Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Through a Glass Darkly

From the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth

Many bloggers (who I greatly admire) have explained that their blog is a space for counting blessings, for appreciating simple pleasures, for capturing moments of beauty.   I completely understand that; this is our chance to show our best side. Many of us prefer to sing a hymn to happiness; most of us prefer to hear that song.  But I would just like to say that maybe there is also a need for a hint of disquiet.  Just occasionally, a murmur of pain or a streak of ugliness would not go amiss.

I know that I should know better, but sometimes a beautiful blog will make me feel that there are those amongst us who live perfect lives.   I don’t mind (well, not too much) that other people’s lives are more aesthetically pleasing and creatively engaged, but what really causes a pang is when other people’s lives seem happier.  I know, realistically, that there must be a shadow side to every beautifully lit image, but it is so easy to be beguiled.

A couple of weeks ago, I received the sad news that an old schoolmate had died.  Actually, he committed suicide.  When I read the obituary, it described a life that seemed perfect in every conceivable way:  Happy marriage; healthy children; successful business; great friends; loads of fulfilling hobbies.  Perhaps that was all true, but it read like a big whitewash of what was probably a normal human life that had become unendurable for some reason.

 I hadn’t seen this man in years, but his death has haunted me.  Was he the sort of person who always had to tell you how GREAT everything was?  Was he afraid to fail, to be frail? 

Last year I read Barbara Ehrenreich's Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World , and I remember thinking that always looking on the bright side can be so downright tyrannical.  Surely sadness and struggle are as much a part of life as the brighter, lighter side of the spectrum.  A positive attitude won't necessarily cure cancer, calm a surly teenager or lead to a good job offer in a bad economy.  What a comfort it is to say, "I feel low; I'm angry and sad," and have someone reply that they feel that way, too, sometimes.   

I think that there can be an incredible pressure on women, especially, to focus on the positive, and eliminate the negative.  I often feel like a cross between cheerleader and peacekeeper, always ready with the pep talk or soothing word – whichever is required.  I know that many women feel this way.  If I really want to tell the truth and let it all hang out (emotionally speaking), then I have to find a female friend.  As I mentioned in my last blog, I’m feeling a bit drained of buoyant spirits right now.  Thank you for your supportive comments; they helped.


Charlotte said...

This hit a real nerve with me, my uncle committed suicide. The effect was profound and life was never quite the same again.
What was particularly hard to take was the sermon at his funeral which glossed over the sadness and tried to give the impression of a happy marriage. Something we now know to be untrue.

No one can ever know what drives the inner demons of a person.
It is also true that we are often reluctant to let people know when things are hard (especially if we think of them as less hard than the lives of others). Being angry or upset is the body's way of letting out the pressure and telling that something needs to be addressed and changed.

Sometimes it is merely that we are unable to change the elements of our lives that cause the most friction or distress (as mother of an autistic son I frequently find need to vent frustrations, yet cannot change the situation I am in).

I hope that you know you are not alone, I agree totally that it is an essential part of the human condition but also that we are so reluctant to face away from the sun as well as towards it. With very best wishes and I hope Empathy

elizabeth said...

Too true, dear Bee, too sadly true. There is great pressure upon us to 'make everything all right' --all the time. I used to teach the deceptively simple poem Richard Corey and found that kids really responded to it.
Will continue this in a private e-mail!!

Sarah Laurence said...

I’m so sorry about your friend. A suicide is a tragedy, but I don’t think it’s an indicator of quality of life. Depression is a mental disease, and stress can make even a sane person sick. I don’t think happiness is quantifiable. Some people are happier with what they have, and others with everything will still be sad. Sharing does help us deal with pain, loss and disappointment. I laughed over your cheerleader-peacemaker comment. So true!

marja-leena said...

I hear you and nod in agreement! (My comment in the last post seemed to have gone awry, sorry Bee, for you were much in my thoughts too.) It seems that this illusion to say that everything is wonderful in our lives is a way of hiding from how terrible things are "out there" as well as sometimes in our own lives. One dear person in our lives would actually get the shakes if we ever discussed politics, for example - so talk about denial.

I always say that if we did not have the dark side, we would not appreciate the bright side. And I'm guilty of not blogging enough about the dark side. Wishing you and your loved ones happy resolutions to difficult things.

Elizabeth said...

True, totally true and guilty as charged.

Heard this question once in a tv-serie:

What is easy besides complaining?

That made me realize that everything else takes an effort no matter who we are.

Beth said...

