Hey there Pallavi,
Lately, I have been feeling a bit small. There are so many BIG concerns in the world right now that my life feels … well … unimportant. With global pandemics, racism, recessions, and all those politics as the Star Players of the 2020 team, what else is a girl to think? How does my life retain (or perhaps maintain) its significance when the collective bandwidth is spent on far greater subjects? Should I celebrate something good when the world is burning? It feels like I shouldn’t. It feels like I am breaking some unwritten rule if I draw attention away from serious matters to talk about the funny thing my dog just did.
– Simply Insignificant
Thank you for writing in with this question—I have so much to say about it. I hear this all the time, the feeling that people’s desires and worries, their drives and identities—their entire personhoods—are being swallowed up by the massive realities of the world. The feeling takes so many forms: My problems aren’t as bad others’. I can’t really complain. I have no excuse. I should be doing more. My thing is stupid compared to her thing. Or darker yet: What’s the point? It’s all going down the toilet anyway.
Your struggle is partly a conflict between dread and hope. Every time we are near any screen or have the radio on in the car, we are getting drenched in information that skews us toward dread and a fear of impending disaster. But your day-to day engagement with your life, with your dog, with the people around you who you care about and with whom you can exchange support, is inherently hopeful. It signals a sense of love and self-worth and that things haven’t gone total Armageddon yet. Maybe it feels like you aren’t allowed that hope—that’s when you have to wonder why you feel that way. Those are the moments that dread is winning the battle. But your hopeful, empowering tendencies are the direct combatants against dread. So yes, you should celebrate everything you would normally want to celebrate. And you should share those celebrations with the people with whom it would have the most meaning. That is how you stay connected, and it is how you stay you.
The bigger question is this: If you’re feeling insignificant, what are you doing to make yourself feel insignificant? Part of this could be about privilege guilt—the “I can’t complain” argument. But why can’t you complain? If something is bothering (or exciting!) you, no matter what it is, you have a right to those feelings. Comparing your situation to that of others only serves to diminish or divert away from whatever you’re going through, which still doesn’t make your struggle go away. Now all you’ve done is tack on guilt to whatever else was already going on. Minimizing your feelings is a way of putting yourself down. While it is true different levels of privilege exist and we must be conscientious of those layers, it isn’t actually helpful to feel guilty for what you have or for being happy when others aren’t. This is a super cliché that self-help people have all used at some point, but I have to reference the oxygen masks on airplanes—put your mask on first (oh god, sorry, I didn’t realize how Covid-y that would also sound), because you can’t help anyone else with their needs or problems until you take care of yours. If you try to, it can breed resentment and encourage martyrdom. Or you may even start minimizing others’ struggles too, because that’s what you’ve gotten used to doing with difficult things.
It can be easy to want to rosy-fy everything because things have felt so bad and overwhelming recently (and kind of always). The danger in this is denial. We’re seeing this with the holidays now. People’s pandemic fatigue is leading them into potentially hazardous and irresponsible situations as though the pandemic is over because people are starting to convince themselves it’s over. Or rather, the fatigue—between Covid and the election—has created a kind of defensive amnesia, a denial that there is still a major danger out there. Even if people are finding no choice but to fall into this way of thinking for their own need to cope, it hasn’t actually made the problem go away or cured the virus. Whereas, if more people found acceptance and acknowledgment, they could engage with really lovely, safe holiday gatherings virtually without the internal battle. Basically, denial and minimizing is never useful.
To shift a bit, I’m also wondering if “talking about the funny thing my dog just did” is code for “POSTING about the funny thing my dog just did.” If that’s the case, now we’re talking about social media. This is where things get a little trickier. Because of quarantine and social distancing, a very big chunk of our lives is being lived on screen, even more than before. So our perception of the importance of our online personas is starting to get skewed—we are starting to believe that life only happens online. If no one commented, did it really happen? But sharing celebrations and dog photos online right now maybe feels more fraught than anyone would like. No one wants their entire feed to just be people’s doom and gloom posts, so we do need celebration to balance out the angst. But you are also touching on the fact that people are in a lot of different emotional states. People who have been affected by Covid or people who are distraught by the grotesque instances of police violence we keep seeing may not be in the place to want to accept or engage with lighter fare when they are angry and hurting. No, you are not required to censor your life and online presence to. But to come back to the privilege issue, there are some voices that need to be amplified in public or social circles in times of loss, grief, and disenfranchisement. Their amplification is not meant to minimize your experience.
Being thoughtful about social media posts is not the same as diminishing and dismissing your feelings. Your feelings exist in you, not online. If you want to share fun pics like you normally would, do it. I’m sure a lot of people have responded to the funny thing your dog did with “Omg, I really needed this today,” which is a great service. But how can we be more considerate about how we engage with this massive online community filled with lots of strong opinions? Maybe rather than just dropping the post and running, anxiously awaiting the first thumbs up, it might feel better to acknowledge your conflict and communicate the sensitivity you are exhibiting: “There is so much awful going on, but this brought me joy today,” or something. Maybe there is some way you can make space for the overwhelming stuff by not pretending it doesn’t exist, by clarifying that you’re struggling with posting and want to make sure people in your life know you care about them despite this momentary levity. However, if you are wracking yourself with guilt about how appropriate or potentially tone deaf the post might be at this moment, maybe it is best to forego the post as a part of the celebration you are experiencing. Maybe you text the video to your friends and family What’s App group instead. It sounds like posting it online could actually make you feel you have to minimize your joy because you are putting it out into a world seemingly starved for joy.
With social media outlets, now you are dragging into this complicated picture whatever wish that accompanies the post—to be seen, to be admired, to be “Liked.” Maybe you’re even subconsciously trying to cheer others up with your post because all the anger and despair you see online is making you anxious and you’re a helper/make-everyone-happy type. Social media is, especially now, a valuable tool to stay in touch with others particularly while social distancing, but also consider the idea that most every post on Facebook and Instagram may be driven by an ulterior motive—a need to emotion-dump, instigate, avoid, seek praise. I’d argue that an event or a moment might carry more weight or importance when you can experience it without the need for it to be validated online, as hard as it might feel not to want to share. So, part of this may also be about your relationship to social media, your needs and intentions for it, but, as you can see, that is its own conversation.
Happiness happens in life, outside the screen, so maybe for now, that’s where you decide to let it live. That also means that for now, you can draw a boundary and decide just how much serious catastrophic stuff you can take in before you start feeling like you have to put yourself aside.