Primum Non Nocere (First, Do No Harm).
There are some days when this life overwhelms me. The mistakes, the regrets, the unrealized hopes and dreams, the longings.
I can feel bitterness and cynicism creeping up on me, threatening to steal me away into their black hole. I can become engulfed, momentarily, or on the bad days for longer, in their trickery.
When it happens, the self-punishment inevitably follows, the beating myself up for getting lost in it again, as though it somehow means I am not grateful for my blessings, the guilt and the shame of it.
Then there’s the anger, the anger that these difficult emotional states are so stigmatized by a society that idolizes false ideals of humanity, that feeds us tampon adverts where women wearing white hot pants are found rollerblading at speed, skilfully dodging walkers, not letting their periods slow them down.
The anger that we are a society where self-doubt, uncertainty, patience and taking your time are taboos, or a luxury mere mortals cannot afford, if we want to belong in the success race.
A society that demands we know (or if not, at least have the decency to pretend to know) who we are, where we’re going and what we’re doing. One where the destination is honored but not the process, where people are happy to show the results as long as nobody sees how they got there.
Nobody wants to show the messy scribbles, the workings in the margin (unless they get published posthumously). My mum used to say I’m foolhardy and wear my heart on my sleeve, and she’s absolutely right.
I do, and it’s got me hurt more times than I can count, but the truth is, the people I admire and respect the most are the ones who are real, the ones who have the courage to be vulnerable. Because the thing is that their commitment to authenticity allows others to feel welcomed and accepted rather than alienated and unworthy.
We live in a society where self-pity is pitted by Stephen Fry as the ugliest of emotions, when talking of women who have been sexually abused. Where victimhood has become more demonized than persecution, where holding someone accountable for abuse is more taboo than committing abuse.
Victimhood, self-pity or blaming others are the greatest crimes of a time when everybody supposedly has the power within themselves to make the best of their lives. Where the mantra Keep Calm and Carry On makes me want to scream No! Panic and stop! The world is going to hell in a handbasket! at the top of my lungs.
What about the ones who get left behind? What about the ones who eventually succumb to the smiling, successful faces gracing their Facebook newsfeed, and get swallowed by their pain, their inability to move past it, their failure and unworthiness, and can’t go on?
Would it not be fairer to them to show that it’s not all serene and dreamy every day, and that we are, in fact, all in this together? That actually, we’re human, and we’re only as strong as our weakest player?
How beautiful would this world be if people were less afraid to share their doubt, their fear, their hopelessness, their grief? If these feelings weren’t shunned, rejected or repressed, but embraced holistically as part of the human experience, one we all go through?
If people were not only allowed, but encouraged, to accept themselves exactly where they are, warts and all? What if they were cheered for their warts? What is this need to label some experiences or emotions as good and others as bad?
To stigmatize and deny the reality of the cyclical nature of our existence, that we are all born and at times become ill, suffer and eventually die? To deny the beauty of tears, and of our grief at our losses? To deny the beauty of death? That actually creation is born of destruction?
That for many, if not all, humans, life is not simply a linear progression towards being richer, happier, more beautiful and more successful? What if we weren’t scared of the darkness? The moments of self-pity, the shame? What if we embraced envy, our own and others’, instead of running away from it?
What if we gave it a big hug and a sloppy kiss, and treated it as the lost, scared, little child that it is, believing everyone else has it better? What if we didn’t cast people out when they’re not keeping up, but rather, as a collective, picked them up, dusted them off, and told them they were still part of the gang, like Eeyore?
I like to think of the analogy of a library… if everybody took responsibility for their own books, and made sure they were put back in the right place at the right time, it would be so much less labor overall than a system where one person has to clean up the messes of all the others.
If we, as a community, were able to collectively take responsibility for one another, and support our vulnerable members, we wouldn’t need certain individuals to carry that load single-handedly. Prevention is better than cure.
What is this need to present ourselves as consistently successful, thriving, doing, popular, achieving, working, moving, happy? Are we lying to ourselves? Does it make us feel better?
What if we stopped viewing it as a race and a competition for who could have the most pictures of themselves doing Yoga poses, eating fancy food or being surrounded by loved ones smiling and laughing?
While all of those things are one aspect of my experience, my life ebbs and flows like the ocean. My self-image, my mood, my success, my body and my relationships, they wax and wane like the moon.
Everything is cyclical, and nothing material lasts forever, so why must we, as a collective, determinedly present the falsehood of perennial material success and happiness?
It’s one thing to focus on the good and move towards the light, but if we do this at the expense of rejecting our darkness, or that of others, then we are in danger of denial, and we are in danger of leaving people behind. I have seen firsthand in my life the danger of shunning others’ darkness.
If we stopped presenting impossible standards of ourselves, perhaps we could stop demanding it of ourselves and others.
I’m saying if we, collectively, honored the balance between darkness and light, the tightropes we all walk, and the striving for equilibrium we all live with, if we were all prepared to own the whole spectrum, then it would be so much harder for individuals to get lost in their own darkness and feel so alone in it.
What is it about the darkness that scares us so much? Is it that if we even open one eye a crack to look at it, we’ll get stuck in it forever? Do we really think that if we pretend it’s not there, then it ceases to exist? Like if a person cries alone in a forest, and nobody’s around to hear, then are they really crying?
The thing I find hardest of all about pain of any kind is not the suffering itself, but the feeling of isolation and shame that accompanies it.
In a culture where we are meant to present this glistening image of ourselves or else hide away in the shadows, where we are meant to keep calm and carry on, where stoicism, perfectionism and progressive success reign supreme, I say, show us your tears, your anguish, your grief, you self-pity, your envy, your longing, your frustration, your self-loathing.
Show us the days when you can’t get out of bed, out of your pyjamas or out of the house. Show us your hair when it hasn’t been washed for far too long. Show us your failures, your mistakes, your regrets. Show us your pain, your darkness, your unfulfilled wishes, your baby weight, your bald spots, your grey hairs, your liver spots.
For all those who don’t know where they’re headed right now, or are feeling lost and alone in a pit of despair or grief: you are not alone. You are loved. You are so worthy and, no matter what those perfectly presented Instagram yogis say, we are all in this together.
Maybe if we are prepared to sit with one another in the dark, then together, we can find our way to the light.
Marianne Pownall is a poet because it’s the medium that gets her as close as she can imagine to the truth, because poetry cuts to the core of the human psyche, bypassing logic, and instead going straight for the jugular, heart and soul. A soulful adventurer and reckless idealist, her first love was the Holy Trinity of books, dogs and trees, and that hasn’t changed. She has always been a passionate advocate of justice and equality, and a lover of all creatures, great and small. Even though she feels a bit like David to the world’s Goliath sometimes, she believes in fighting for the underdog and for our right to feel. If you like this piece and want to connect with Marianne or read more, then you can find her championing emotional freedom and getting angry with the capitalist patriarchy at her blog, on Facebook or Instagram.