Everything you’ve written in this post? You are not alone. If one wishes to touch the hearts and minds of others, best to share both some of the bad as well as the good. And not just in the blogging world...
Appearances can be deceiving. This, I know.
So sorry to hear about your friend. What horrible pain he must have endured.

Belinda @ Wild Acre said...

I absolutely agree about that pressure on women, or perhaps a need in some of us, to soothe, make right, create harmony. Like Mrs Ramsay in Woolf's To the Lighthouse, which really captures that sense of a matriach intent on creating stability and an impression of happiness even if it is not really there.

Life can be hard, brutal even and not everyone wants to share their experiences on a blog, which is totally understandable, but can result in unrealistically "perfect" impressions I suppose. I admitted to feeling a bit stressed in my last post, and I have to admit, wondered if people would be put off ...but not enough not to post.

I admire your honesty, and am so sorry for your haunting loss. Belinda x

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to hear about your friend. What a strange, mixed-up life he must of been living to end it all so abruptly.

I think that you're absolutely right about woman trying to be so damned happy/positive all the time. I get irritated and angry-- and I say so. This makes me well-balanced, not a shrew.

I need to find this book you mentioned and give it a look-see. Sounds like I'm going to like it.

Lucy said...

I haven't read the Barbara Ehrenreich book, but it was a great relief and satisfaction to me when I heard about it, I grow more and more tired of the positive-affirmation-visualise-abundance relentless sunshine that permeates so much so-called spiritual or psychological thinking, or lack of thinking.

But Sarah's right too, suicide is an anomaly, a rather too frequent one, but rarely a consequence of any obvious set of outside pressures. A very dear friend whose father killed himself and who sought help herself to come to terms with it often quotes a counsellor who said 'there is no story to suicide' - that to try to comprehend or justify or blame is usually a mistake, though early damage can of course dispose people to depression.

There was a very popular gardening blogger and columnist, I forget her name, a few years ago, whose blog and other writings showed an incredibly rich, joyful, creative life; she could make heavenly gardens anywhere, had a loving husband and a young daughter. All of these things in her life were real and true and genuine, but she nevertheless took her own life with depression when she seemed to be at the height of her powers. That reality overpowered the other, I suppose.

I frequently feel it is smug, ignorant and inappropriate to be relishing my own good fortune and cheerfulness when there is overwhelming suffering everywhere. Other times I beat myself up for being gloomy and negative and not doing more constructive, creative energetic things with my time when other people who have much harder lives still manage to achieve so much! I suppose the best I can do is recognise that any good fortune and happiness I have is down to pure luck, not my own virtue or positive thinking, and be grateful for it, but that doesn't mean I don't feel defeated and inadequate and hopeless sometimes.

Sometimes when I blog about being low or having problems, I feel a bit of a fraud, and am embarrassed by the sympathy I get, so sometimes I avoid it or just find something pretty or pleasant to blog about instead, or simply don't blog. There is a danger of being rather unreal. But I did find that doing three beautiful things for a time when I was low, just after my sister died, was something of a life saver; I wasn't in denial about grief, but it just provided a small kind of discipline and a focus which really was helpful.

There are rather a lot of rosy-gardened blessing-counting hello-clouds-hello-sky kind of blogs about, but there also seem to be quite a few where people are rather fixated in a state of angst and preoccupation with their own unhappiness, and sometimes that can come across as attitudinising too. I wonder if there's a danger that of becoming stuck in a self-limiting image of ourselves with this business?

Anyway, I seem to have written more than you did in your post and indeed more than I often do in mine too! Don't feel you have to be all falsely sunny or Pollyanna-ish for anyone's benefit here, but don't feel obliged to breach your own privacy and air all your worries if you don't want to either. Please take care, I wish you strength and peace and hope your troubles become easier before too long.

herhimnbryn said...

Dear Bee,
Nothing is ever as it seems, is it?

You are right about women having to be calm and peaceable, stuck in the middle.

I have nowt to say that won't sound 'pollyanna-ish', but finding a good friend to tell of the bloody times is essential.

Talking with a good friend and walking miles has always helped me. Hope you get some Bee time soon.

Amanda said...

i'm so sorry about the loss of your friend. the death of someone before his time is sad enough, but when it's a loss to suicide that is a shock to the system.

i sympathize with your statement about how we don't really see into others' lives and how they can seem happier than our own. i think we humans have developed a keen ability to wear masks to cover our pain, and it takes ongoing dedicated work to shed them and become the authentic souls we want to be.

steven said...

bee - i'm going to write this as i think it so i've no idea how this will emerge.
my blog is written and illustrated to present the possibility that, despite the very real suffering that accrues to simply living, i wish to share the equally real joy and wonderment that is part and parcel of my experiencing of this entirely unlikely place. my sense is that were i to share the surface features of my life -while people might connect in a knowing and nodding way to the very real challenges i face in all facets of my life - there would be no real learning short of simple connection and hence, no real change to the manner in which they perceive or share their own lives.
because of this i choose to offer a possibility and that is that love and goodness and beauty and kindness are real no matter the terms of one's life and so remain worthy of sharing if only to bring some light into an otherwise sorry world. steven

Frances said...

