Saturday, September 25, 2010

On being "okay"

I think a lot, talk a lot, and write a lot about connection, about words, about language, and the spaces between the connections, words, and language that cannot be filled. I think those spaces are necessary. Kahlil Gibran writes:

"…your inner soul is surrounded with solitude and seclusion. Were it not for this solitude and seclusion, you would not be you and I would not be I. Were it not for that solitude and seclusion, I would, if I heard your voice, think myself to be speaking; yet, if I saw your face, I would imagine that I were looking into a mirror."

Being unknown and being unknowable is what draws us together, and what keeps us apart. I think much of life is spent trying to fill those spaces between, to find what lies there, and to find ways of lessening the spaces between us.

Yet, it is so easy to get wrapped up in the mundane nature of the day to day, in the common interactions, that we miss the fact that each interaction is what Rollo May refers to as an “encounter.” We encounter one another’s souls each time we connect, whether we want to or not. Whether we try to, or not. Whether we honor that, or not. “Autopilot” kicks in, and we exchange greetings, sometimes entire conversations, without truly seeing or connecting or being with. I do it all the time—both in giving and in receiving.

How many of you have told someone you’re “okay” when you’re not? *Watches, nodding, as everyone raises their hand.*

How many of you do this regularly? *Watches, nodding, as everybody raises their hands again.*

Yep, I thought so. We all do. Sometimes, it’s just the little stuff that’s got us down: we woke up to the neighbor blaring music, walked into the kitchen to find that the dog had gotten into the garbage can, and trip over the pair of shoes we left in the living room, only to go out to the car and find the engine won’t start. Yeah, that pretty much sucks, no way around it; but when you see somebody and they ask “how are you,” if you’re like me, you’re going to say, “I’m okay.” There may be a sigh, or a grin that says “Oh dear lord, if you only knew…,” but, again, if you’re like me, you’re probably not going to elaborate too much.

But what about when life really sucks? You know, those times beyond the little things like the car not starting. The times when it’s just hard some mornings to drag your butt out of bed. The times when you know in your heart that you’ve hit upon something that is unsayable, when you know you are sitting on a story that is untellable, and when you feel in your gut that you need to say everything is okay, purely because you need someone to believe that it is, even if you can’t. Perhaps it’s all just autopilot then, for a while, or maybe it’s a conscious choice—but I bet, even then, you still told most people, “I’m fine.” “I’m okay.” “I’m hanging in there,” “moving along,” “rolling with the punches,” “doing all right.” My grandmother used to say, “I’m fair to middlin’.”

Sure, I can go through life telling everyone I’m fair to middlin’, and some days, I really am fair to middlin’, whatever that means. Sometimes, these days, though, “I’m okay” is more like a secret code that even I can't discern. Some days, “I’m okay” really means, “I can’t really say what’s going on right now because what I’m thinking is part of my semi-untellable experience, and I know you don’t really want to know.” Sometimes it means, “I don’t know if I’m okay or not.” Some days it says, “nope, not okay, but I don’t want you to know that.”

The past few months, more often than not, there has been this angry part of me that hears me telling everyone “I’m okay” and “I’m fine” when really, I’m just longing to fill that empty space between us that feels miles and miles wide. This angry part of me wants to say “hell no! I’m not ‘okay.’ I’m not ‘fine.’” But then I stop and realize that, yes, in this moment, quite possibly, I am. It’s like this confusing place of “okay” where your entire world is changing as you know it. A place where people are no longer what they were, you are no longer who you were, the world is no longer what it was, and you have no way of understanding this—nor do you want to.

It’s a place of this indefinable change that can’t be described, but can also be “okay” somehow, even while you grieve the change and what you lost. The idea that we can house such dichotomies within ourselves amazes me. The ability to hold so much internally fascinates, encourages, bewilders, and concerns me. Sometimes, this comes out in tears that say, “I am okay, and I am angry, and I am sad, and readjusting, and all of this can only be said through affect.” Sometimes, there is just this confusing state of “I am okay, and I am moving forward and making sense of this new world I find myself in, and I am angry at everything and nothing in particular, and I am sad, and I am confused and shaken and changing in ways I don’t understand and can’t name…and I am also in a place where I can sometimes find peace.”

So what is this “new place?” Am I “okay” or am I “not okay?” I am okay. But I am also not okay because I have to live in a world where really shitty things happen to women. I have to live in a world in which I am scared to leave my apartment at night, a world where I am scared to take walks by myself in broad daylight, a world in which I am now always wondering whether I’m safe or not. I’m not okay because I need to live in a world that makes women question whether what happened to them was “bad enough” to be considered “bad,” a world in which women can be harassed and touched and groped and abused verbally and left with bruises both visible and invisible and be told that they should “be grateful” that “nothing bad happened.”

I’m not okay because I need to live in a world where people can tell women it was their fault, and when they try to get help, they will be questioned as to how they initiated, encouraged, asked for, or did not stop the violence, and will be told that there was nothing that can be done to help them. I need to live in a world where the people women turn to for help become uncomfortable, and these women can be told that if they aren’t standing up to the harassment in a way that will end it, if they don’t speak up, fight back, in just the right way, then they must want it, somehow, subconsciously, and would it be okay if they explored that? This is a world where women are taught for their entire lives to be quiet, and gentle, to not fight back, to not take up space, to not call attention to themselves, and then the second something happens, they are blamed for following all those rules they have been taught.

I live in a world where the victim is blamed over and over and over again. I’m not okay because I need to live with the knowledge that, simply because I am a woman, I am not safe, my body can be seen as public property, and I will be seen as less of a woman—by both men and women—for not acquiescing to what a man wants, when he wants it, whether I know him or not. I’m not okay because there is so often no way for women to fight back to what was done to them, what was taken from them. I’m not okay because I realize that women are not the crazy ones, not the broken ones, not the ones with the problem, and yet they have been made repeatedly to feel crazy and broken and problem-laden when it is actually society that is broken in so many ways. In what way is THAT “okay?” In what way can that, even remotely, be construed as “okay?”

I’m okay. The world is not. And yet, we need to live in it. As a woman, there are few ways to express this anger so it can be heard. As a woman, there are few ways my anger about this issue can be heard. And yet—the anger is what feeds me, is what keeps me going, and keeps me remembering that it’s not me that’s broken.


  1. Wow, that was amazing. I really liked and agree with your conclusion, and it shifts my thinking a little bit, too. "I'm okay, but the world is not." I like that.

    "okay" is such a subjective word, means a million different things and nothing at all.

  2. Laura, this is absolutely brilliant!!! It really speaks to me. There are somethings in daily life for which words just seem so woefully inadequate. I understand and strongly relate to your struggle. I love how you explore what being "okay" REALLY means. Way to go!!!!