Elegiac Hopes in the Poisoned Land of Milk and Honey

This essay is the last entry of 2020 in Diamond Yao's column, The Rebel Minority. It is an opportunity to look back on a hard year filled with pain in order to better move forward.

3 years ago

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The Rebel Minority is Chinese-Canadian writer Diamond Yao's monthly column.

In rural villages less than twenty kilometers from the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong, lives the last generation of indigenous Weitou women who were married in the traditional way. In her young adulthood, a Weitou woman would climb in the cockloft of her family’s childhood home and lie there for several days. A procession of friends would come to bid her goodbye, before she would leave her home village forever in a sedan seat to be married off to a man she had never met before.

For many Weitou women, far from the romantic ideals of Western love, marriage was supposed to be a dreadful affair marked by complete submissiveness to their husband and agricultural toil. To express their pain and anguish, in their last moments in the cockloft with their childhood friends, they sang mournful bridal laments together. The songs were full of anger and bile for the matchmaker they felt had betrayed them. This wedding tradition would be passed down orally from one generation of women to the next over several centuries.

For all the oppression this generation of women has been through that would be unacceptable today in many Western cultures, one thing they do better than Western consumerist societies is culturally institutionalize public displays of pain. Unlike Americans raised with ideals of the pursuit of happiness above all else, Weitou women of that generation were raised expecting a long, hard life and were given space to express unhappiness about their situation with their songs.

As such, even if they were far more disenfranchised than many Western women, their society also provided them the permission to be rightfully upset about their circumstances as there was no expectation that their purpose in life lay in achieving happiness. In that way at least, they are ironically better equipped at dealing with pain than we are in the Western world. They aren’t suffocating under the unrealistic ideal of constant happiness pushed by American optimism, exported by consumerism.

In North America, we are so obsessed with whitewashing life with happiness that we are particularly bad at coping with inevitable suffering. It is extremely taboo to publicly recognize any sort of pain, except at funerals, and even then mourners are prescribed rigid grief timelines beyond which it is impermissible to not “move on.”

The only way for the downtrodden to be valued is for them to perform toxic resilience with a smile. If they can bear their suffering with pep and grit, we lionize them as heroes; if on the other hand they are consumed by their problems, we discard them as zeroes. By making happiness the meaning of our lives, instead of giving our suffering meaning, we have ensured that inevitable pain will always have the status of pointless anguish that needs to be hidden, squashed, medicated away, and ignored.

This is a belief system that has come to a spectacular head in this tragic year. When many Asian nations quickly established public health plans to deal with the pandemic, some Western nations stuck their heads in the sand. The result of living in denial of those atrocities has been widespread anti-mask protests, institutional stubbornness in pretending everything is still great, and a collective carelessness towards the millions who had their lives destroyed by the bleak headlines of 2020.

Out of sight, out of mind, not our problem, we think, as we leave these millions isolated to their own devices. Whatever suffering we might have is quickly outsourced into the lives of other people, in the time honoured tradition of Westerners exorcising their unacceptable pain into foreign exotic lands, the only places on Earth that still allow for overt suffering. Those places hold on to the suffering of Western nations who refuse to carry their own anguish in a futile quest to eradicate it forever from their territories.

By making happiness the meaning of our lives, instead of giving our suffering meaning, we have ensured that inevitable pain will always have the status of pointless anguish.

Ironically, the ossification of happiness into a rigid stance expunged of impurities makes us much worse off by blinding us to the reality of human complexity. Unlike many children in the developing world who are expected to work and/or take care of their siblings, Western children are expected to have a carefree, idyllic childhood. This seems like a good idea in theory, but it makes a lot of people forget that childhood, just like any other time in life, has both its ups and its downs. As such, countless children are ignored when they speak about the various hardships they suffer from with dismissive statements such as “you’re too young to be sad” or “you’re still a kid, your life is easy!”

Never mind that they may be suffering from debilitating physical/mental health issues, poverty, abuse, domestic violence, bigotry, bullying, sexual harassment, parental separation or the death of a loved one. Even if they aren’t suffering from serious problems, the lesson they are taught by having their suffering dismissed is that their pain does not matter - a lesson they will carry into their adulthood when the time will come to deal with serious, traumatic pain.

Invalidated children grow up to become adults who hide, squash, medicate away, ignore and outsource their problems, problems that now have much higher stakes than those of their youth. These adults go on to destroy innocent lives, the fallout of which my own innocent generation will have to grapple with.

Far from being the carefree sprites enjoying our youth our elders want us to be, my generation is sad and anxious. When we hang out virtually, instead of sharing the latest on parties and hookups, we exchange information about therapy lamp recommendations, which overpriced racist therapists to avoid and the freshest depressing breaking news. We confront darkness because we know that the hefty price of our denial will be our world as we know it. In these times of global pandemic, ecological apocalypse, and social unrest where we aren’t even sure if life as we know it will still be a thing a decade from now, depression, anxiety, sadness, anger, and negative feelings cannot be ignored anymore.

In fact, allowing ourselves to feel these emotions is the first step in finding solutions to our global existential crises. Those solutions are intricate and complex, but they will not happen until our culture carves out a space in our everyday life for our pain. We need to stop aspiring to unvarnished happiness as the purpose of our lives and look beyond for true meaning. In this regard, we can learn greatly from Asian spiritual traditions, such as Taoism and Buddhism, that acknowledge the inevitable reality of shifting cycles of joy and pain inherent in our life journeys that lead us to our higher purpose. Without condoning their oppression, we can learn from elderly Weitou women’s lives whose purpose lay in fulfilling the roles, rituals and traditions that their people designated for their gender - duties that went beyond happiness.

Because our current unrealistic model of pursuing happiness as our main purpose in life is breaking both our spirits and our world. We need to unite together to save our planet and save our own lives from the tyrannical meaninglessness of continuous happiness. It starts by allowing ourselves to feel the losses of our current year and using that sadness to reach out to others who will support us and be supported by us - especially those who have no support whatsoever. We will only truly heal when the hardest hit and the most unsupported among us finally receives adequate support. Despite how hard capitalism might try to convince us, the path to healing ourselves lies in healing others as well.

This may sound like an utopian vision, but if this year has taught us anything at all, it is that self-care and community care are no longer solely issues of ethics, morality or altruism. They are existential issues that concern the continued existence of every single one of us alive today. Whether or not we choose to act in caring ways towards ourselves and our community will determine if we will still have a planet on which we can pursue purposes beyond happiness in the future.

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Diamond Yao

Published 3 years ago

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