“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”
“I put on an Argyll sweater and put on a smile
I don’t know how to do this…
I’m so sorry for everything
I’m so sorry for everything
I’m so sorry for everything
Baby, come over, I need entertaining
I had a stilted, pretending day…
Just say something perfect, something I can steal
Say “Look at me
Baby, we’ll be fine
All we gotta do is be brave and be kind”
The National, “Baby We’ll Be Fine”
“Baby, We’ll Be Fine” is lyrically one of my favorite songs ever. Like a good portion of The National’s work, it’s essentially about the ongoing battle that must often be waged between the internal mind and external appearances.
This particular song is about the quiet feeling of despair that comes when you feel like you have to fake your way through in order to please others. And wouldn’t life be simpler, and the world a better place if we could all just follow those two simple rules (be brave and be kind)?
I’ve spent a good portion of my life defaulting to quiet and fading into the background as a way of masking what is actually a very deep, and often societally unacceptable inner dialogue.
Everyone does this to some extent, and most people live their entire lives in that box. Some people even enjoy playing that social game. They flatter the right people to get ahead, criticize those on the outside and often have no real moral compass (even though they might think they do), because their viewpoints change every time the pendulum swings to a different definition of “right” or “acceptable”.
Others are not intentionally deceiving. They are just naturally nice, happy, agreeable people. These people usually aren’t mean or cruel and can find a way to shift between different social circles and get along with anyone. I would put my middle child in this category. She has the good fortune of naturally having a high EQ (emotional intelligence), and many studies have shown that this trait is one of the best, if not the best predictor of life success.
Then there are those of us for whom this has never come naturally. There are several reasons for this. For starters, it’s difficult to be naturally happy and affable when most of your early adult models were not that way. It’s easy to be hopeful when your list of hurts, rejections and disappointments is still short. Small talk and meaningless conversation FEEL fake to us because there is always so much more going on beneath. We want to talk about things that matter. But the things that matter can often be polarizing, so we avoid talking altogether. But we slip sometimes…
I met my husband during one of those slips- twelfth grade English class. We were discussing a novel we were reading. To this day, I don’t remember what inane thing was said that day by a popular girl in the class, but it was enough that I had to speak up to edify her superficial interpretation. This caught the attention of the weird kid in class- the one with the multi-colored hair, flannel shirt, cargo shorts and combat boots. The next day he was sitting next to me.
Now, in theory, my voice had as much a right to be heard as hers. In reality, it is ingrained in us at an early age that we should never contradict anyone who is either officially or implicitly higher in the pecking order than ourselves. What this should have taught me at the time was that there is a silver lining to sharing your voice in these situations. You will alienate a lot of people. But those that don’t shy away? Those are YOUR people. And they are the most important people that you will ever have the pleasure to know and love.
But I didn’t learn that lesson that day. I continued to be quiet, with those occasional pesky slips for a couple more decades to come. While I could speak deeply with my husband and a couple of close friends, but mostly played it close to the vest in those other social situations.
Something about approaching mid-life changed this. As I hit my late-thirties I began to emerge from the hailstorm of exhausting busyness that comes with raising young children, working full time and filling career blocks.
I had built a life, but for the first time had enough breath and space to look around at it. In so doing, I began to see the parts of it I had neglected by doing the “right” thing. For starters, I had failed to actually answer a very important question- what am I doing? And more importantly- who am I? I tried to answer this by allowing myself to break out of my shell and begin to use my voice more. In another office, with a smaller team and more independence I had successfully done some of this. But this was my chance to take a leadership role on a larger project. Unfortunately I chose the wrong time, and the wrong culture to do it in.
Below is an actual private journal entry from a little over a year ago. Roughly five months before my cancer diagnosis:
Late thirties, nearing 40. She was the cusp between summer and fall. It took a lifetime to get here.
Spring was a blur. Tumultuous. Violent. The girl crouched under a tree in a rainstorm, waiting for the storm to pass.
She grasped at the chance of Summer’s sunnier, safer weather. She ran from the storms and buried herself beneath the steady, plodding, methodical planting and growing of a life.
Reaching the late days of summer, she looked around at what she had grown. Her efforts yielded her a family, a home, a career. Her outward ambiance was thick with foliage. But something was missing. She looked at Autumn on the horizon.
A woman at 40 in today’s modern world is a curious thing indeed. Two decades planting seeds, giving water, providing light. She had a forest, but it stopped expanding. She was surrounded by trees, but they stopped growing taller. She thought that she could climb them, higher and higher. She had earned her voice, her knowledge. She went to speak up, she got talked over. She went to speak up, they criticized her tone. She went to speak up and nobody listened.
Fall. The pushing forward meets a pause. Stunted on the outside, perhaps it’s time she looked inside. She finds a lot of inky, swirling water. Like many others, she had assumed that she would fix all of that by building the supports up around her. All of the plowing and pressing forgot that someday everything has it’s end. The girl, now woman, will have her end too. Will she end before she has even become?
This was me, tied up in knots of frustration. Professionally, emotionally, creatively. This was me ignoring a lot of physical symptoms, blowing them off as stress. This was me creepily foreshadowing the diagnosis that would arrive in only a few short months.
Will I end before I become? I refuse to. The existential slap- the topic of my previous entry- cemented that fear. The fear that I will leave before I have become myself. Before I have shared my voice. Before anyone a step away from my husband and closest friends even knows who I am. What was missing was creative expression. What was missing was me.
I’m shedding my Argyll sweater. I’m shedding my superficial smile. When I smile, it will be radiant and real. When I laugh, it will be full and irreverent. When I cry, it will be heartbreaking and pure. This roller coaster has brought me all of these. And sadly, more of the crying part than I’d wish on anyone.
Yesterday took another dip. My latest scan now shows 4 possible cancerous spots in my peritoneum. This means no HAI pump to help stop the liver tumors from coming back. This means probably no transplant if I need it years down the line. This means that the amount of clinical trials I will be eligible for will be more limited.
I didn’t fall as hard this time as I have in the past. I am adjusting to my new reality of driving into fog. I am adjusting to the reality that because of this every corner I turn from here on out will hold new surprises.
But as long as the corners keep turning, and there are still miles ahead I can take it. Because I don’t have a choice. All I have to do is be brave, and be kind.