When I was in college, I had this very old professor who was charged with teaching philosophy to a bunch of freshmen. I wish I’d gotten more out of the class. The old professor certainly had lots to teach us. Like many eighteen year olds, though, it was hard to separate the meat of deep thought from endless Venn diagrams. The most enduring lesson I learned in the class came when a student tried to stifle a sneeze. The professor told her, and us, that sneezes weren’t meant to be stifled. They’re good for you and everyone sneezes, so just let it out, he said. You’ll feel better.
I remember feeling sort of embarrassed for the professor. After all, he was forgetting his audience. We were eighteen, and image was everything. None of us were about to let out a sneeze and admit we were less than the perfect image we’d worked so hard to sculpt.
The other day, a friend admitted on her Facebook status that she was losing her job and her husband wasn’t being quite supportive enough. I was struck by her honesty. There isn’t a lot of that, at least in my Facebook world. It’s filled with posts that read like one of those never-ending Christmas brag letters some families send out: home renovations, fancy vacations, hip restaurants, perfect children, pictures of the lovely food we cook. We paint the edges of our personal picture with references to politics, tv shows, and music videos.
We (and I’m including myself here) paint a rosy picture. It is lovely. It just isn’t real. You won’t find job loss, divorce, foreclosure, illness, scraping to pay the bills, or depression anywhere. I know that unpleasant events exist for so many of us, though. Someday cultural historians will probably examine old Facebook posts and marvel at the disconnect between the life we’ve portrayed and the life we actually lived during one of the hardest times in American history.
I wonder why we do it.
Are we really so close in emotional development to those image-conscious eighteen year olds in my philosophy class? Can we still not admit to being human enough to let the bad stuff touch us? Are we mired in notions that we shouldn’t share our pain or failures because it isn’t polite? Do we refrain from sharing the negative because people will judge us as “no fun” or not positive enough?
I worry every time I post a negative status. I know I have friends who think that admitting to negative thoughts or worries is a weakness, and that people should be able to reframe anything in a positive light. I worry that they’ll think that just admitting to the negative somehow means I’m not trying to be positive, or that I won’t get there eventually, or that they’ll somehow “catch” the bad ju-ju I’m giving off.
Bad news isn’t contagious. It doesn’t need to be shunned and hidden. And it definitely doesn’t mean the person who is experiencing a bad day or week or month isn’t worthy of compassion and acceptance. Admitting the negative gives us a chance to be really honest, and in turn, to practice compassion when people share what’s really going on in their lives. I can’t help but think more compassion and honesty are good for all of us.
So from now on, I’m going to work on taking my old professor’s advice to heart. When I’m feeling the need to share something negative, I’ll let it out and feel better.