During moments of personal or professional crisis, my first and only instinct has been to fix the problem by leaning hard into nihilism, reminding myself that in the end, nothing really matters; human relationships are largely immaterial; and at the end of the day, we are all going to die alone. This line of thinking, which is irrefutably true in the grand scheme of things, generally works to fix whatever’s broken. Take the good with the bad and trudge on, but don’t dare invest an ounce of your heart, because disappointment lurks around every corner. Prepare for the worst, expect the best, and come out somewhere in the middle.
The nihilism I have leaned on is in service of self-preservation: a succinct summation of my philosophy as evidenced by my work. For the duration of my adult life, I have railed hard against the mushy concept of earnestness, in an attempt to craft the kind of rock-hard, steely-eyed exterior that I hoped, in a youthfully misguided way, would serve as inoculation against the various terrors the world proffers daily. Affecting an ironic and detached nihilism about anything and everything under the sun works to a certain point because it smooths the edges of difficulty. It’s a necessary self-soothing tactic designed to prevent the discomfort of real emotion and a way to shut up anxiety about anything. Climate change. Mass shootings. Cataclysmic earthquakes. To mull over any of these facts for longer than three seconds causes intestinal and existential distress. Thus, the reminder persists: None of this matters because we are all going to die. But our current moment dictates a need for some change, and sadly, I realized that I had to course correct.
Nihilism in and of itself is exhausting, a fact that even the rudest bitch in the room (hell0) can acknowledge. Reminding oneself constantly of death’s inevitability as a coping mechanism calls up the very notion of death and what it means to actually cease existing: a fear that has, occasionally, kept me up at nights when I have improperly timed the consumption of an edible and have gravely misjudged its strength. Ruminating over life’s greatest mystery, though, produces more anxiety that compounds upon pre-existing horrors, eventually causing a circular logic feedback loop that never shuts up.
“Anxiety is a pathological response to uncertainty,” a friend once said to me. “Just sit in it and know that it’s normal.”
When the very system of self-maintenance breaks, the panic that ensues is real. In a free-fall, I turn to methods that I had previously shunned. Meditation temporarily eases the bad feeling enough to be able to function on a daily basis. I engage in fact-finding missions that are essentially an attempt to cobble together a version of the truth that makes sense not only to me, but to others as well. Therapy brings one hour of immediate relief, followed by a blissful afterglow that usually fades, leaving room for my worst thoughts to sit squarely on my chest for hours at a time. Restorative yoga, essentially adult nap time for $25 an hour, is the only thing that stills my mind completely. With my legs draped over a bolster tooted up on two yoga bricks, a blanket resting over my my midsection, and an eye pillow draped across my face, I am prone to believe that the light in me really does see the light in you. I do not mind being asked to “hold space” for my breath. I will probably never be able to whisper a peaceful namaste with a straight face, but I am fine if others do it in my general vicinity. The feeling that follows yoga is not bliss, but quiet. My back feels better and also, my brain has ceased its incessant ramblings. The medically-induced coma I desire is no longer necessary. This is close enough.
When yoga and marijuana in rapid succession fail, and when reading a book or watching hours of mindless television are no longer useful, I grow desperate. One dreary Saturday, I settled down to watch Brené Brown’s The Call to Courage on Netflix as part of a process that I have been undergoing out of necessity, in part because dredging up quippy comebacks to upsetting news no longer thrills me as much, but mostly because I realized that performative hatred will eventually stop being a bit and start to become true. Being rude online and in person can be one of life’s greatest pleasures, but to be rude online and offline continuously, with the express purpose of numbing difficulty, will eventually convince you that connection with other people is a worthless endeavor and that it is better to go it alone.
Brown’s talk, which is a buttoned-up version of her TEDxHouston talk on vulnerability, is precisely the sort of thing one needs in the depths of any sort of real despair. The titular call to courage is a call towards vulnerability: being brave enough to “step into the arena” and be seen. This logic carries a whiff of New Age pap, like a marriage counselor urging a couple towards consciously uncoupling, or a well-intentioned friend newly into reiki saying that they simply cannot hold space for your work complaints at this time. But I watched Brown stalk the stage in front of an audience comprised mostly of teary-eyed couples taking furious notes and felt something akin to empathy. Maybe I have never been in the right space to hear it at all, but cutting open the box that houses all of your most hideous shit and plopping it out on the table for examination ultimately sucks but is very necessary. Doing so, Brown argues, is not an act of weakness, but of immeasurable strength.
Most of Brown’s advice feels tailored for two very specific audiences, married couples and, surprisingly, Silicon Valley executives, two groups of people who struggle to prove to an uncertain audience that they are capable of seeing someone else’s perspective. It is perhaps reductive and fairly obvious to admit this out loud, but constantly being angry or anxious about anything will eventually kill your spirit, especially if the outcome of your risk is directly out of your hands.
