Any time someone takes a real, human risk and shares real feelings, answers the question “How are you?” with something other than “I’m good, and you?” they open themselves up to a world of possibilities. Oftentimes, I’ve been unblinkingly honest and had exceptional honesty, care, and friendship handed back my way. When you tell people why you’re out wandering around in an old truck with your dog, and you tell them really why, not just what the internet will upvote in an Instagram caption, you perhaps find fewer glossy-eyed admirers but far more friends. You get invited to dinners and offered couches to sleep on and told anecdotes from lives filled with triumphs and defeats.
Of course, sometimes you are honest about how you feel and get punched in the face; perhaps literally, but more likely metaphorically. You speak of how sad you are and the corners of your mouth quiver as tears try to sneak attack down your cheeks.
Instead of the grocery cashier saying “I’m good!” with all the fakeness in the world, they sigh and say, “Can’t wait for today to be over,” and most people call it terrible customer service.
People want you to be “good,” they want a succinct interaction with a happy ending. People expect happiness; indeed, they demand it. When you’re unhappy, it makes them unhappy. And it’s not always altruistic—they’re not unhappy because you’re unhappy, they’re unhappy because you’re unhappy. That is, they aren’t carrying your burden as their own, but rather their tenuous little house of cards is threatened every time another human admits something less than a punch-drunk Kool-Aid reverie at the world around them.
Yesterday was a very long and hard day, and in the midst of a week of terrible sleep and melodramatic proceedings, it about did me in. And as I tried not to fall asleep standing up in the shower, I also tried to not fall asleep while praying standing in the shower, because all too often praying leads to horrifying existential half-sleep and full-on self-loathing at falling asleep in prayer.
All I could summon was thankfulness for the spectrum of feelings, and gratitude for a realistic and diverse perception of the world around us. It is such a gift to feel free enough to admit that what you thought you loved turned out to be disappointing or even suffocating; it is so wonderful to be emotionally invested enough in life that things fucking hurt when they go wrong.
Many people do not like to be around me because I do not participate in The Social Code. I do not clap at the right moments or know how to tie multiple types of tie knots. I do not pretend to be thrilled when I am disenfranchised. I do not present the best version of myself to the world for the sake of maintaining the peace, even though that peace is but a porcelain veneer. I do not know how to make small talk, and some people think I am autistic or a raging asshole when I don’t know what to say in response to a stock one-liner. They might be right.
However, as I spun dizzily in the shower, trying to finish a sentence in my head about being thankful for feeling awful, it did hit me that I truly could not imagine living another man’s life. The Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime has become a motif this week, the way songs always do, and it is perhaps the best crash course in existential hilarity that I know of.
That’s not my house! That’s not my wife! My God! How did I get here!
Many dismiss it as a bit of Eighties Kitsch, but it is so much more. It is a deconstruction of the social norm, of what happens when you do what other people tell you you’re supposed to do until one day you get out of the bed you made and realize you don’t even recognize your surroundings. I would rather be sad than married to someone else’s wife.
On any given day, I see a parade of people married to someone else’s wives. Depending on where I am, the flavor is slightly different, but the overall feel is unmistakable. And yet, there is so much scandal and shock when divorces happen or women who were housewives at twenty-three run off to become woodworkers or actresses by age twenty-seven, usually with another man, or when men run off with the hotel housekeeper on the Boys’ Fishing Trip in Cancun.
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The problem with humanity’s discomfort with sadness is that it puts the people who are brave and willing to feel all of their God-given feelings in a tight spot. They must remain quiet until they boil over, which typically results in some variation of what we all regard a tragic ending. Or they can be honest and rendered unpopular. They can admit when they’re sad, which is almost always a result of caring too much, or of being too sure of what they want and struggling to reconcile it with a system that cares little for individuality, or of something happening and them responding normally to it instead of glossing it over for the sake of the masses.
Sadness threatens other people’s tenuous sense of Lotus-eater bliss, and it is perceived as weakness rather than strength.
And so, when Hank tested positive for heartworm this week, I was completely deflated. I have been nothing but morose this week, because until the treatment is complete there are no guarantees, and because the treatment involves two months of zero elevated heartrate, which means not only can we not hike, mountain bike, fish, walk, run around the house in our underwear, and get excited about nothing together, but also that I have to go out of my way to keep him calm and comfortable if I want him to survive, which will be extremely difficult with a dog as vivacious as Hank. And further, it will prove a crippling blow to my life, which I have unabashedly built around him. People call that unreasonable, or pejoratively quaint. They think it is folly to love something that will not last forever, and they laugh to themselves as they buy more diamonds for their third wives. They think because he cannot verbalize his suffering that “He will be just fine,” and that “Those two months will be over before you know it.” And indeed, in hindsight, they will be over, but during the two finest months of spring, we will not be exploring the seasonal waterfalls in our new homeland in the Ozarks. We will not be making friends the only way we know how. We will not be squeezing every last drop out of every last one of our precious, numbered days.
I am deeply grateful that I have something in my life that I love enough that I can be devastated by a “speed bump.” If I did not know how much fun Hank and I could have, if I limited how much I love and admire that dog or chose not to spend so much time with him, I may not be as upset as I am. But what is the point of that. I am glad that I was granted a tolerance for emotional distress and a brutally honest emotional register, and I am especially grateful that in my thirteen months with Hank, I have come to learn once and for all how much better sitting by a nameless stream in the middle of the woods is than watching the Super Bowl, how much more lasting the pleasure of a memorable day outdoors with my dog, netting an exceedingly average fish or completing a hike with no Instagram-worthy view is than the most fleeting pleasures offered to us through material success or sex or any other thing which normally drives the masses on the unending hedonistic treadmill.
When you admit you’re sad, you proffer that perhaps the dangling carrot ahead is not a good enough reason to keep walking. And that is a very good thing, even though most of the world thinks it is very bad. When people say, “Try Not to Let It Get You Down,” sometimes they mean well, but usually they just do not want to be inconvenienced by the reality that there is disappointment in this world, of a kind which no sexual conquest or financial success can erase (the two are closely correlated and equally vapid, but that is another story). And just as surely as there is sorrow with unending depths, there is joy beyond words, should you only open yourself up to both possibilities instead of being in denial about either.