As those who know me can woefully attest to, I am not the type of person to agonize over wardrobe choices. But when I reached for a sweater from my dwindling Clean Pile and came up with a cozy blue one, I hesitated. I stood there for a little while, half-dressed, holding the sweater at arm’s length as a convoluted stream of thoughts battled it out through the morning grogginess. Not because the colour was unflattering, not because it clashed with my pants, not because knits are out this season, but because emblazoned on the front, in friendly, bubbly lettering, was the word “SMILE.”
I knew that most people, myself included, faced with a goofy-font request to grin would likely react in some positive way. If not by smiling, than at least hopefully remembering that it’s still an option. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that demanding a smile from everyone I crossed paths with seemed a bit insensitive. What if someone I encountered, a friend, was having an off-day? My shirt wasn’t offering a sympathetic ear or a tight hug, it was suggesting they bury whatever they were really feeling under a veil of cheerful visual cues.
Nearly everyone has an automatic response for the casual query “How’s it going?” In the barrel, loaded, ready to go, is that reflexive “Good,” “Well,” “Fine.” I’ve come across a lot of discussion about this lately, calling us all out on out how little stuff like this normalizes the way we stifle hardships, hiding our weaknesses from one another. We’re all kind of programed to appear healthy and happy when someone asks how we are, regardless of whether or not we are. This discussion, I think, is constructive in that it encourages people to answer “How’s it going?” more honestly. I think it’d be nice for people to feel at ease talking through their problems, and would be a good exercise in empathy for all parties involved.
But like anything good, this message’s resonance came to an end with me. After scrolling through pages of various blog posts, newspaper articles and well-intentioned videos, I started to feel a little smothered. The concept of someone’s ability to be honest warped into a responsibility to share. I felt guilty for all the times I’d answered “Great!” to a polite co-worker, when what I was really feeling was more “Dishearteningly overwhelmed by life, stuff, and things.”
After wallowing in this image of myself as an everyday liar for a while, I started to actually think about why I lie about these things. It wasn’t because I felt some societal pressure to be perpetually cheerful, or enjoyed perpetuating an image of emotional invincibility. In fact, there are many people who have seen me laying, probably curled up, on the floor, or perhaps sprawled across a table, sobbing unattractively as only an excess of feelings can cause a person to do. Mostly because of my inability to handle terrifying amounts of kindness and happiness, but sometimes because I’ve been wholly defeated by the day.
It’s not that I don’t tell people what I’m really feeling. I’m not an emotional hermit. I just like to choose when I share, and with whom. If I tell you I’m doing great, when I’m really not, it’s not because I’m afraid the pillars of society will crumble, it’s just because this isn’t the time or place to talk about what’s eating me.
I do encourage you to ask, though. People you really care about, even when those people are strangers. Make sure you really ask, not just a quickly-rattled “whatsup?” Only ask when you want to know the answer, and know that really asking places a responsibility on you, not the answerer.
And that is a responsibility I am willing and happy to take on, all the time. So if you see me around wearing that blue knit sweater, know that despite the bold invitation, its shoulders would welcome your tears.
Plus, I give great hugs.