A resumé sent into the void that sits in the inbox of a harried HR professional for weeks is not because it is garbage, but because the ceiling in his apartment has caved in and he is in a desperate search for his super. “It’s not you, it’s me.” Will the Juul pods I buy that are clearly imported from Canada give me vape lung? Taking risks, Brown argues, is a part of life. Addressing the soft, icky center of the negative associated with risk and addressing that discomfort head-on is essential. And what eventually comes out, after separating the gristle from the meat, is a real chance at connection. But connection comes during moments of true vulnerability: a deeply disquieting realization for this grizzled hag who has spent her entire adult life absolutely terrified of sharing her feelings for fear that they would be thrown in the garbage and left to rot.
The point is that by exposing your emotional truths to someone, they will be encouraged to do the same in return, emboldened by your generosity of spirit. As an aphorism of sorts, this theory resonates, but the trouble is that there is absolutely no guarantee that the results will be in your favor. Exposing emotional truths to the jerk that cut on line at the bagel shop might feel nice for you, but it certainly does not guarantee a positive outcome. According to Brown, that doesn’t matter. What does is that you showed up in the first place.
It was certainly not my intention to be moved as much as I was, but my delicate emotional state and a general feeling of ennui brought about by a brief snowstorm moved me at varying points to tears. No one likes being called out on their shit, especially by a shame researcher with a Southern accent and an affinity for statement necklaces. After the documentary ended, I puffed furiously on my Juul and watched her Ted Talk on my phone. I cried some more. I wrote, “WHEN YOU DON’T ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR VULNERABILITY, YOU WORK YOUR SHIT OUT ON OTHER PEOPLE,” in my notebook and drew a sharp box around the sentence. I went to sleep.
Despite understanding the theory behind vulnerability and why it is so important to human connection, enacting it in everyday life when my usual tactics are to tamp down the actual bad and replace it with resignation is more difficult. Nothing in life is very easy. But recognizing that there is value in letting people see your wobbly emotional midriff and trusting that they won’t put it in a Nutri-bullet is much harder and ultimately more rewarding.
My grand realization has unfortunately led me to advising the very thing I swore against. Otis Redding urged tenderness in the past, but I’m not willing to go that far yet. Earnestness, begrudgingly, is the best I can do. At its heart, to be earnest is to have convictions and to speak with intention and purpose. With this framework in mind, I am exceptionally earnest. I am earnest about my dislike for cooked carrots and I am earnest in my pure, uncut hatred of outfits with belts that serve no functional purpose. I am earnest, mostly, about catastrophizing—spinning out the worst-case scenarios in the face of decisions that are out of your hands.
Mapping these scenarios out in earnest, as it happens in work Slacks and group texts and in panicked Notes app villanelles, feels like catastrophizing for good. It is applying the cognitive need to organize information and fill in the gaps so that the tatty jigsaw puzzle in front of you turns into a picture with no missing pieces. Brown calls it “dress rehearsing for tragedy,” but to me, it is a necessary part of doing the work. Being earnest about preparing for the sky to fall is a nearly uncontrollable impulse in times of terror. Love it as I do, it occurred to me that directing that energy towards worry is a fruitless endeavor. Affecting a nihilistic insouciance as a means of insulating oneself against slights, perceived or otherwise, is exhausting. It will kill you before the plagues come.
Personally, earnestness gets a bad rap in part due to my own stupidity and fundamental misunderstanding of the word itself. Theater kids are earnest. Debate teams are earnest. In my mind, to be earnest is a relentless positivity, a near-delusional Pollyanna who really, really believes that everything will come out in the wash when all signs indicate that it will not. But understanding that earnestness is merely about the conviction and not the message makes it easier to swallow. The logical output of the self-care movement bends towards a theory of being earnest that considers the notions of both intent and consent.
Taking care of oneself via sheet masks, therapy, or getting really into tisanes is well-trod territory. Some, but not all, of us have figured out what self-care actually means for them, having done the work of separating the practice from its veneer of consumerism. But embracing a modicum of earnestness in caring for each other the way we care for ourselves is a necessary corrective. Consent implies vulnerability—mutual agreement produces a safe space that is the perfect venue for the nasty work of sharing feelings. It is hideously difficult at the start and rarely gets better with time; I imagine that one day revealing my emotional undercarriage will feel as routine and insignificant as brushing my teeth.
Figuring out what “earnestness” looks like for me is a mortifying process, as it forces me to examine the way I treat people and why. It rubs my nose in the mess I make and forces me not to run away but to face it head on. It is fruitless to assume the worst because, in the face of global existential terror, we might as well try to be good to whoever’s left. Why assume that the rest of the people on this hideous planet aren’t just trying to do right? Maybe I will be earnest in telling people what I need. Maybe when I thank the person from whom I purchase over-priced coffee, I will really put my back into it. Maybe I will feel comfortable with the discomfort of exposing unseemly emotional truths because I care about other people, but also because I care about myself.