By Mark E. Smith
Let’s face it, we live in a culture where it’s not OK to …well …not be OK. And, I feed into that, don’t I?
Week after week, you tune in here to read about the positive sides of life, that no matter our struggles, there’s purpose and growth behind them. And, I not only believe that, but I live it, where the rewards of such a positive mindset have led my life to levels of success – education, family, career, community – that I was long told weren’t possible based on where I came from. Life is a blessing never to be taken for granted.
However, as eternally optimistic as I am, I’m not always OK – none of us are – and I’m OK with not being OK at times. In fact, it’s healthy for all of us to not be OK at times. We’re not singular in our emotions, and when times are tough, it’s vital to our emotional health – and sanity! – to express valid emotions, even if it’s shouting to the sky that we’re not OK. Life is a blessing, but when it tests every ounce of our emotional endurance, it would be irrational to simply laugh it off. We have emotional tools like frustration, anger, and fear for a reason – they serve us when no other emotions can as healthy coping mechanisms – and we shouldn’t be afraid to rely on them at appropriate times. Positivity is a real emotion and so is negativity in all of our lives. Where either fits in is about being present in our feelings based on valid moments and circumstances.
Showering is tough for me because it ranges from easy to a nightmare, and it varies night to night. Due to my cerebral palsy, on the most difficult nights, my balance and muscle spasms are at their worst, where falls and flailing limbs are extremely dangerous and scary in a shower. I’d like to tell you that I laugh at the adversity; but, when you break toes and gash your head, it’s a harrowing situation. So, how do I get through it?
By not being OK. In those times, I’m scared, angry and physically and emotionally hurting. The words coming out of my mouth are foul and grim. And, it’s all exactly the way it should be. In those moments, I should be feeling and expressing those emotions. In those moments it’s not just OK for me to not be OK, it’s completely rational behavior. You don’t watch a shower stream wash your own blood over your face, down the drain like a horror movie and think, This is wonderful! Rather, you think every profanity you can conjure because it’s all but unbearable. It’s being present with your emotions, as we all should be – no matter great times or horrible times.
In the larger scope, we as a culture do a terrible job at allowing anyone to simply not be OK when appropriate occasions call for it. As the feminist writer, Akila Richards, puts it, “We are expected to respond in the affirmative to the constant calls to action: show up and smile no matter what; think positive thoughts; kick fear to the curb; and be strong enough to push past our pain.”
The fact is, we each know from personal experience that always being expected to be positive, to always smile no matter the pain we’re in, is unrealistic and isolating. When we don’t feel safe to express warranted emotions, it merely piles on more pain. So, what are the solutions?
Firstly, we need to give ourselves permission to not be OK. Difficult moments to major life changes all elicit real emotions. It’s totally appropriate and healthy to feel those emotions.
Secondly, we need to have the courage and honesty to express those emotions to those around us – authenticity in who we are liberates us and allows others in. Those are powerful instruments toward building intimacy and truly living as ourselves amidst those who care about us. If I hid my tough moment from my wife, she wouldn’t know the full me; therefore, I’m OK with not being OK at times around her.
Thirdly, in knowing that it’s OK not to be OK, we need to have the empathy and strength to not pretend someone is OK when they’re obviously not. Opening a conversation that allows someone to express real emotion is a tremendous gift. I realize that we’re often hesitant to approach such conversations out of fear of not having the right words. However, most often simply acknowledging what the person is going through, then just listening, is all that’s needed. How are you feeling about the recent loss of your brother? I can only imagine how painful it must be….
What’s amazing about moments and periods of not being OK is that it’s among the healthiest ways to, in fact, be OK. Let us live with our emotions in the present, and by doing that, we’re less likely to carry baggage. After my worst nights in the shower, I get in a cozy king-size bed with my wife, turn on a fun TV show, and all is right in the world – that is, I moved through not being OK, and that allows me to be content just a few minutes later. In this way, you might say that allowing ourselves – and others! – to weather the emotional storms we all encounter from time to time is the surest way to achieve ultimate tranquility in our lives. After all, the most beautiful rainbows include rain.