“Always to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away.” –Virginia Woolf
We like to think evil and unkindness make a man hard, prepared for the road ahead. We like to tell children to be quiet, to not laugh so loudly or love so bravely. Soldiers are taught to be unfeeling. Unshakable. Self-preserving. As a species, we’ve been conditioned to associate qualities of harshness with strength because those were the men left standing when the smoke cleared and the battlefield became visible. Nice guys finish last. Evil survives. Get the money. Get the girl. Be happy. Take life. Never give it back.
But whenever supposed happiness has ever knocked on my door, I have not answered. I cannot. Because He sits beside me, grabs my outstretched hand, brings it away, shaking his head sadly (no smile on his faceless face). My Shadow Man. The dark passenger. The only constant companion I’ve ever known. He tells me be cautious. Open the door only wide enough to see the people knocking, the ones you’ll join when you leave this room. See for yourself the ones you answer to, he says, because it will change you. As always, I do what my Shadow Man says because my Shadow Man has always loved me most–is the only one I can’t hide from. The only one who’s seen me. And never left.
I open the door just a crack. In the hallway outside, I find an endless procession of marching bodies, all moving swiftly; same rhythm; same form; looking only forward; never meeting each other’s gaze. Smiling from ear to ear.
Step back quickly—close the door tight shut behind me and hope I never have to see them again. My Shadow Man grins (that knowing grin of his), because he’s won again. Knowing he would, I deadbolt the door behind me.
I am twenty years old and have every reason in the world to be a carefree young woman. But just seven years on this planet of smiling survivors will harden a carefree little girl into unfeeling. And, frankly, it is easier to be hard. I’ve tried all I can, and no amount of insistence on love and understanding can keep my switch turned on at all times—that switch keeping me human. What does an animal do, when early traumas make her quick to bite, with a bark too loud? If I were a dog, the humans would put me down, this poor creature who is so clearly unfit for their standards–for a life of smiling and marching and surviving. In our world, it’s more merciful to be a feral dog than a feral human.
In a machine, a malfunctioning cog is never told to fix itself. It is thrown into the fire and reused as scrap metal. In the human world, a broken piece that cannot seem to turn the way the others turn is told it is her own fault. The little people in the TV manage to smile even when they’re frowning. That’s normal. Why don’t they smile in the art you make, people ask me. Everyone else in the well-oiled happiness machine manages to smile. So why can’t you? It can’t be the machine’s fault. So it must be you. You are a poorly manufactured cog. And you should feel ashamed of yourself.
An incapacity for life, they say, is an inhuman sensation; what kind of unnatural?; so repulsive and unlovable—what laziness. It’s funny, though, because being the only animals evidently capable of it, it seems to me as though suicide and unhappiness are just about the most human activities there are.
But for their sakes, us broken pieces pursue the temporary smiles—the ones gained through vices like sex and drugs and work or money. Everything with little to no significance. Everything with a clear path–all those things you gain through simple, actionable next steps. We do it all so we can look into the mirror, see those pretty pearly little whites of ours, capture it on film (must be sure to have proof), and show it off to the others and say—look!—I’m just like you. I’m smiling. I am capable of your happiness.
But I often wonder… when we shut our doors and walk into a room with no mirrors, an unmade bed, no witnesses, no vices—is anyone left smiling? Does anyone bother to smile, I wonder, when the others aren’t watching? When you’re naked. And alone. Can’t you see yourself—haven’t you ever left the procession of marching soldiers in the hallway (even for a minute), locked the door behind you, walked into the center of your cold and bare room, sat down—and breathed the deepest sigh of relief. Because there you are, finally. And you don’t have to pretend anymore. I never have to look into the mirror—be it in a reflection or in your eyes—and lie ever again.
I wonder when it was we came to be creatures so easily satisfied with complacency. When did life become something that should be easy, something we could all figure out from the start? Without trials and errors, falls and failings. Since when has simplicity been better than intricacy. Here, alone in my empty room, I’ve found that anything that’s worthwhile never comes all that easy. When I write, it often feels as though the gain does not outweigh the effort. But then somehow–miraculously–it does.
There must be something I missed—some formula everyone was taught at birth that I wasn’t privy to. I ask you—yes you—the one supposedly with the formula for happiness… have you ever looked at a person older than seven-years-old and thought to yourself yes, that is the picture of true and lasting human happiness. No? Then why are you so certain of the answers the others have given you?
I think I’m starting to give up on the whole thing, really—not life, not happiness. But smiling. Living by uncomplicated pleasures. And I’m not mourning it all that much either. Because I did it for you people anyway. And when I did it too much, I was annoyingly happy. And when I do it too little, I am deemed unlovable. Indecent.
I think I’ll leave all that stuff to the mirror-folk: the survivalists, the narcissists, the ones satisfied with a reflection. I’ll leave smiling to the ones who allow themselves to be told what to want and what to feel, what is worthwhile and what isn’t in this various and unknowable universe. I’ll leave it to the ones who can’t stay put long enough to sit in a room by themselves, or who live through the little people on the TV (with their smiley frowns) or the big people in the hallway (who never really look at each other), marching away, never considering where they march to, what’s their end. I’ve never been much good at their version of the game anyway.
So I guess I’ll just have to make my own game.
Because when it’s survival of the fittest, and you seem always to be unfit for survival, you must write your own rules. Or end up in a nut house.
But still, I wonder why no one’s ever bothered to consider the reality of what we’re surviving for. Who is that temporary smile even for, anyway? Certainly not yourself. Because I’ve tried surviving, smiling, striving forward in the name of Darwinism since I got here. And it’s brought me nothing but boredom. And uncertainty. Until I ended up surrounded by a bunch of rats with fickle memories, minds, and hearts; twitchy noses that are always looking to sniff out the next meal—next fix—next smile—next—next—next—next.
But in the end, the world has only given you one promise: you will leave just like you came; naked, alone, screaming and possibly shitting yourself. With no strength left to muster up a smile. No one to watch. On that day, when you’re old or dying, you won’t be able to avoid the empty room anymore–or the Shadow Man who’s been right there next to you the whole time. And when the door’s locked from the inside but you still can’t get out, you’ll be forced to face yourself. And can you? Are you capable of forgiving yourself? Can you die peacefully, knowing the things you’ve done. The person you chose to become.
All we can ever really do is hope to live well enough; hope that we learned, grew, tried our hardest–and somewhere along the way, we made imprints on the hearts of the people who we loved and loved us in return. The ones you will survive in once you’ve gone.
All else, when you really get down to it, is folly. Child’s play. A narcissists game.
I’ve been sitting in this room since the age of seven, neither the nice guy nor the one finishing first, terrified to step out of the threshold. Scared of being found out and almost hoping to be trampled when I am. But all these years, watching the hard ones, I scanned the procession for a soldier who doesn’t march to their rhythm; the one who’s sneaking glances into the eyes of the person next to them. The one pretending, like me. When my Shadow Man’s not looking, I burst open and through the door, leap, pull my soldier close, and kiss him. For you, I say to him, I braved the others. Because you don’t live by smiles—never required the procession.
Because hard though the others may seem, only the brave–only leaders dare step out of line.