Yes, Bee, our real lives do contain many minutes and connections that deny us our wish to write about joy, lightness, and omit darker painful realities.

Your post always has these dichotomies well balanced. I do not often leave you a comment, but always am glad to read what you have written.

Best wishes.

Teresa O said...

Bee, I am sorry for your classmate. Understanding suicide takes a far greater mind than I possess.

Now I realize you are not only an eloquent writer, but a courageous one as well. You have put into words my thoughts as I peruse the sunshine and rainbow blogs that leave me wondering why the light shines so brightly on their lives.
Shamefully, I admit there is an element of envy.

Life is messy and at times raw, ugly, and hard. Why are we so afraid to let others see the struggle? Would opening up about financial troubles, an Asperger's grandson, or frustration in finding a path really be so bad?

Your words have made me think about what impression I leave through my blog and does it present the real me? The truth is no one knows what lies behind a smiling face unless we share and why shouldn't we? You have inspired me and perhaps it's time for a change.

I applaud your style and eloquence, dear Bee, and encourage you to do what's best for you.

the veg artist said...

We are all so 'polite', aren't we? We are taught to respond politely as children, as in "Nobody actually wants to know, so don't you dare say what is happening, or how you are feeling".
Is this a trait of so-called advanced, sophisticated society?

kristina - no penny for them said...

yes, i do agree with you. i think the biggest tragedy is that by keeping a happy face (for a million reasons), our standards change, and our expectations. it has the widest possible implications.

we somehow feel that by being sad or unhappy or restless or clueless, we have failed. because others don't. and that's simply not true.

i think we equally have to learn to be sad and let it on, as well as to learn to truly comfort and reassure.

of course i haven't got the faintest idea whether saying i feel the same is any comfort at all.

catmint said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cottage Garden said...

I do concur Bee. I have always been very sceptical about the whole "positive thinking/how to be happy/how to be a success" thing that came out of the States in the last 20 or so years. Jenni Murray's review of Ehrenreich's book is balanced but also taken from her own personal perspective and viewpoint as a survivor of breast cancer.

As far as blogs are concerned I do hear you. Some blogs seem to present an impossibly happy, head in the clouds family life. However there is a place for everything I feel, and I tend to read different blogs for different reasons. Sometimes I just want a bit of escapism!

I have touched on depression, borne out of the loss of my parents, a couple of times on my own blog and have come across other blogs that have done the same. But generally my own blog has a balanced feel (I hope!). I don't feel that everything should necessarily be laid bare in a blog post unless of course the writer feels comfortable in doing so and as Lucy says one should not feel obliged to overstep that mark.

I'm sorry for the loss of your old schoolmate. It must have been a terrible shock for his family and friends. Severe depression and the mental illness that may precipitate it, is unfortunately still not talked about enough and understood. The gardening journalist Lucy refers to was Elspeth Thompson who tragically took her own life having suffered depression for many years.

Thank you for opening this debate Bee and for the very interesting views that it has brought forth.

Take care.


Hausfrau said...

I feel for you--and have similar feelings, myself.

A Woman Of No Importance said...

Dearest Bee, thankyou. I think we all get low, depressed, gloomy, all Eeyore-y - However we wish to describe it.

Those who don't, I believe, are delusional, or quite simply they lie or want us all to believe their garden is always rosy - It can't be!

Many women, me included, have that tendency to give to others, to nurture, to rescue, to put others first above ourselves... That sometimes leads to a lack of support for us - Ask yourself, what do I need?

You have the answer, I think.

In the meantime, please do more of the things that make you feel more like you, if that's possible; look after you and your body during this low time... Spend time outdoors if you can, even if it's cold and dreich... If you feel up to walking or exercise, go for it. All sensible advice, I hope - nothing about positive thinking, I swear - Just looking after you...

Suicides just upset me. I can easily obsess over them, particularly when it concerns the young - and I dwell too much on how sad their loved ones must be.

Sometimes there is no warning, no avenue of return, few signs of anything wrong. Fears internalized and swallowed then acted out, usually in violence - Leaving behind only questions, sometimes guilt, shame and more sadness.

