No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering… – David Foster Wallace.
Someone asked me recently if I “like” being unhappy. It’s a strange and, at the same time, normal question. Unhappiness can, after all, become familiar, like a pair of well-worn boots you slip into with a little sigh of satisfaction, even if you actually think that the heel is fugly or whatever.
What do you do when you isolate and recognize the feeling of familiarity? Look for a consenting rainbow to have sex with? Hop along the yellow brick road to enlightenment picking up endearingly creepy companions along the way?
These aren’t just rhetorical questions on my part, because I’ve been thinking about the idea of acceptance lately. In TIME*, the awesome Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote that:
We don’t have to dwell incessantly on the worst-case scenarios — the metastasis, the market crash or global pandemic — but we do need to acknowledge that they could happen and prepare in the best way we can. Some will call this negative thinking, but the technical term is sobriety.
Ehrenreich is talking about responding to the ongoing economic crisis here, but I find that this kind of wisdom applies equally to other, even more abstract areas of life. Sometimes, things suck, and you have to admit it. Sometimes, you suck, and not in the fun way either. The night gets longer, and colder, and even more densely populated by howling stray dogs and drunks. Your idiot neighbours leave the building door open, and someone swipes your welcome mat, and probably trades it for heroin – along with their firstborn. A creature slithers out of a Stephen King story and sits on your chest at night, drinking your blood and breath. You struggle to write clever blog entries, when you really should be working.
Acceptance does not have to be defeatism. Defeatism is far too glamorous, anyway, at least in the way that I picture it. Defeatism is putting on your best dress and shoes, buying a bottle of, um, Dom Perignon (or something) with the last of your money, and downing it all in one go while you stand on a bridge railing, supporting yourself against a beam with your free hand, before plunging down. Defeatism is trying to recall high school physics as you wonder what will reach its destination first, the empty bottle, or you. It’s cool like that.
Acceptance, on the other hand, is work. Acceptance is David Foster Wallace’s** stretched-out, glittering instants, spooned patiently into a waiting mouth. It’s a rumbling refrigerator, a ticking clock, a dust bunny, an ancient radiator coming briefly alive with a sound like a wet flipper, a soreness in the thighs, the pounding of fugly heels on well-worn boots on the sidewalk as the indifferent stars come out.
When I was a kid, I used to stay with my parents on something called Kiawah Island, the most boring place imaginable for a teenage girl. In order to amuse myself, I could (1) Read the horrible paperbacks some horrible person stashed on a shelf otherwise populated by plastic dolphins, (2) Put a fork through my eye socket, or (3) Attempt to bodysurf on waves that were tame, but nevertheless slightly more entertaining than romance novels that didn’t include any actual fucking but did include words such as “thee” a lot.
When you’re in the water, you can’t just let the wave come over and smack the hell out of your face like an angry relative. You accept the wave, and work with it. You know precisely the moment when you need to let go. And you ride it out as it kind of gurgles around you, hungry, then sated.
“That’s how I dealt with the pain of giving birth to you,” my mother, who’s famously opposed to anti-pain medication of any kind (she might have been a Viking in another life, we’re looking into it) pointed out recently. “I rode it out.”
(Maybe my fate was sealed then. Who knows?)
Unhappiness is also pain, but it is notoriously difficult to pinpoint. You naturally fight it, fight it hard, because it comes at you from different sides, with different instruments. You neutralize the razor blade, but here’s the samurai sword. Here’s an awful e-mail from some prat who has cleverly masqueraded as a friend. Here’s a bureaucrat whose sole function in life is to ruin yours. Here’s a certain slant of light.
Acceptance confuses the hell out of unhappiness. You turn to it and say, “thank you, I’m grateful that we get to hang out again, should we sit down and order a drink?” Unhappiness isn’t quite sure how to respond to that. It looks around uneasily. It wonders just what the hell you are playing at. It puts its bloody samurai sword on the table, and sits its ass down.
At the end of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (ZOMG SPOILERS! The Tolstoy fanboys will kill me!), the protagonist has the following exchange with himself (crappy translation is mine, I only have the Russian copy on hand, and NO, I’m not going to get into a discussion about why I translate pain as “it” and death as “she,” because it would take too long):
“How wonderful, and how simple – he thought – and pain? – he asked himself – What of it? Here, where are you, pain?”
“Yes, here it is. Alright, let there be pain.”
“And death? Where is she?”
I probably don’t need to tell you that he dies. I also probably don’t need to tell you that the ending is pretty happy. I think Barbara Ehrenreich and Ivan Ilyich might have had a lot to talk about – if one of them wasn’t fictional.
Can you like unhappiness? Well, you can study the familiar contours of its face, total up the added wrinkles, reflect on how both of you have gotten older. You can wrap your legs around it as if it were a pretty man, or let it wrap itself around you like the warm waters of the Atlantic. You can live through it, or die through it. I don’t know if it’s a question of liking it, as much as it is a question of copping to it, and, well, engaging it, so that neither one of you get too bored on the road ahead.
“Fuck like,” she said eloquently. “I’m going to go with ‘undertake.’ ”
* – Call me sentimental, but the image accompanying the article, of an older man smiling in a mirror, is the most heart-breaking and sweetly appropriate photo ever. I love that smiling older man. I want him to teach me about fishing. I HATE fishing, but I bet he would enjoy it, and I would enjoy the fact that he enjoyed.
** – I’m aware of the fact that depression eventually claimed David Foster Wallace. The quote of his I got from John Williams’ essay – Riotous Genius, which you really should read. We don’t judge David Foster Wallace around here, though we do think it sucks that he’s gone.