Most of us initiate our conversations with a chirpy “hi, how are you?” The expectation is that the person in question will say, “I’m fine” or potentially downgrade that to an “I’m okay”. After all, we’re not really interested in the health of the person we’ve just encountered, we’re merely following the unwritten codes that apply when we meet someone we know. Should the person in question reply by saying “actually, I’m feeling awful”, we wouldn’t quite know what to say or do. “Oh. Sorry to hear that” could be seen as an invitation to the other person to tell us more – and often we don’t want that. “Really? Too bad, must run” is a tad too callous. Chances are we’ll pretend we haven’t heard – suffering from excessive production of earwax is always a valid excuse. Of course, the person being asked how they are is just as aware of the codes as the person asking. We know it’s not the done thing to start on a whinge, detailing our aches and sorrows, the nightmares that plague us and our panic attacks. No one wants to know – not really. So we hide the shadows within with a bland smile, assuring that acquaintance of ours that everything is fine.
We lie, people. We lie because it is expected of us – and we do that a lot. Which is why one can go around believing the world is full of happy, successful people, thereby making us feel even more insufficient. Assuming, of course, that we’re not constantly happy and successful. Maybe some of us are – lucky them. Most of us, I suspect, have good days and bad days, and the good days are rarely characterised by walking about in pink euphoria, it’s more along the lines of being days when things work – we don’t miss the bus, we do not screw up at the meeting, we don’t binge on chocolate instead of having lunch, we don’t forget the PTA meeting. Sounds like a great day, right? The world we live in has little use for the unsuccessful, unhappy people. Which is why the correct answer to the “hi, how are you?” question is to smile brightly and say “I’m great! And you?” That way, we can all go on pretending, making life so much easier for all of us. We retreat behind our shiny facades, and only rarely do we share the murkier corners of our soul with anyone. To some extent all this pretence helps. Singing “Always look on the Bright side of Life” does make it easier to cope with a lot of things. Smiling until your cheeks hurt actually ends up fooling you into believing you do have something to smile about. Staring at our reflection in the mirror while muttering little mantras along the lines “you’ll do great! Yay, go get them” can boost our self-esteem. Ergo, lying to ourselves is as effective as lying to others. Sometimes I wonder if we’ve always lied as much. Did stone-age woman give her stone-age man a bright smile and assure him there was nothing wrong when in fact she just couldn’t stand the thought of yet another day in this damned draughty cave? Or did she throw her head back and howl that she wanted to move south, and she hated the cold, the damp, and by the way she’d missed her period again and how were they to cope with feeding one more child when all he brought back were skinny squirrels? And if she did howl, did he go into male mode and tell her not to worry, that things would sort themselves (men do that a lot when confronted with their unhappy wives. They promise and promise that of course things will be alright. At times, it’s bloody enervating. At others, it is quite encouraging) while suppressing his own internal howl because he couldn’t stand these dark long days and he HATED squirrels.
I suspect Mr and Mrs Caveman did the same thing we do: they pasted a smile on their face and knuckled down to deal with life. So maybe it’s genetically imprinted in us, to turn a bright face on things. Maybe the ones who howled their angst out loud fell for the natural selection process. The interesting thing in all this is that ALL of us have bad days – even those of us who walk around looking as suave and beautiful as Keira Knightley or Richard Armitage. I recall one day very much in the past when I came upon the most beautiful – and popular – girl in the class, crying her eyes out in the bathroom. We didn’t belong in the same circles, but there’s something about someone crying in front of you that makes it impossible to leave them like that, disconsolate. Anyway, Miss Popular was having one of those days – days in which her insecurities threatened to overwhelm her, when the pressure of always being happy and pretty was just too much (tell me about it! I know just how that feels…) Sitting on the floor, she spilled her guts, and there was plenty of dark stuff going on in her perfectly coiffed head, let me tell you. At the end, she sniffed, wiped her eyes and stood. A couple of minutes before the mirror and the perfect mask was back, blue eyes bright, lips glossy and her hair brushed to a shine. Without as much as a glance in my direction, she stepped back into the world where she was the perfect one. The young lady in question had already learnt not to wear her heart on her sleeve – or rather to only wear the heart people wanted to see.
Now and then, we crack, incapable of holding together the front with which we face the world. It’s okay to do so. Of course it is. But should anyone ask you how you’re doing, you should really try and pull youself together – at least sufficiently to mutter “okay, I guess. ” After all, no one outside your most intimate circle wants to know. And honestly, most of us don’t want to share. Not in a world where that old saying “smile and the world smiles with you, cry and you cry alone” is still very valid. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing – but I do know that all of us consist of shadow and light, of sadness and joy. We recognise that in each other – and sometimes we will stop and hold out a hand to help someone who is hurting. That, I believe, is what makes us human. That, in my opinion, is how we find the strength to keep on smiling – even if at times we do it through our tears.