In the best case scenario, it’s all just getting very dull, isn’t it? Well, really, it’s been dull for a long time. There was a hazy and non-specific light flickering at the end of the Corona virus tunnel after that jubilant announcement of a vaccine in November, but with non-committal information about when we may be able get that jab in the arm that will allow us to hug family again – and whether or not the jab will even work – it feels like we’ve just cracked into mile 21 of an ultra marathon: the cramp and fatigue are setting in and the finish line is still a good long distance away.
Sitting as I do in my privilege, I know I mustn’t push aside or minimise the impact this pandemic is having on families around the world. It’s true that, for the moment, the full extent of its devastation has only been anecdotal to me: I can buy food; my home is warm; my girls are at school; most importantly, my loved ones are safe and well: these are luxuries not everyone has and I know how important it is not to take them for granted.
The awareness of my own privilege is total. It’s also all-consuming, and it can be debilitating. When asked, “How are you?”, there can only be one answer: “Oh, you know, fine. I have absolutely nothing to complain about.” Having been a faithful advocate of the practice of gratitude since Oprah told me to in the late 90s, I feel that to express anything but unmitigated thanks for everything that has thus-far not gone wrong in my life would be fate tempting of the most treasonous kind.
Except that – please forgive me, fate – I do have a few things to complain about.
For starters, I have’t seen my mum and dad and sister for 14 months. That’s something about which I’d like to complain. I haven’t been back to my home country in 16 months. This wasn’t the plan. We’ve cancelled or seriously curtailed All Fun Things since March last year, and it makes for a long winter when there’s not a cheese fondue to be had and socialising is taboo. I miss home. I miss people. I miss hugs and restaurants and not having to fumble around in my coat pockets for a mask, knowing my glasses are going to fog up the moment I put it on. And while one of these complaints on its own sounds frivolous even to my own ears, all of them together don’t feel like “absolutely nothing to complain about.” Actually, I find I would quite like to complain. And in some cases complaining would be too polite. I want to ROAR.
But I don’t. Because even the desire to do so feels like an affront to all my good luck – or, maybe more specifically, all the bad luck I have so far managed to dodge since the beginning of the pandemic. And here’s the thing I know about bad luck: it doesn’t announce itself. It just appears out of nowhere, making all our previous worries suddenly laughably insignificant.
This is a fact to which I’m not indifferent. I’m fully aware that one oblivious Tuesday afternoon, I could get a call that would shatter everything, and all these grievances I’ve logging quietly in my head would shame and embarrass me. As a friend so perfectly said on the phone to me last week: “Right now life is a case of, if everybody threw their problems into a pile we’d all ask for our own back again.” truer word never spoken.
But I wonder about the psychological toll of an entire generation minimising – and indeed, being grateful for – our problems. As I scroll through the #blessed and #gratitudeattitude platitudes on Instagram (my current escape vehicle of choice), I start to feel a new and unfamiliar sense of rebelliousness rising in my throat. It’s primal: a visceral and undeniable reaction to all the toxic positivity, and I no longer think I should feel guilty about it.
Psychologist Jamie Long says, “When positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. By disallowing the existence of certain emotions, we fall in to a state of denial and repressed emotions. By pretending that we’re feeling ‘positive vibes all day’, we deny the validity of our genuine human experience.”
And right now, the genuine human experience is that life is not what I signed up for. The terms of the agreements I made with the universe have changed. Yours have too. The rug has been pulled out from under us. We may have agreed to live far from home and have to travel to see our families – but we didn’t agree to see them never. We may have agreed to work big jobs that make a better life for our kids, but we didn’t agree to work big jobs and be full-time teachers at the same time. We agreed to live far from big cities because we like the quieter life, but we didn’t agree to swear off travel forever. We love being at home with our kids, but we didn’t agree to never having a moment to ourselves or to going a year without a girls’ night out, ever.
The terms of our carefully negotiated agreements with the universe have been unilaterally amended, and nobody showed us the small print or asked us to sign on the dotted line. Suddenly the pay-off has become much more expensive and, I’m sorry, but I want to complain about that. I want to roar!
I think we can all allow ourselves this small luxury without feeling guilty about not being grateful that things could be much, much worse. Sometimes that fact helps. Often it doesn’t.
All this too shall pass. We will be with family again; we will get excited about travel again; we will hug reflexively and without apology (won’t we?). Like our grandparents whose lives were put on hold in much more brutal circumstances than these, “we will prevail”. I know all this.
But the toxic and unhelpful positivity that says I shouldn’t be upset because others have it worse than I do can’t guilt me any longer. I’m done with denying the genuine human experience that right now, it’s all just hard. And I’m reserving the right to complain – to roar if I need to – just sometimes, just a little bit. Even when, in the eyes of the world, I have absolutely nothing to complain about.
I hope you’ll join me.