The pursuit of okayness

You know all those self-help memes and articles and books that tell you that you can’t fix your life by changing the external circumstances of it? The ones that insist you won’t be happier if you have a different job or house or partner or friends, if you live in a different city or state or country? Because whatever ails you is something inside of you, and wherever you go, you’ll take it with you? Well…

Pretty font that says That's a load of horseshit"

Not entirely, I know, but I spent so many painful years believing that those messages were entirely true, trying desperately to find just the right way to exist within my marriage and job and community. I strove to find and embrace the good things about where and with whom I lived and worked, and to feel gratitude for all of my blessings (because I had lots of them). I went to 12-step programs and learned about the impacts addictions have had on my family. I did therapy. I joined gyms, cut out gluten, learned how to set boundaries, stopped being co-dependent, etc. ad nauseam. When my children were in kindergarten and I was teaching full-time, I got up at 4:00 in the morning to write because I believed the people who told me that saying I didn’t have time to write was just an excuse.

I pulled so hard on my bootstraps I’m surprised I didn’t break them. (Maybe I did?)

A lot of those things helped, and I’m glad I did them, but none of them solved my essential problem. I just wanted to be OK, and no matter what I did, I wasn’t. Not really. I had lots of wonderful moments (and all those blessings I was truly grateful for), but it was a constant struggle to be OK in any consistent or general way. Anxiety, depression, and a growing list of chronic medical conditions were ever-present obstacles that I couldn’t seem to think or work or do my way around.

Image of posters with words about attitude, hard work, and "get it done"

And then, over the past half-dozen years, I learned about the structural and systemic barriers that many of us live within and the real limits they put on well-being. I learned about gaslighting. I learned about neurodiversity and ableism and chronic illness and myriad ways in which the source of the difficulties I seemed to have was, perhaps, not all within me.

But I didn’t believe that those things explained my inability to be OK. Not really. Sure, I am a female living in a misogynistic patriarchy, and that’s not nothing. But I am also white, cis-het, raised Christian, and a middle-class, older Gen-Xer, which means I was the beneficiary of mid-20th century social supports that allowed me to dream of and then have a kind of life it will be much more difficult (perhaps impossible) for many Gen Z folks to have. My working-class parents were able to pay for my college tuition at a good public university without taking out loans, I was able to buy a home in my early 20’s through a federal loan program, and I got into a public pension program before cuts in the 90s seriously eroded its benefits, grandfathering me in to the promise of retirement. I was aware that I had the kind of good fortune that increasing numbers of Americans do not–so why couldn’t I just be OK, dammit?

Seriously: Why was OK an elusive dream I couldn’t realize? It had to be me. Because if I couldn’t be OK, how could anyone?

Well, as has often been the case in my life, I was wrong.

Because I am finally OK. I am more than OK: I am happy. And it feels weird to be happy, but damn if that’s not what I’ve been realizing this week that I am. (Happy feels weird, if you’re not used to it.) And, for the first time, I understand and believe and fucking know that I WASN’T WHAT NEEDED FIXING. (Yes, I’m shouting. I feel a little shouty these days.)

Happiness is not the absence of struggle. I still have my challenges and frustrations and griefs. I still grapple with health issues. I worry about our kids and what the dumpster-fires raging in our world are doing and are going to do to them. I live in a part of my city where many people are struggling to survive, and I feel angry every single day at the disparity between the parts of town that are like my neighborhood and those in which there are no tent collectives, no mothers and kids standing in traffic with cardboard signs asking for money, and no people who are walking illustrations of the havoc poverty and untreated mental illness wreaks on humans. I am all-the-time looking around and wondering why/how so many people don’t seem to really see what’s happening and are carrying on as if we’re still living in the world of 2010. But still, I’m OK now, and often more than OK.

I’m now in a healthy marriage with few stressors on it, and my survival needs (food, safe shelter, reasonable health care, drinkable water) are met, and all those problems I could never seem to solve–insomnia, anxiety, depression, etc.–are low-level on my worst days. I do meaningful work (mostly non-paid) every day, and I have time to rest, tend to important relationships, and be creative. I have the resources I need to care for myself and those in my communities (big and small). When I had to work for a paycheck to survive, I didn’t have enough of anything above the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Now I do, and I haven’t begun to figure out the words to tell you how OK I’ve become.

