a space to publicly highlight our successes, which has gone awry since this has also led to a rise in self-esteem issues for the youth (again, especially young women) and “diagnoses of narcissistic personality disorder.” Even though this correlation in both diagnoses doesn’t necessarily prove causation, the tendency of those on social media to highlight the positives in life does distort the reality of living, just as focusing on the negative can make the world feel much darker than it is.
I want there to be a balance. Life is a hilly terrain of emotional intensity and emotional calmness across the spectrum of feeling, happiness and joy being ones I feel uncomfortable focusing on more than I should—especially when writing. So, I’ve given myself permission to write more about the positive occurrences and push passed feeling like a braggart.
Here it goes.
I received one of the most beautiful reflections from a student this past semester in a critical thinking and writing class exploring the concept of love:
This student is speaking directly to the gloomy shadow that can distort the beauty of life, yet my class helped them see a brighter version. This unexpected reflection made me cry and proved the need to focus more on the positive. Because, if our youth don’t see the aura of optimism in life, what hope is there for the rest of us?
We all need to feel good about this world, which can help someone when we least expect it. And, this carries a different yet vital worth than the essays exploring topics like the unhappiness of my mother. It will take some time for me to get comfortable with this idea, but I know I must. Because lighting a candle for ourselves becomes lighting a candle for others, and we all know how lonely the darkness can feel.