“We have no idea the demons people face or how they’re faring against them” (Paul Madonna, “All Over Coffee”).
I found this quote in a book of illustrations by SF Chronicle cartoonist Paul Madonna and promptly tore it out and framed it on my wall. Some days the words slip my attention beside photographs of my family and the tally-mark scoreboard I made to try to accomplish a New Year’s resolution to be more patient (current score: Renée: 16, Impatience: 14). Other days I intentionally ignore the tiny frame, if I’m feeling especially stubborn or petty. Every day, these words are relevant – and challenging – to live by.
If you want words to live by, they are not hard to find. We all have Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt committed to memory, not to mention stockpiles of occasion-specific spinoffs on the trite “Keep Calm and Carry On,” conveniently printed on coffee mugs and bro tanks. I bring up Paul Madonna’s words because I find them practically useful when Gandhi and Roosevelt fall short. This is a time of year littered with chaotic to-do lists, nervous breakdowns and misunderstandings. Winter quarter, things fall apart. The words above might help the center hold.
The drag about feeling stressed, lonely, overwhelmed or depressed is rarely the feeling itself. It’s the cascade of shitty events that always seem to congregate around a bad mood like iron filings around a magnet. You’ve all been there: “I got in a fight with my roommate, I got a 50 percent on my p-set, my boyfriend was too busy to hang out, my Mom is nagging me to call my doctor and my best friend and I aren’t talking because he hates me.”
In isolation from each other, each of these might feel manageable. But their cumulative effect feels like the universe kicking you to the curb. The toughest thing about days like this these is that they are rarely caused by events in your control. Notice that everything wrong with the hypothetical day above, with the exception of 50 percent on your p-set, has to do with other people.
Other people are messy. They come with their own baggage, their own contexts, their own demons. And we can’t know what those demons are, or how other people are handling them. You get a handful of people who are privately struggling with their own problems bumping into each other and making a traffic jam. It can feel like your roommate is mad at you, your boyfriend is ignoring you or your best friend hates you, when none of that is actually true. The result is a host of missed meanings, occluded connections and bad timing resulting in misplaced blame.
I do it all the time. I am too busy or too stressed or too impatient to hash out what is really happening between my peers and me. I misunderstand, I withdraw and I end up isolated from the people I love when I need them most.
I implore you: when it’s week eight of winter quarter and you find yourself overwhelmed, don’t retreat. Imagine the demons other people are facing. If your roommate is acting short-tempered, try not to take it personally. If you can do so without irritating any raw wounds, ask her what’s going on. See how she’s doing. This campus can get lonely. Classes here are strenuous. If you take the time to see where other people are coming from, you may still be stressed and spread too thin, but at least you’ll be in good company.
Exorcise your demons. Email Renée at firstname.lastname@example.org.