Pomp and Circumstance: a Nation in Denial
I can’t seem to stop trying to get to the bottom of this.
I think about it, I write about it, and I talk it over to death, but the essence keeps escaping me, because I’m preoccupied with its side effects, which are numerous and exhausting to deal with, and the pressure to appear okay is maddening.
I want to see the big picture, and figure out what defines our shared experience. It starts with a simple question.
Hey, how are you doing?
I am yet to meet an American who is willing to answer it honestly.
I can tell when people are disguising something—I’ve done it too, and I know the look. It’s an expression of brief alarm, instantly followed by a smile that doesn’t quite touch their eyes. When people try to hide a raw feeling behind a mask of stoicism, it always shows in small but detectable ways...especially when I already suspect the feelings are there.
One of those ways is the speed of their reply—they don’t stop to consider the question, or check in with themselves. They have the answer ready to go immediately, like a reflex. It’s almost as if people are afraid to say out loud how they feel...
It takes a second, some intuition, and a bit of digging to find out. After the initial “I’m good!” accompanied by that wide but not exactly happy smile, the truth about one’s emotions starts to come out.
Turns out, they are rarely “good”.
The entire country has turned into that “They don’t know” Gen Z meme. The guy at a party who is standing in a corner by himself, all self-aware, while the others are having a great time is all of us.
The big question here isn’t really why we aren’t doing good. It’s why should we?! Or better yet, why are we so reluctant to admit that we aren’t well, when we have every reason to both struggle and be open about it...
I have some ideas about that.
When shit hit the fan this year, I was initially galvanized. Anyone who has been through tough times has a certain immunity (pun unintended) against falling to pieces upon encountering difficulty.
I felt equipped to deal with quarantine, being a homebody, and reckoned with the sense of impending doom by recalling my training as a teenager in post-communist Bulgaria. Motherhood, too, had prepared me for crisis, and I was ready to jump through all sorts of hoops and land on my feet for the sake of the family. I was doing good for awhile, and I leaned heavily on humor and on looking at things philosophically, for I didn’t have a choice but to get on with it.
It was fun while it lasted. Inevitably, 2020 caught up to me, and keeping it all in has become increasingly impossible.
But while I have no issue with publicly falling apart—emotional turmoil is a prerequisite for being a writer, no?—I couldn’t help but notice that this wasn’t the default reaction for others.
I wasn’t unfamiliar with the toxic optimism trend, of course, or with our tendency for creating an image on social media which represent the best version of ourselves: we prefer to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, la di da.
Still, it was a shock to realize at what lengths people were willing go to avoid facing reality. Half of the country literally refused to acknowledge the pandemic or to take it seriously. Another large group was obtuse about accepting the existence of systemic racism, and they had to be dragged into the fight for social justice kicking and screaming. It was like having a toddler once again, and that toddler was throwing a massive tantrum because you forced them to learn about object permanence by telling them that you don’t really got their nose...
At any rate, it’s a strange phenomenon, the American Art of Denial. So I decided to look into in further.
My friends at the dentist office recently shared in a casual conversation that they are seeing an increase in patients who come in with issues such as jaw muscle pain and teeth grinding. I could relate. I was in the dentist chair to get a crown replaced because I clenched my teeth so hard that I shattered the old one. Despite the stay at home order and the risk, my dentist’s practice was as busy and cheerful as ever. If it wasn’t for the masks and temperature checks, you couldn’t tell there was anything unusual going on.
Then, there are the teachers. They are notoriously underpaid and overworked even during “normal” times, but lately their occupational hazards have reached a new high level of stress.
An IG friend who happens to work at a Salinas school and teaches the children of many farm workers told me that she is in tears half the time. Her job is to meet the school district’s expectations by fulfilling standard educational quotas, while teaching online to children who come from underprivileged backgrounds and all have various technical issues, learning environment challenges, and situations at home that are beyond their control...while having to simultaneously care for her own children and support them through distance learning.
The balancing act my friend is faced with may make her cry, but it doesn’t stop her from showing up daily—ring light for zoom meetings, fun outfits to make the kids laugh, visual aids she had built from scratch to make teaching online easier, small treats and rewards to leave with their weekly pickup materials—and she never once blamed the parents about their kids’ misgivings, or complained about how hard her job is.
