The Mask of Being Positive vs. The Reality of Being Hopeful
Perhaps it’s done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. — from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable
Every morning I wake and clean my home. I spray and wipe down the counters and the stove burners. I sweep and vacuum the floors, load the dishwasher, and make my bed, freshen the sheets. Twice a day I shower and wear clothes that are clean and pressed. I spray perfume on my neck and rub moisturizer on my face. On good days, I wear red lipstick. On bad days, I carry Chapstick and apply and reapply until the possibility of gliding over my face becomes a reality. Admittedly, part of this desire to clean and be clean stems from growing up in a home that was unkempt, unclean. It comes from a compulsion based on control, the need to create order where none exists. Then I walk as far as I can go, to the point where a ticker-tape of cars separates me from the ocean, and I’m comforted by limits, a self-imposed pause, and confinement — there are still places I can’t reach yet the cars keep moving. Life goes on.
I walk the length of the boardwalk and spend a little money for a machine, featuring a fortune teller named Zoltar, to tell me my fortune. Despair not I say for your days of despair will soon be over. And then this: You have many friends, particularly in the armed forces. I carry this ticket, my fortune foretold, everywhere I go, as if it’s a fakir ready to ferret out the light in what feels like a constant darkness. As if I have a platoon at my disposal, ready to wage war against the past seven months I’ve lived in disquiet. Already, the stub is worn from my hope and handling.
Ours was a generation that was instructed to Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Amidst pestilence, war, economic uncertainty, cultural apathy, and a generation who wanted to pull the covers over our collective heads to escape all the bullshit we were burdened to bear, we were taught to “reframe the narrative”, to turn the beat around, to think happy thoughts and remain on an even keel. Sadness was greeted with the refrain: Be positive! So we wore our masks and whitewashed the story of ourselves that we presented to others. We refused to be a drag, to invite others to stand in our darkness. Being positive doesn’t allow for unsettling thoughts to creep and burrow in. Being positive excises anything that’s malignant in nature, but stand in the light long enough and you’ll end up burned by it. The benign becomes malignant by the sheer act of living a life in a single extreme; our happiness brings forth a kind of inoperable cancer. Breed happiness long enough and you’ll find yourself smothered by the mask you so readily affixed and tightened over your face. Be positive, you’re instructed, even if you can’t breathe. Even if you end up choking on your self-imposed glee and your face remains paralyzed in the shape of a teeth-baring smile.
I think about my simple routines: cleaning house and taking care, and wonder why I bother maintaining something I’ll likely lose. Why do I cart around a stub from a machine that spits out fortune-cookie predictions like it’s some sort of talisman?
The very brilliant Rebecca Solnit views hope as a kind of opening in the context of uncertainty. It neither predicates a fairytale ending or doom, rather it allows for space to navigate between the two and move toward something other. Hope accounts for the totality of experience to arrive at a new reality. She writes,
It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.
I carry my fortune as I stare at an inbox willing projects to come in. I sweep and scrub the floors because hope isn’t about giving up, it’s a pressing on. It’s the will to get through something by going through it, acknowledging and settling into the fear, anger, sorrow, regret and despair that accompanies that journey through, out, and beyond.
For me, drinking has served as an anaesthetic, a way in which I can prolong the inevitable. My reality still exists it’s only my dealing with it that’s put on pause. So when I hear the words “be positive”, it feels like anaesthesia, albeit in a different form. “Be positive” invites you to be myopic, to set aside real emotion for an architected one. “Be positive” is an Icarus jetting up to the sun in wings fashioned from feather and wax. Daedalus, his father, warned him to fly neither too low or too high, so the sea’s dampness would not clog his wings or the sun’s heat melt them, but the pleas went ignored, and Icarus plummeted as precipitously as he ascended. There’s no nobility is oscillating between the extremes, but there is value in existing between them. And that value is hope.
I think about Beckett’s line, I can’t go, I’ll go on, and I see it as a carrion call for hope. When your current existence feels unmanageable, when you think that the possibility of going on is fatuous and futile, there exists a part of you (and its size may vary depending on the context of your darkness, among other things, but it does exist) that whispers: Keep moving. One day, that voice shouts: Go on. If I don’t close on a project in the next few weeks, I’ll lose my apartment. Keep cleaning. I’ll lose everything I’ve spent decades building. Get out of bed, take your pills, move through your day because even the possibility of getting better far exceeds the bottomless fall if you don’t try. If you don’t go on. Hope is straddling a dual interior narrative, a war between why bother and yes, you need to bother. Hope carries the burden of the two and it’s what moves you slowly out of the dark into the grey and cloudy and hopefully, into the light. The journey is long, hard, gradual and hardly linear, but it’s a trip worth taking. Hope promises you this. It promises that you’ll learn something from the journey that aids you, even if the destination is not one of myth and fairytales.