Love you, B - Thank you once again for your honesty. Take care, do speak to your friends, as you say and be honest - Be true to you - Fhina x

Marcheline said...

I, too, just found out about a schoolmate that died (they wouldn't tell how, but I suspect suicide). Odd how things cluster together in life...

... and yes, there IS a time to be sad, angry, and downright dissatisfied with how things are going. If we don't let ourselves feel the full spectrum of our emotions, we are stunting the experience of being alive.

So let it fly when you need to. We all feel that way sometimes and we can give support just as much as we need to receive it.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Bee

I am truly sorry about your friend. Sometimes, we do not understand the hurt and pain people are going through.

My blog is a simple one and what you read is the real Tracy. Even though I do not have many readers, I hope the ones that read my blog will learn something.

Take care.

Tracy :)

Cait O'Connor said...

Bee, I just got your comment. 'I wish it could be Book Club every day'(- that could be a song - substitute Christmas for Book Club). I hope that lifted your spirits - it certainly did mine. Those children will remember your teaching and when they are adults they will speak of you - you can be proud.

elizabethm said...

Bee - I do understand totally what you mean and have felt myself the glassy inpenetrability of the relentlessly positive. But for those of us who blog in a way which is not anonymous there is the huge issue of privacy, not simply our own but the privacy of those we love. For me practically all of the parts of my life that cause me pain (as well as joy) are shared with other people. I could blog endlessly about the impact on my life of my brother's crippling stroke but it is his story far more than mine and I know he would mind hugely to have it made too public. When I am caught up in the difficulties as well as the pleasures of sharing my house and my life with my aged father in law, I am aware that his grandchildren read my blog and I need to be sensitive (the cheerleader, the peacekeeper, as you say) to their feelings too. So my blog might show you the light on the hill but it doesn't mean I don't have the sleepless nights, just that they are not always stories which are only mine to share. Know that even though I have not met you I mind that you are not having an easy time just now and wish you well.

steven said...

bee this is a brave post and while i choose to offer a sense of the place that so many of the surface features of this existence point to i want to tell you that i admire you for laying bare some of the trite and empty places that are opened up in the blogosphere instead of the bare bones reality of how difficult this place is to live in, how very hard it is to sustain a healthy sense of self let alone other, and then perhaps most importantly, how to manage and move beyond the trivialities and talk about the darkness. every life has darkness. it's a place of possibility in itself, a place of learning, a place in which to really learn who and what you value, know, want, love, hate, are prepared to do, etc. you're awesome bee - you've taken a massive piece and freed it . . . . steven

Anonymous said...

You see how amazing this internet world is? You gave me chills, instant recognition, even from such a distance. Actually, after I lost my job and was forced to relocate my family away from the place we had come to love in the UK just in order to survive economically (no permanent visa, no universal health insurance), I used to read YOUR blog and think "how beautiful, how perfect, how lucky" -- but I always know that everyone has their demons, their struggles. Call me American but I do think it is important sometimes and helpful -- I find it so -- to try to affect that old "positive attitude," "count your blessings" and all that. I still cry, but not all the time. I still have pain, but I can suppress it. Above all, we have life, which is the greatest gift of all. That's the saddest thing about your schoolmate - LIFE is the ultimate privilege - don't hold it cheap.

SueAnn said...

I prefer to think that most everyone lives surrounded by smoke and mirrors!! Rose colored glasses only work for so long. A crash and burn happens to us all! Don't you think?
Happy trails!!

Nimble said...

Thinking of some of the blogs/online journals in the early days of the internet. It seemed very intimate and anonymous and people would pour out their problems. I tend to prefer angsty over glossy myself. We have a human drive to make sense, make order, make pretty. But all that is in response to an existence that contains a great deal of absurdity and pain. I've been thinking about this in response to the Penn State child sex abuse story too. What is true? What is never spoken of?

zephyr said...

i very much appreciate this post. And am so sorry to read about your school friend...and yes, you are right...

julochka said...

i just read that barbara ehrenreich...and found it sobering. and all the more poignant at a distance to the US, as it flounders to keep that positive face in place while everything crumbles around it.

i'm sorry to hear about your old friend. i think suicide is always so difficult to understand, but as barbara kingsolver says, we never really know how inside of themselves people are. everything can look perfect from the outside, because everyone presents a facade, whether it's in real life or in the blogosphere, but it's very hard to know what it's REALLY like. sometimes even for ourselves.

i think it sounds like you need a long weekend change of scenery, so i think you should pop over and visit me. we can let all of the truth out over endless cups of tea and maybe some wine....


Ink Spiller said...