In the beginning stages of finally admitting that I wasn’t OK, I was in a sick marriage and a deeply under-resourced job (made more difficult by my invisible disabilities) that made it impossible for me to meet many of my needs. I was struggling to work full-time (in a job that demanded more than full-time work), raise children well, and take care of myself. Oh, and write, too, because it wasn’t enough just to be a good teacher. I had to fulfill some higher destiny, as well, the thing I was created to do.

Oprah Winfrey quotation: "There is no greater gift you can give or receive than to honor your calling. It's why you were born. And how you become most truly alive."

What I know now, having escaped the toxic relationship and untenable career is that I didn’t need to work harder, change my attitude, have more self-discipline, or stay where I was and count my blessings. What I needed was to get out.

I finally fully have, and I wish more than anything I could share some way for everyone else to get away from whatever is making them not-OK, but the truth I’m seeing now is that there isn’t always a way. I made the moves I was able to make (leaving that marriage, changing to a different job within my industry), and I searched constantly for better alternatives. But I couldn’t leave everything that was damaging AND take care of my people the way I wanted and needed to care for them. I am not looking back and thinking that I should have made different choices. (I don’t regret them, given my givens.) I am looking back and wishing only that our culture had been more honest about the scarcity of good choices for many of us to make.

Think of what I might have done to actually improve my life if I hadn’t wasted energy on blaming myself, on attempting to fix what I didn’t have the ability to fix, or on “solutions” that were never going to address the source of the problem.

I wish I could change the world so that everyone could have what I now do. I wish there was some formula I could share for how to get it in the world as it is. For myself, it has required some compromise, some luck, some risk, and a lot of years of living in poor health and doing what I had to do to get here. (The promise of that pension kept me in the world of K-12 education, and without it the life I have now would not be possible.) I can’t tell you how to do it, and I want to acknowledge that not everyone can do it, no matter how hard they work, but I’m writing this because if nothing else, I can give an assurance that I wish others had given me. If you’ve worked to heal from and deal with your childhood traumas and have a clear sense of your strengths and challenges and are working hard within the systems you have to live within and are still struggling to be OK, I want you to hear (especially if you’re of my generation and grew up drinking a lot of Kool-Aid) that it’s not just you, no matter the privileges you have. Keep doing what you can for yourself, for sure, but be as clear-eyed as you can about what’s yours to own/do and what is not.

Think of what a different world we might live in if our goal was that everyone in it could be OK.

Lyrics from Ingrid Michaelson song: "I just want to be ok, be ok, be ok/I just want to be ok today..."

(Giving credit where it’s due: These ideas are not new, even to me. Gen Z is not the first to have them (see, for one small example, this), but the younguns are all over these lines of thinking, and I’m grateful for the ways in which they have helped me see my life experience through different lenses. Even though I’ve encountered these ideas in the past, I’m knowing their truth in new ways, now that I am able to live in a different way. I’m sharing in case and with hope that my understanding might help others still struggling to be OK.)

8 thoughts on “The pursuit of okayness

  1. Kari says:

    Oh, my friend, I am so happy for you that I could cry happy tears. This freedom you feel, I understand. I wish it could be bottled and freely distributed because everyone deserves to feel this way.

    I also like the first graphic. Swear words written in attractive fonts. That is just lovely.
    Kari recently posted…Things I Want to Remember | Part SixMy Profile

  2. Marian says:

    I love this post, Rita, and I’m so glad to hear you say you are finally OK. As I’m sure you know, I am all about the pursuit of okayness. (For various reasons, I’m not there yet, but perhaps one day I will be.) From what I’ve read, a universal basic income would go a long way to dealing with the general un-okayness of society, especially as it pertains to mothers. (At the beginning of the pandemic, there seemed to be talk in the news of a “Marshall Plan for Moms,” in which many of the difficulties you’ve talked about here and in other posts could have been addressed. I’m not sure how much success, if any, that campaign has had, but one part of their plan did include direct payments to mothers. The U.S. is, unfortunately, far behind other countries when it comes to supports for mothers.)

