God Is in The Not-Okay

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Donna Shute

More than any other phrase I plaintively text or whimper over a phone line in four a.m. moments of weakness, I catch myself voicing one desire:

            “I just want everything to be okay.”

This morning, as I swore at the rain and the cosmos and the inept metropolitan drivers on University Boulevard using language that would make the kid in the Exorcist blush, I found myself questioning for the first time in my life — what is this elusive “okay” which so haunts my waking moments?

Does it mean I wish all my life plans were executed perfectly? Does it mean I wish my interpersonal relationships were easy and uncomplicated and I had no crucial decisions to make, ever? Does it mean I wish everyone else thought exactly the way I did about everything and would operate in accord with my every whim? Does it mean I wish I had no character deficiencies, no figure flaws, no personal imperfections of any kind? Does it mean I wish I were universally loved and adored and never ruffled any feathers along the way? Does it mean I wish I could avoid all conflict and unpleasantness and failure and traffic and bad hair days — that life could always be comfortable, smooth sailing?
If so: keep dreaming, kid. I’ll throw in some oceanfront property in Arizona for you.

Furthermore — and this, I think, is more fundamental — who died and appointed me the Fixer of All Things Not-Okay in the universe, anyway?  Most of the pain and unhappiness in my own life — and I would go so far as to say most of the pain and unhappiness in other people’s lives as well — is directly attributable to a pathological inability to tolerate the Not-Okay.  We fail to recognize this simple truth: that implicit in the act of living is the possibility of screwing it up.  We sell out on the deepest convictions of our hearts to placate other people; we avoid suffering at all costs, choosing instead to submerge our pain in sex or alcohol or food or video games or socializing or stamp-collecting; we quietly bury our chancier dreams to make room for a life of comfort and ease and predictability; we make decisions we wouldn’t otherwise have made in the name of keeping the peace; we fear failure and so refuse to hazard anything at all. And so it goes, in a “dirty little self-repeating cycle,” as Chesterton once defined madness. So things stay clean and unrumpled and Okay, like a French-cuffed shirt with the life starched out of it — but at what cost?
When will we cut through all our carefully-constructed protective layers and admit that sometimes things aren’t okay? Sometimes they’re sticky and messy and imperfect and don’t look anything like they do in the movies. Sometimes things are complicated and circuitous, and sometimes it’s because we messed up, and sometimes it’s because somebody else messed up, but regardless, the invariable result is one big gnarly knot of Not-Okay that even a Boy Scout couldn’t unravel. Yet we go so far in our desperate, frantic attempts to unravel and fix and repair and control and understand and disambiguate and Make Okay that we miss the whole damn point, which is this: once we preclude the Not-Okay, we have effectively precluded life itself.

We need to accept the imperfect, embrace it, maybe even bask in it. Yeah, things are Okay at “once upon a time” and they will be Okay again at “happily ever after,” but that’s beside the point; the story is what happens between the Okay. As Nigerian magical-realist writer Ben Okri once noted, “The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection, there is no story to tell.” You show me a story without a good central conflict and I will show you a blow-your-brains-out dull read (Waiting for Godot comes to mind). Life is not all — or even mostly — sunshine and lollipops and our most fervid attempts to render it such will only result in something dull and vapid and artificial.

Too often, we view pain and suffering and mess like the early Victorians viewed pregnancy: an unpleasant yet necessary evil, meant to be slogged through but certainly not spoken of.  Instead, consider this: what if this is the good stuff? What if these are the defining moments that, to borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde, make or unmake character? What if we’re all just a hot mess at the end of the day, and some of us are just better at concealing it than others? What if it’s our very hot-messiness and confusion and weakness and ineptitude that makes us lovable?

At the end of the day, maybe God is in the Not-Okay. Maybe He isn’t to be found in cookie-cutter lives in sterile rooms behind white picket fences, but in the squidgy details, at the blurred edges of our lives that make us squint.
Maybe the only position in which we can encounter the divine is with our backs against the wall.
Maybe it is only when we are blinded by tears that we can really see clearly at all.

::Donna Shute is a 26-year-old writer, director, and actress from Silver Spring, Maryland, who received her B.A. in English Language and Literature from Christendom College in 2006 and her M.A. in English and drama from the Catholic University of America in 2010. She has a passion for theater, literature, film criticism, psychopathology, and all things caffeinated.::

One Reply to “God Is in The Not-Okay”

  1. My short response is “you are right”.

    My longer response is a lot longer. Im the Tammy from the Perinatal Hospice video posted a few days ago. Yesterday, I stood in the hall of our hospital speaking to a newly bereaved grandmother about this exact thing. She had even fallen into the trap of telling her son and his wife that “it is ok” that their baby is dead because_____. We talked about how is is NOT OK that the baby is dead but God is still here with us in the not OKness of it all.

    I wrote a blog post about this topic http://lifeandloss.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/inadequacy-is-my-constant-companion/

    People living in cultures with endless suffering probably learn a wisdom that we don’t have in our culture…they likely don’t wait until everything is perfect to feel like they are actually living their lives. Our collective mindset of “incapacity in imperfection” is probably a clever trick of the devil to severely compromise us even though our lives are (for the most part) pretty darn good.

    In order to be effective at my work, I had to come to terms with walking into a situation that was broken know ing that when I left the room, it would still be broken. I rarely see people actually happy, my goal is normally to get from “total despair” up to “marginally coping”. I have had to walk into rooms knowing that I was totally inadequate to really improve the circumstances…my urge to run away was salved only by knowing that noone was “adequate” to fix it…we would simply be working with varying degrees of failure and lostness – and yet there was a GREAT GRACE in it because YOU ARE RIGHT…God IS in that place….and if we are too scared to go there, we will miss what He had for us in that sacred place.

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