I check in with family back in Bulgaria and locally. We can’t see each other, but I often text and email with updates and photos of the kids, just to keep them posted and to see if they need anything.
A family member has been at home since March, taking care of her two school-age children while her husband has to go to work in person for the city of a large metropolitan area, where cases have exploded. She is a strong woman and a great mom. She appreciates the time spent bonding with her kids, and she isn’t usually keen on advertising her emotions—she just pushes through. Yet I started to detect a note in her messages that wasn’t there before. Even among the silver linings and the gratitude for her family’s health, she was starting to feel overwhelmed. It seems that no matter how resilient we are, and how well equipped to cope, we all end up spent and done in.
The examples are numerous and certainly not news...
It’s a public knowledge that essential workers are at the end of their ropes, being in the thick of it. Mail carriers are delivering up to 600 packages a day. We read the CDC reports, and then we read about overflowing ICU’s and EMTs needing a second job to make ends meet, while their colleagues are getting sick or succumbing to depression. The truth is that no one was spared. Every single person in this country was affected one way or another, and most of them were affected in a bad way. In fact, I dare say that the only people who benefited from the crisis were those who were already doing well before it struck—millionaires turned billionaires, and the likes of Jeff Bezos.
It appears that when this crisis started no one was prepared, least of all those who were responsible to keep us safe. And as it unfolded and reached its peak, the response was insufficient and inadequate, and even detrimental—instead of getting the pandemic under control, those in power contributed to its spread—resulting in devastation of unseen proportions in peaceful times. Add the effects of climate change, social inequality and racial injustice, and the political tensions leading up to the election, it made for a disastrous year.
The thing is, someone didn’t do their job, and now ordinary people have to clean up the mess, and pay the price with their lives. To add insult to injury, every day we are treated to press coverage of politicians getting the vaccine—the same politicians who claimed that the pandemic was a hoax up until a few weeks ago.
We will need years, if not decades, to comprehend the effects of the Pandemic in their entirety. It is obvious enough that it’s a crapshoot, and many articles were written in attempt to unpack these effects. We were warned about the grief we’d inevitably feel for the life we were going to lose—literally and metaphorically. We looked for coping mechanisms in psychology and borrowed tools from the science of endurance sports. We were told to look outside ourselves instead of focusing on all the negative thoughts we had, and we learned to sit with our discomfort instead of trying to push it away or “fix” it.
We were encouraged to find motivation in the great outdoors, and inspiration in protesting and rallying for the greater good. We found support in our pets. We adopted so many animals we cleared out the shelters. We started therapy and documented the process on Instagram. We talked about the “new normal” and about adapting to change. We self-medicated and we day-drank.
We took up hobbies, baked bread, binged on true crime documentaries, and built home gyms. We worked remotely, voted by mail, got our food delivered. We dated and broke up over FaceTime, we took our final exams on Zoom, and we learned more about our neighbors than we ever wanted to know.
It’s not like we didn’t try... but it seems that 2020 broke us. Blame the sensitivity of the Millennials or the entitlement of the Boomers, the chaotic Gen Z-ers or the cynical Gen X, but whatever your age or your generational values, I bet you are in severe mental, emotional, or physical distress right now.
Not doing good is only natural when 300+K people dead and a society in shambles. “I’m good” is a fiction, perjury even, and it has to stop for all our sake.
It won’t be easy.
The cultural rule, set by centuries of making progress and achieving prosperity at any cost, is to ask how people are doing out of politeness, not because you really care. And, consequently, the expectation is to answer in the most neutral way.
It’s a pointless exchange that doesn’t go beyond merely acknowledging the existence of the parties involved, and it is deliberately designed to be superficial.
“How are you doing?” is just generic enough to both start and end a conversation. It’s a classic 2 in 1 formula—the American pragmatism and efficiency in action!
You want to appear “nice” but avoid prying, or worse — to be burdened with other people’s personal feelings, which is just too bothersome in our individualistic society, given that we are already preoccupied with suppressing our own feelings.
In turn, you don’t want to seem aloof, so you answer with the standard “I’m good!”, a vague but satisfactory reply, because it perpetuates the polite convention of perfunctory niceness without making anyone uncomfortable.
Sharing how you really feel poses a huge risk: it exposes you and makes you vulnerable, especially if you are not in fact doing good.