I'm sorry to hear about your friend and how the news affected you.

I started reading Smile or Die earlier this year but I had stop. I had just suffered a nervous breakdown because of work and wouldn't you know it, I got told that I had to be positive about work and the manager who caused it.

I was lucky to find a therapist who seems to be channeling Barbara Ehrenreich with remarkable accuracy and together we agreed that I had nothing to bloody smile about when it came to my situation at work. That helped!

It's not all gloss and fairy floss! The most wonderful thing to me about reading blogs is reading about real people overcoming real problems. I find my strength there and I get my little pom poms out and play cheerleader. Now that's something to smile about!

keishua said...

I heard about smile or die a while ago and it looked like a great book. I read an interview from the author and loved what she said about language and positivism and how it traps us. i really don't enjoy reading about perfect lives because they never happened. We all have demons and bad days.

Gina said...

Dear Bee, I have just written a "down" post when I'm usually very upbeat and someone sent me a link here. I'm so glad that they did. This is a wonderful post and you express how I feel so eloquently. Thank you. I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. Gina x

Relyn said...

The meal has been eaten.
The kitchen is clean.
The leftovers are stashed.
The walk has been taken.
Everyone is happy and fed and blessed.
Now I have the time to stop by.
On this Thanksgiving Day, I wanted to tell you that I am thankful for you; for this blog; for our friendship. Sending you much love, Relyn

Lisa said...

So many wonderful comments, I don't know what to add except to say yes. This resonates.


Reya Mellicker said...

This is a wonderful, beautiful post.

Don't you believe for one minute than any one of us leads some perfectly balanced lifestyle. No way.

I'm very sorry to hear about your old friend. Suicide is so bad, the energy around it never feels right.

Thinking of you.


Meri said...

I've found, as I've gotten older, that it's the dark times that are the most fruitful in terms of growth. Growth from the darkness is always achieved only with the most horrendous effort, because it's all too easy to succumb to despair. I try to balance my attempts to uplift and entertain (blog-wise) with an honest look at the not-so-welcome emotions and darkness ----- and sometimes feel very exposed in so doing. The most recent example is my post "Over" a couple of days ago.

twebsterarmstrong said...

People are like the moon - we don't show our dark side to others.

(This is attributed to Mark Twain, but I am not sure if that is accurate.)

Marcheline said...

Come back to us, Bee!

Relyn said...

Oh, Beth. I am so sorry for your sadness. The last time I was here I just stopped by to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. It was a sort of hit and run comment. Now, I am sad that I missed the opportunity to offer comfort and support. I am sorry for the loss of your friend, sorry for your sadness. I am a person who counts my blessings, a lot. But, I think you are right. It is important to acknowledge our sadness, or hurt, or pain. That acknowledgement allows others to offer support, comfort, and compassion; something we all need. I send you love and support. And, I hope, some comfort, too.

Christina said...

it's hard, life is never easy... this touches my heart, in so many ways. i agree it isn't all perfect, but i always thought of my blog as where i put things that make me happy, get me out of the funk. i don't mind what anyone places on their blog, good or sad- whatever gets them through the day. in my life, i have had times that were bad, even being homeless... i find solace in the positive, but i am not always that person. and i have shared that on my blog. who knows, maybe my struggles will help someone, who is struggling as well.

i am sorry about your friend. i haven't been able to speak publicly about my friend yet.

i send you love~

Marcheline said...

It's my birthday today... come by my blog for a cocktail and a weenie in a blanket! 8-)

Relyn said...

I miss you here, Beth. I understand, but I do miss you. I just wanted you to know.

Christmas day has flown past, but I had to stop a moment and wish you all the joys of the season. May you be blessed and know it each day. Love you! ~ Relyn

Anna said...

Bee, happy new year!
Anna :)

Roger said...

Nothing is ever as perfect as it seems. I always seem to notice that and, as we get older, I think it becomes easier to see "through a glass darkly". The people that seem to get the most out of life are the ones that don't strive for perfection, happiness, or even success. These are the people that just live, not for definition, but to enjoy life and all its good and bad parts. Striving for the unattainable always ends with the person coming up short.

Stephanie said...

Have not been blog visiting much as of late...but felt I needed to comment.

While I share my art and good feelings 95% of the time my family too has experienced this loss...much more common that I could have ever guessed. I did choose to share and was overcome with emotion with the responses I received.

I do believe that positive outpourings will prompt the universe to send goodness ones way...I have a brother who lives in a black cloud, constantly, and cannot understand why good things seemingly come so easy for others and never to him.

at any rate...I thank you for your open heart and sharing of these real feelings.

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