Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his last book, “A Man Without a Country” that most great literature — “A Farewell to Arms,” “Hamlet,” the Bible — is about what a bummer it is to be a human being. He wrote next: “Isn’t it such a relief for someone to say that?”
If this resonates at all with you, it probably does for two big reasons. The first is that you have probably lived enough and read enough to know that life is a bummer. You share in the collective discontent with the way life is. The second reason explains why you might not have realized that you shared in any “collective discontent”: you, too, have long had your discontent suppressed. Not only have the people around you seldom spoken publicly about what a bummer life is, you yourself have seldom spoken about it. Every day when you walk out the door and someone asks, “How are you?” and you smile, saying, “fine” or “good,” you have had to deny the fact of your discontent to others, and thus denied the fact of it to yourself.
But the discontent and its various emotional manifestations (sadness, anxiety, anger, etc.) didn’t then go away. With your help, society has suppressed your sadness, anxiety and anger deep into your psyche, preventing them from entering the public space and allowing them to fester inside of you, becoming infected. Consequently, you drink too much, smoke too much, eat too much, fuck too much, unwittingly trying to soothe this now gnarly, deep-seated discontent when the real solution would be to talk about it, or at least listen to others talk about it.
Honestly, how often are you fine or good? I’m fine or good maybe a quarter of the time, and I don’t consider myself an especially unhappy person. I’m one of the lucky ones. But I, too, smile automatic, phony smiles when greeting people on the street, and I lie and tell them I’m fine or good.
I’m not necessarily not fine the other three-quarters of the time — I’ve got decent food to eat, a decent place to sleep, etc. — but quite often there’s something bothering me that I feel uncomfortable talking about and uncomfortable confronting even privately. There exists for me, and I think for others, too, this social pressure not to “bother” people with my problems. I think it fits in with this ideal of rugged individualism that we Americans learned to embrace from watching too many Westerns. “John Wayne doesn’t cry, so I don’t either! Chris Kyle doesn’t cry, so I don’t either!” OK … so how’s that noble self-reliance working out for ya?
I, too, often feel unduly burdened by other people’s problems when they bravely break social custom and tell me how they’re really doing. I’m already struggling alone with the problems that I feel pressured not to share or talk about with others, so I don’t have any mental energy left over for other people’s problems, and so, in turn, they don’t have any mental energy left over for my problems; so goes the vicious cycle. But, if I did the brave thing and shared my burden with others, then I could, in turn, share in their burdens. I would not only alleviate myself of my discontent that has been compounded by repeated social interactions as well as self-denial, I would alleviate the discontent of others as well.
And this is not to say that it’s not OK to be miserable, because it is OK. You need not always be either “fine” or “good.” If you aren’t at least occasionally bummed out by being a human, you either aren’t a human or you aren’t paying attention. Even if you have heaps of money, food and sex, there is stuff in life about which you probably ought be miserable. Don’t be afraid of it; the bad stuff will probably enrich your life experience and you as a person.
Often when I’m unhappy, I feel like something’s wrong with me, and that makes me even unhappier. I read the opening of the Declaration of Independence (always good to have a copy handy) and I think to myself, “I ought to pursue happiness!” But you don’t always have to be happy and you don’t always have to pursue happiness. Isn’t it such a relief for someone to say that? When I’m miserable, let me be miserable. The only thing worse than being miserable is being miserable and feeling as if you shouldn’t be. That makes me frustrated, and then I smoke, drink and/or eat too much pizza right before bed in order to “fix” my misery, and then wake up the next morning feeling shitty, and then I feel as if I should be happier than I am, and I drink too much coffee and the cycle continues. But if, when I was unhappy, I was OK with feeling unhappy, then I wouldn’t try so hard to be happy. Paradoxically, that’s the way to be happy: be OK with being unhappy.
Thank god for literature, because literature (good literature) helps us not be so alone with these feelings when the rest of society doesn’t want to hear it. Thank god for movies, too (good movies). These mediums of artistic expression penetrate our fleshy masks and speak to our lonely feelings of sadness, anxiety and anger and show us that other people feel like life is a bummer, too. We don’t have to explicitly tell anyone else we feel like the characters in the movie or the book, but by the fact of our watching the movie or reading the book, others can infer our secret, lonely dissatisfaction with the way life is going.
I wouldn’t want to rob art of its fantastic capacity to make us less alone with our sadness, anxiety and anger, but it needn’t be the exclusive site of eradicating loneliness and sharing discontent. Let each of us reveal the various manifestations of our discontent in order to expose the collective discontent inside society. By alleviating each of our individual burdens, we shall alleviate the collective burden. Surely the first step to making ourselves happier is confessing the ways we aren’t happy. Of course, such a widespread confession of unhappiness would be difficult for established power and pretentious authority whose reign depends on everyone pretending that everything is awesome. Surely, everything is awesome for some people, and those people most likely stand to benefit from the system as it is: the status quo. So for those of us who are discontent and dissatisfied, we ought to take deliberate measures to change the miserable conditions that exist on this earth.
Zak Witus can be reached at email@example.com.