And in America, letting your guard down and showing your true feelings is a harshly punishable offense. No one is allowed to deviate from the social norm of “keeping it together”, because being a “hot mess” betrays the unspoken principle: no matter what happens, Americans overcome. Struggling is only human, but frowned upon nevertheless, and strongly discouraged.
Smiling is America’s default facial expression. Americans are able, they get shit done! Their MO is to prevail. Positivity and optimism are the official national policy, and success is the ultimate goal. There’s just no room for failure, or for lack of confidence, because the myth has to be maintained at all times:
Everything is fine, everyone is feeling good, it’s a great country, and these are the best times.
Here in America, all is A-OK!
But if you happen to experience distress or are having difficulty, we don’t want to know. Keep it to yourself.
It’s probably your own fault, anyway. If you are not A-OK, you are not perpetuating the illusion, and you will suffer the consequences—you’ll be judged, then pushed out to the fringes of society where you’ll remain, ignored, until you pull yourself by the bootstraps.
There’s no provisions for the weak and the less privileged in our society. We’ll cheer you on as you swim, but if you sink you are on your own.
Haven’t you heard? The mainstream is for cool people only. See pop culture for reference, where square-jawed heroes save the day, and good looking, talented entertainers set trends for the masses to follow. We don’t have royalty, but we have reality TV, which is the same but showing more skin.
Look at our politics, too, where a bunch of powerful old white men are saving the world from itself ever since the 50’s by waving magnanimously at the crowds, kissing babies, and lobbying for the big corporations who helped them get elected. It’s an exclusive club reserved for outstanding achievers—only the well connected are allowed in, the most eloquent, and the best at staying on top of their high horse. It’s a moral high ground, politics, a great example of fake it till you make it, so you can afford the liberty to do whatever you want henceforth, unchecked and unchallenged.
And our industry, oh my! Everyone knows that it was America who invented the Rat Race TM. It’s a cut-throat competition with no finish line, just an endless string of milestones: your first million, a spot in Fortune’s 500, a nationwide franchise, your name on the wall, your logo on a t-shirt, mergers and hostile takeovers, IPO’s and climbing stock prices, a scandal followed by a divorce, and of course the greatest achievement of them all: always being tired, busy, and stressed, but well dressed and success pouring out of your ears. It’s business as usual, don’t take it personally.
Never mind our widely advertised love for the underdog storyline; that’s just for variety’s sake. It isn’t a very clever trope, but it’s quite effective! We throw you a bone to make you believe that you can be anything only if you want it hard enough, that you can build a fortune from nothing.
The American Dream is a mass hallucination. You needn’t be an anthropology major or Noam Chomsky to see that.
It’s full of glamour, riches, victory, and happy endings, and it comes at the price of a movie ticket, or in the form of a well-packaged multi-purpose gadget you don’t need.
We are generous like that here in America, because at least we bother to vail you from the stark and bleak reality while we fuck you up. It’s the United States of Every Man for Themselves. You may not like it, but you’ll have to deal with it, preferably in silence. There will be a $5 fine for whining, and you could take to the streets to protest it, but we will call you a “socialist” (such a dirty word!) and will sic the police on you. Angry mobs are unsightly, first amendment or not. We like the second amendment better, that’s why there are more guns than people in America, and don’t you forget it.
Do you think I’m exaggerating? Then you are probably white...That’s not even the half of it, but when you live in a bubble of privilege you are cushioned from the things that could wipe that big American smile off your face in less than five seconds.
Inside the bubble is quite comfortable, and who can blame you for wanting to stay in it, anyway? Everyone wants to feel safe. It hurts to look at the world with eyes wide open, and we all build some version of a bubble through which “real life” is filtered, a lens to refract the light and let rainbows in while keeping the darkness out.
We all desire happiness, yes? Good old American happiness, in the form of pretty furniture and shiny chrome appliances, a manicured lawn behind a picket fence, a nice car, health insurance, savings to fall back on in retirement, a picture-perfect nuclear family plus a dog, and kids who behave and perform well at school so that they could go on to college you’d pay for by working hard, and give you grandchildren and something to be proud of in old age other than your dad jokes and your golf club collection...
At least that’s what all the movies and books have taught us... unless you count “Revolutionary Road” or “The Grapes of Wrath”. And that’s what schools continue to teach our kids; stories about self-made empires and new beginnings and making something out of nothing, because it’s certainly easier to call the Indigenous population “nothing” rather than confronting their treatment.