    This post has reminded me of this episode of CBC Ideas  — — in which one of the researchers basically says it’s cruel to tell people they are failures if they cannot manage to find and capitalize on their one true purpose or calling. As someone who has always struggled with this, I felt very seen when I heard that bit, even though I admit I have still not quite given up on finding my calling. (Hence my not being quite okay yet. Can I say here that I loathe most of what Oprah has to say on the matter?)

    (Also—I did not know there was a working class history IG page! Once I post this, I’m going to follow them. 🙂 )

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      You can feel very free to loathe Oprah’s words here. I found that graphic particularly irksome.

      I had a conversation years ago with an old friend who introduced me to the idea that some of us are made to specialize, and some of us are made to explore multitudes of interests. I have always wanted to be one of the former, but I know I’m one of the latter. I love the steep learning curve of new things. Once I reach a certain state of mastery, I tend to lose interest. I think it’s why I’ve never really mastered anything. And I’m coming to think that’s perfectly okay.

      As for UBI: yes. I’m a fan of this idea. It would be different if there weren’t among us multiple people who have grotesque amounts of money, but I cannot reconcile the Bezos of this world with the people I pass every day trying to live on the streets. I’m not going to say more than that, as there is just so much to say–but there’s a reason the US is one of the least supportive countries of mothers.

      So nice to hear from you. I hope you’re more OK than not.

  3. Kate says:

    I’m so glad you’re okay and finding what you need now in a way you haven’t before.

    This post brings up a knotty tangle of thoughts on necessity vs. luxury, the value of work, the importance of looking out for one another and allowing ourselves to be looked out for, the wisdom and foolishness of the generations that have come before (and are coming up now). I have a lot more questions than I do answers, but I always appreciate your posts for how they make me think.

    In reading your response to Marian, I have to say I love the idea of specialists and explorers. I’m very much an explorer. I think I will continue to dabble and pick up hobbies as I age. At least I hope to.

    • Rita says:

      Yes, it’s a knot I’ve been picking at for years, and like you I have many more questions than answers. All I really know is that simple answers are likely not the right ones, and that there’s a whole lot of “yes, and” in thinking/conversation that is productive. I hope that came through in this post. I am astonished at the impact that the change in my working life has had; it’s the only variable that’s changed in recent months, so I feel confident in attributing my current well-being to it, and it just makes sense. But simply quitting earlier would not have had the same result. Figuring out how to be OK requires a complex calculus, I think.

      Maybe we should embroider patches that announce us as dabblers? Or write a dabbler’s manifesto? Maybe create a dabbler’s playlist? The possibilities are endless when you’re a dabbler, aren’t they?

  4. Ally Bean says:

    First I’m glad you are okay, having gone through a profound transformation in thinking, AND I am pleased that you’re allowing yourself to be shouty. I started doing that in my writing a couple of years ago and feel better for it. It’s a small thing but IMPORTANT to express yourself as clearly as possible.

    BITE ME, if you don’t like it.

    I think for me the biggest change in my attitude to life happened when I realized that you can do everything right, but still fail. The systems are rigged against you, which never occurred to me when I was younger because I’d drunk the kool-aid. Now I realize I’m ok with doing MY BEST, and not obsessing about the results. It takes the power away from what I *should* be accomplishing.
    Ally Bean recently posted…Hocus Pocus Tuesday Focus: Five Useful Questions + Five Autumn PhotosMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Dang but that Kool-Aid tasted good at one time, didn’t it? And there was so much of it. (I am amused that I also had a lot of literal Kool-Aid. My mother wouldn’t buy soda because it was “unhealthy,” but powdered sugar with more sugar? Have at it, kid. Oh, the 70s.)

      I do think that you are very clear and direct in your expression, and there’s always definitely a point of view. I like and appreciate that. I have never thought of you as shouty, though. Quite the opposite. I like shouty Ally. I actually laughed out loud at “BITE ME,” a thing I don’t do often or easily. 🙂

      Here’s to doing our best. It was so easy for me to set that as the bar for my children. Working on giving myself the same grace.

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