Faith in the future

Flourish Vol. 46

I can’t quite explain the belief that, someday, somehow, I would finally have my breast reduction surgery, and that afterward, in one way or another, I’d be able to share that experience with the world. Last week, I had the chance to do just that in a personal essay for the BuzzFeed News Body Week series.

If the response I got to initially opening up about my experience in this newsletter was overwhelming, inviting the whole world to bear witness to it — while one of the scariest things I’ve ever done — brought back to me more love than I think I could ever possibly reciprocate.

I had worried, naturally, about the potential ramifications of talking about my breasts on the internet (and in front of my coworkers!), of making myself utterly vulnerable to trolls and critics and creeps. But if I’ve learned nothing else in the past year, it is that there is no reward without risk. Nothing flourishes in your comfort zone. Everything, everything you want lies on the other side of fear.

I’ll quit talking in platitudes and just share some of my favorite responses to the piece. I could truly publish an entire newsletter comprised of just the flood of emails, tweets and DMs I received about my piece, but I’ll try to narrow it down to just a few of the many life-affirming words that have only validated my belief that, for all of our oversharing, we don’t talk about women’s pain, about mental health, and about all of our own private wars nearly as much as we should.

Of course, this surgery and the constant struggle with large breasts is an intensely personal journey and an individual choice to divulge, but in response to my own story I heard from people I’d known for years who had never shared that they’d had the same surgery, from other women who said they’d been ashamed to tell anyone they’d had a reduction, or were thinking about a reduction, who thanked me for bringing this conversation out of the shadows and into the light. The way I see it, we’re all human beings briefly made of rather haphazard flesh and bone, and my body is not taboo, so I will no longer be acting as such to make other people comfortable. I told myself that if even one person was helped by my story, then any potential trolling would be worthwhile, and judging by the women I heard from who are in, or have been, or would like to be in, the same boat as me, the score is something like kickass women: one million, trolls: zero. (Now we just need to do something about the patriarchy and the disastrous American healthcare system.)


(Fair warning that this newsletter is quite long-winded and rambly from here, so proceed at your own risk.)

Sitting here on the eve of a long-awaited inauguration, it’s hard not to feel a pervasive optimism. So much is still awful —400,000 dead from COVID, the increasing radicalization of Trump truthers and white nationalists, an ever-warming planet — but there is also the unspoken undercurrent that at least things cannot possibly get worse. That is my sense of the future we’re embarking upon, anyway, though sometimes it feels that hope is in desperately short supply these days.

Kyle Chayka, a writer whose work I have long admired for cutting through the bullshit and capturing ephemeral thoughts and feelings I struggle to describe myself, wrote for The New York Times about how nothingness has become everything we wanted. That somewhere in the scrum of a reality barbed with racism and injustice and death, we chose to forgo feeling the bad things, or anything, really, in favor nothing. For self-numbing. For opting out of the human experience.

Even before the pandemic, Chayka writes, many Americans opted to “simply stay home, pursuing as uncomplicated and swaddled a life as possible, surrounded by things that feel if not good then at least neutral … We create an acceptable layer between our internal and external environments, a barrier that’s still under our control even as the outside world grows increasingly chaotic.”

"It’s as if we want to get rid of everything in advance, including our expectations,” he continues. “So that we won’t have anything left to lose."

In the depths of my own depression and quarter-life crises and loss of faith in humanity over the past four-and-a-half years, I have personally been guilty of seeking solace in nothingness, of self-numbing, more times than I could count. Where I used to be an avid reader, I find comfort now in the low stakes of sitcoms and inanity of reality television, anything that allows the cogs in my brain to stop whirring for a while. ("We turn unremarkable albums into think-piece fodder and recommend terrible reality-television shows to our friends because they recognize and soothe our anxiety; they act as anesthetics more than art,” Chayka writes.) I partake in wine and weed or both more often than not (sorry, mom.) I am almost obsessive in my quest for comfort and order in my physical space, maintaining a god-like reverence for candles and neutral colors and soft lighting. I squeeze serotonin and that “smooth brain” sensation from online shopping, warm drinks, soft blankets, dream pop, ASMR. I have often felt that my nerve endings have become too fragile, and the world outside too brittle.

(Well if it isn’t all of my favorite pop artists and the High Priestess of Sad Shit herself!)

"No one seems to want anything,” Chayka writes about the culture of negation. “There is no enthusiasm for desire in this culture, only the wish that we could give it up. It’s an almost Buddhist rush toward selflessness with the addition of American competition and our habit of overdose: as much obliteration as possible.”

It’s as if we’ve strapped ourselves in to hurtle toward the apocalypse, medicating and insulating and dissociating so as to feel as little discomfort as possible before our impending doom hits. While it’s true that anyone who knows me knows I love a good nihilist meme, and my sense of humor errs dark and often a touch morbid, I know that if I ultimately surrendered to the emptiness, to hopelessness, I would never be able to get out of my — very soft, very comfortable — bed in the morning.