Delusion and denial are the cure for sadness and regret, and we swallow them whole and dry. We need to, because we have to remain fit and in a fighting shape in order to pursue the A-OK fantasy.
We even have created an entire narrative around this truly American Doctrine of Conformity. It’s called History, and it leaves out everything that doesn’t fit, that makes you uncomfortable, or portrays our nation in an unflattering light—you know, like Slavery or the early days of colonialism, events so unpleasant that border perilously close on genocide. We don’t talk about that. That’s not “fun” or “cool”.
Knowing the full extent of what’s going on, or god forbid—accounting for it—will unsettle us.
It’s a slippery slope, enlightenment, as it leads to asking questions, wanting to know more. The more you know, the more you care, and our quota of things we care about is already filled (and also, we are busy, remember?).
No need to complicate things, “universal” is key: a cliched, simplified history ensures that it will reach and please the most number of people, and most importantly it will make them feel good about themselves! Ignorance is bliss, and bliss is an American virtue. Gobble it up like a turkey dinner at Thanksgiving and feel patriotic! The friendly Indians, the liberated slaves, and the First Black President are all great supporting characters in your story, but the protagonist is you, and you control the narrative. Wink wink. (This message was brought to you by Johnson and Johnson)
Don’t be so critical! We watch the news religiously to stay informed. We travel abroad for fun and we like “exotic” foods, we buy European haute couture and foreign wine, and we even visit other states from time to time. The world may think we are fat, dumb, and unnaturally happy, but they are just jealous. Of what, you ask? Of all the awesome things we have, duh! Sure, we go into debt before we even get a degree, and having a child costs us a small fortune, but we also boast Hollywood, Las Vegas, and The World's Largest Ball of Twine (Cawker City, Kansas).
America is one giant melting pot, and we make sure to melt down all cultures to the point of assimilation, with the best intentions, of course, simply to maintain the uniform looks of things, like we do with our fast food chains—wherever you go, it’s all the same, and that’s exactly how we like it—a McDonalds restaurant and a Starbucks at every block, and every block is in a grid, and every grid leads to a freeway, because America is big. There’s a space for all of us here, as long as everyone knows their place. For instance, the place for Native Americans is at the reservation, the place for women is under the glass ceiling, and Blacks should choose carefully where to walk or drive. And don’t start with me! It’s not “racism”, it’s “conservatism”—it’s my constitutional right to have opinions, and I am ready to defend them. Besides, I can’t possibly be racist. I have a black coworker, and I love tamales. So give me freedom, or give me death, with the side of fried rice, hold the illegal immigration. And if our one-size-fits-all isn’t for you, then go back to where you came from.
Listen. This is not a joke. America was built on convenient lies, and you can object all you want, but you have to admit that it worked. We have come a long way. Just look at what we’ve achieved, and think again before you try to put a spoke in the wheel.
You see, there’s an equilibrium at work here. And it’s very, very fragile.
Once you start questioning the status quo or challenging the norm, the illusion could crumble. Suddenly, we will find ourselves in a terrifying existential void, surrounded by a suffocating vacuum created when you rejected the fallacy of A-OK. This cannot, should not happen! Ever.
Without our fake white smiles, without the conviction in our superiority, without our participation in the cult of “all is well on the western front” we will discover that we are just like everyone else. Ordinary, imperfect, and vulnerable to life’s ups and downs.
This will kill us, because winning and “doing good” have become our lifeline, a part of our national identity. We don’t know who we are as individuals, as human beings, without also being Americans—people who have everything they need and more, people who can get everything they want, and never say die.
We are simply not allowed to admit defeat. Heck, we are not allowed to admit mistakes, let alone failure. We are only as great as we show we are.
The American Dream is seemingly evolving; it shifts its external shape according to the latest trends, and adapts to the times, yet its essence remains unchanged:
Dare to dream.
Dream to be the best.
Give it all you’ve got.
Never give up.
Don’t stop until you reach the top.
At the top await progress and prosperity, wealth and fame and, presumably, happiness—a sort of an abstract but disarmingly attractive state of an ultimate, universal, absolute and perpetual bliss.
We buy into it, because we want it to be true.
We succumb to it, and we devote our lives to getting there, to getting as close as possible to what we were told was happiness, and the wheels keep on turning. Everyone else is doing it, so it must be the right way. And even when it doesn’t feel right, we don’t have the power to change the system alone. We find consolation in the crumbs the system throws us, like voting or choosing what to eat, wear, or read, but in the end we accept the fact that we can only do so much.
