One day this past summer, I came home from work tied up in a knot of anxiety. I was frustrated and in the mood to vent. I was at my boyfriend’s house; he was making us dinner and I was whining. I whined and whined and as soon as I completed my final lap around the whine track, I did what I always do: I turned around and did the whining in reverse. Lap by undone lap, I rattled off the reasons I was grateful, the reasons I was actually incredibly happy, the reasons I loved my life and shouldn’t feel this frustration in the first place. But before I was halfway done, he interrupted.
“Stop doing that.”
“Stop countering all your emotions with logic and gratitude. Fuck logic and gratitude — just feel this. Let yourself feel this. Don’t numb yourself like that.”
I was struck dumb. A mixture of confusion, shock and relief washed over me. I wasn’t feeling grateful. Not right then. And so I stopped, turned around and went right back to complaining. Then he told me to yell, so I yelled. He yelled back in agreement. We were both yelling. He told me to throw something, so I picked up a newspaper and threw it across his kitchen, the separating pages floating down all around us. He cheered me on as I kicked the papers and we both started laughing, and he grabbed my shoulders and said, “Just feel it.”
It sounds so cheesy but, for the rest of that night, I felt lighter than I had in a while. I felt like I’d run a race, endured the pain and got to the end, endorphins pumping through my veins, my breath returning to me, my body better for it. I felt different. That was the key, I think: feeling different. To run and un-run a race is to expend energy only to end up where you started. This time, I was somewhere new.
I’ve long been called an over-thinker, but under-feeler might be more accurate. I’m good with reason, and it’s been my weapon against discomfort for as long as I can remember. As a kid, my precocious ability to “see the bigger picture,” as my mom always put it, lent my youth the appearance of an even keel. No party was so important, no boy so special, no opportunity so critical, that I might be wooed into melodrama. I had the uncanny ability to un-feel bad stuff inside the length of a journal entry. A blank page, a long talk, a little perspective: I believed these were the only things I needed to solve the unsavory parts of human existence. Dwelling inside any emotion short of happiness was intellectual laziness, wasn’t it? It was a choice, wasn’t it?
The “big picture” was my religion. I’ve spent 28 years worshipping at its altar. It worked for a long time. It made me a writer, for one. It gave me the gift of seeing the forest for the trees, the capacity to weather storms, the ability to “manage conflict” instead of fight and scream and throw stuff. I never understood when movie characters pushed things off tables with an enraged, sweeping arm. Obviously you have to clean that up later, dude.
As I got older, though, my logic took on an insidious edge. My ability to see both sides became the inability to make a decision. Where I was being reasonable, others were taking risks. And when I saw them benefit from shortsightedness, haughtiness or the temporary insanity of passion, I was bitter. Why were they being rewarded for their mistakes? Meanwhile, gratitude and the long view were dulling my senses, taking the form of their own, more subtle kind of mistake.
When I moved to New York, I felt like a new person, like I’d finally moved the needle off the broken record singing, “be grateful, be grateful, be grateful” like a comforting lullaby that rendered me immobile. In New York, I was different, uncomfortable, alive. But I’m still me, as it turns out, and I contain multiple strains of emotional suppression. I guess it’s hard to abandon a thought pattern you’ve been tracing for decades, especially one that’s occasionally quite helpful.
In Heather Havrilesky’s most recent Ask Polly column, I Can’t Decide on a Career and I Feel Like Garbage, a woman seeks advice about the future of her professional life. She sounds panicky, confused and dizzy in her indecision. Heather tells her to harness that energy: “The worst thing you can do right now is retreat into some very pragmatic, self-hating state in which you arbitrarily choose something that will sound solid to the people around you,” she says. “And the best thing you can do? Follow your dreamy self when it takes a flying leap off another crazy cliff.”
Her answer is profound. One commenter, meanwhile, offers a different perspective below Heather’s lengthy counsel: “I’m sorry, but this person lacks gratitude. That is what has allowed her to land in such a mess of unknowing — she doesn’t sound like she’s spent much time counting her obvious blessings and appreciating it truly.”
Which response do you think that woman found more helpful?
I’m not denouncing gratitude and perspective; they are tools I hold dear. Thinking of what I have instead of what I want is humbling, grounding and comforting. Remembering that I only have one life has also been a driving force behind some of my most gratifying leaps. But these concepts are also easy to abuse. In moments of uncertainty and frustration, I’ve used them as excuses to not act, move, change — as escape buttons on my feelings. These feelings, if seen through, might have shown me something, taught me something or, like that night in my boyfriend’s kitchen, surrounded by floating newspaper pages, brought me a more enduring peace than squirming my way out of them.
So, sometimes? Fuck logic. Screw gratitude. Sometimes, push all your shit off the table with an enraged, sweeping arm. Cleaning it up later might teach you something.
Collage by Kelsey Lim. Photo by George Marks/Retrofile via Getty Images.