My own spiritual crisis reared its head in the form of a nothingness that keeps you up at night, a profound loneliness, a resounding emptiness in the work I was doing and people I was meeting and life I was living. A gaping void I tried to patch over with yoga and soundbaths and CBD, with crystals and plants and tarot and solo trips, meditation and long wooded walks and therapy and journaling and music. Taken together, all of these things began to slowly but surely thaw out my soul, reconnect me with my being, stir something within me that left no room in my life for what was no longer authentic. But initially, my greatest frustration was that there was no silver bullet to finding purpose and meaning. No retreat I could take or fancy course I could buy or book I could read to transform my life overnight, as much as the spiritual-industrial complex might like to insist.

Because if nothingness can be commodified, mindfulness can too, allowing yoga and meditation to be packaged and distilled (and whitewashed), sold as the route to enlightenment, contentment, an escape hatch from this current mode of reality. As an inner peace than manifests itself as a smug sense of outward satisfaction. A kind of, as Scott Barry Kaufman writes for Scientific American, spiritual narcissism.

“Self-enhancement through spiritual practices can fool us into thinking we are evolving and growing, when in fact all we are growing is our ego. Some psychologists have pointed out that the self-enhancement that occurs through spiritual practices can lead to the “I'm enlightened and you're not” syndrome and spiritual bypass, by which people seek to use their spiritual beliefs, practices and experiences to avoid genuine contact with their psychological “unfinished business.”

In a sense then, this brand of mindfulness can become its own form of self-numbing, where the vice is a palatable form of spirituality rather than alcohol or drugs or sex or reality TV, a veneer of enlightenment that phones in an attempt at engaging with the hard questions without ever having to actually walk through the spiritual fire (or shadow work, if you will.)

But, Kaufman writes, “Healthy transcendence doesn’t stem from an attempt at distracting oneself from displeasure with reality. Healthy transcendence involves confronting reality as it truly is, head on, with equanimity and loving kindness.

“Healthy transcendence “is not about leaving any parts of ourselves or anyone else behind or singularly rising above the rest of humanity. Healthy transcendence is not about being outside of the whole, or feeling superior to the whole, but being a harmonious part of the whole of human existence ... Healthy transcendence involves harnessing all that you are in the service of realizing the best version of yourself so you can help raise the bar for the whole of humanity.”

I hope I’ve been able to avoid the pitfalls of spiritual narcissism (though this may, in and of itself, be narcissistic?) While I by no means have any of this figured out, I have been fortunate enough to figure out what works for me, and I suppose becoming the best version of myself and leading by example is my form of helping raise the bar for humanity, on the most micro of scales. This newsletter has been hugely cathartic in that, allowing me to openly discuss my mental health, therapy, surgeries, dating, moving, career choices, existential crises, etc. I have been shown the rewards of vulnerability, of pushing through discomfort, of taking risks, of being humbled and having my ego quieted, and I love nothing more than advocating for other people to explore doing the same.

Of course, as Kyle Chayka’s piece notes, it can be easy to feel optimistic while riding out this pandemic from a place of privilege. I am not a frontline worker, I have not lost any immediate family or close friends to COVID. But I have spent 10 months immersed in the horrors of this pandemic every day. My family has weathered several sudden deaths and tough circumstances in the past year. And even a proximity to all of this horror is enough to permeate the most detached or naive or insulated person.

This past year, this presidency, this pandemic, have all forced me to stop pretending that “good enough” is good enough, that life is long enough to settle, that our mortality and existentialism are somehow separate from the hustle and doldrum of our daily lives. That the meaning of life and what happens after it are best left to philosophers, too taboo for polite company.

I have never been able to suspend my disbelief or self-awareness for even a second long enough to buy that anyone or anything created this universe. Organized religion has always been radioactive, and so faith, in a traditional sense, was never an option for me. And yet increasingly often now I find myself referring to my spirituality as faith, because despite the death and destruction, the despair and frustration permeating every aspect of our lives now, I find that at the back of my mind, the bottom of my well, the innermost part of my being, there is hope. A glinting nugget of gold among all the silt. It echoes within the walls of my being, the belief that people are mostly, fundamentally good. That there is an order to this universe, a flow to the energy, that everything happens for a reason and we get back what we give, and we all get what's coming for us, sooner or later. That there is permanence in death, but maybe there's something after it, too. Because I see ghosts all around me now; out of the corners of my eyes, in the seasons, in synchronicities, in the people who leave but never really go away.

I find myself meditating, saying little prayers, setting intentions, tracking moon phases, referring to astrological forecasts. It's a hodge-podge of a belief system, I suppose, but it's my own. And I have found faith in a lot of places lately. In strengthening and repairing bonds within my family. In seeing things that began as dreams come to fruition in my life. I find faith in the slant of the winter sun through the trees, in the stars that knit themselves into constellations before my eyes, in impossible coincidences, in good things happening to good people, in the peace of knowing that I am in exactly the right place at the right time. In the ocean and the mountains, in poetry and music, in the eyes of my animals when they stare back at me, in the unwavering belief that better days are coming, that no feeling is final.

Anyway, I guess I’ll end this ramble by encouraging you — for perhaps the first and only time — to read the comments on an internet post, because there are some real gems in Chayka’s piece.

“There is no escaping the terror and beauty of existence.”

And now, of course, here’s some music.

All this to say, I hope you too have a wealth of things that give you faith in the future. And if not, I hope you start seeing them all around you.

-Olivia