And when someone asks us how we are doing, we always answer that we are doing good—at this point, it doesn’t even occur to us to say anything else. The habit to appear well has become our second nature.
Our brutalist capitalism is a machine that grinds you up and spits you out, but look at all the Shit that you get to buy in the process (insert a George Carlin reference here)!
Our politics are inherently elitist and outdated, yet we make such an entertaining show out of it!
The institutional inequality makes for social inequity, and the judicial system is the oxymoron for justice, but hey, life is not fair!
Although we are all born equal, we know that some are more equal than others...
The sacrifices made by generations of average working people may have contributed to our greatness, but you know how it is. Only a select few benefit from it. It’s the air we put on that counts, not what’s within—certainly not the reality inside disenfranchised communities.
We might have promised liberty and justice for ALL, but things de facto are different than they are de jure. Sure, yeah. Those who resisted conformity and challenged authority when they found it lacking are the ones to thank for all the revolutionary improvements we enjoy today, like human rights or air conditioning. But while we appreciate unique people, eccentric behavior, or radical ideas, we also don’t encourage deviation from the standard we invested so much into setting.
Diversity is all good and well until everyone wants a seat at the table. Be exceptional and individualistic, but up to an extent, because if you rock the boat too much you might fall off board.
So thank you for your service and your input! We have noted your concerns, and we have decided that it’s in everyone’s interest to maintain the current course *hold music*.
We know the system is broken, and that our values are for show. We know that you know.
That’s the best we can do. No one likes a two party system, the electoral college, capital punishment, the prison industrial complex, or a privatized healthcare, but it is what it is. No one really feels truly, fully, and totally happy all the time, but the alternative is to admit weakness and allow ourselves to struggle, and that would be the end of America as we know it. Thanks, but no thanks.
We suggest you do your best and keep your chin up, no matter what happens. Assassinated presidents, terrorist attacks, climate change, mass shootings, a global health crisis, poverty and inflation, systemic corruption and racial inequality, those are inevitable and unavoidable side effects of being great.
Act like everything is normal, and don’t forget to check out our seasonal sale of shut the fuck up.
So let me get this straight...
The pandemic continues to rage, worse than ever. We mourn the dead, and we count ourselves lucky not to be among them. Covid has done something to all of us, but BIPOC and disadvantaged minorities are disproportionately affected. Entire communities are annihilated, especially in poor or rural areas, where resources are limited. Small business is effectively killed off. All companies are adapting by scaling down and going remote, and are letting people go. Remote work and quarantine are blurring the line between professional and personal life; people struggle with screen fatigue, social isolation, and depression. Schools are closed, forcing children into distance learning; parents are burned out, teachers are overwhelmed, kids are stressed. The unhoused, and people with addictions are all but forgotten. The differently abled, and people with serious preexisting conditions are left on their own devices and they are falling through the cracks. Seasonal farm and factory hands, undocumented immigrants, and “unskilled”/hygiene workers are low on the priority list, and their labor is being exploited while they bear the highest risk of exposure.
4 years of total chaos, during which a deranged man encouraged the raise of white supremacy, colluded with dictators, and worked tirelessly to roll back environmental protections and to take away hard-earned human rights through politics of rampant corruption; they spread lies, misinformation and science denial thus creating one of the worst social, economic, and moral crises this country has ever seen since Slavery, the Civil War, and Segregation, dividing people and inciting hatred that resulted in violence, social unrest, and mass protests.
The entire west coast was obliterated by climate change-inducted wildfires. The world, not just the country, was forever changed this year, and we are all grappling with the consequences, while trying to stay healthy, sane, or alive...
And you expect us to be okay?!
Okay is just not feasible.
I can’t do this. Perhaps I’m not American enough, but whatever the reason, I can’t. And I don’t really want to. Members of my family are sick. People I know have died. Things are shitty, and I hate it.
I’m not ashamed to admit it: I am not doing good. I don’t think hiding it is healthy. The only way to stay afloat right now is to try and live with it. My bottom line has been drawn and I’ve reached it: it’s okay to not be okay, and the only way to get better is to first admit it, and then look for ways to help myself.
All else is just absurd, and I don’t care for it.