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When a cynic tells you it’s okay

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My younger brother went through a pretty bad breakup recently. He texted me a couple weeks ago: “Hey can I call you in a few minutes?” I told him sure, but I didn’t have long, thinking I was in for a little back and forth ribbing as usual. I’d make fun of his nose, he’d make fun of my hairline, and boom, everyone’s laughing and carrying on with their days. So, I called him and he picked up  but all I heard was a torrential sob. He does tend to be a bit of a crybaby, but this one was different. I tried to make out the words he was saying, but the emotion was flowing out, and I was left sitting there trying to catch a waterfall in a teacup. What I did make out, however, is that he pleaded with me, begged me to tell him everything would be okay, but I didn’t know how. As far as I can tell, life is one long series of disappointments and then we die. So what does it even mean to be okay?

How do you promise someone they’re going to be okay when a huge part of their reality was ripped away in the span of a short phone call? How do you console them when their world is turned upside down? You can’t tell them things will be like they were before, because that would be a lie, so what do you say instead? When you tell them everything will be okay, what is that “okay” supposed to look like, and what happens in the meantime?

These are the types of questions that no one person can answer, especially for someone else. Everyone’s version of okay looks different. Some people swear off relationships for however long because they don’t want to go through that corkscrew-in-the-heart pain again. Some people go the opposite route, trying to slowly push the pain away through frivolous companionship, drugs or alcohol.

The catch with a lot of these methods is that they’re used to fill a void left by another person. Whether you swear off relationships for however long, swear off sex or maybe embrace it and try to make up for all that lost quality single time by trying to screw anything that moves, it’s all being done with that other person in mind. That first Tinder date, the first ferocious day back at the gym, the wardrobe upgrade. You’re trying to get back at them by living your best life; getting them out of your head for a little while; showing them that you’re worth more than they thought. It’s an unfortunate first step, but it’s also just that: a first step. After the first step is the second, then the third, and then next thing you know you’re going an entire day without thinking about them.

These steps all lead right back where this article started: being okay. It’s strange, come to think of it, that my brother asked me to tell him that he’d be okay, because he’ll be the first to tell you that optimism has never been my strong suit. Cynical is the lighthearted way he’d describe me, but I like to think of myself as pragmatic — I’ve seen children with their limbs blown off and elders left to die by their families, and I’ve stared into the cold, greedy eyes of a sexual assaulter. I feel justified in having assessed the world as being about 73-percent crap with the rest being mostly inaccessible to us normal people. Have I mentioned we’re all going to die? And there my baby brother was, sitting in his room, having tapped into his whole new version of misery, asking me to tell him it would all be okay.

But at the risk of sounding optimistic, I admit that there is something I hold onto — as long as there are still things left to feel that are worth feeling, I will chase them. I believe there is a sunrise from the top of a mountain that I must see, an embrace from a friend I haven’t met yet that I must hold, a song by a caged bird that I must hear. That, to me, is hope. It’s the reason I still wake up early every day, do Jiu Jitsu, go to class and come back exhausted to write about random thoughts that swirl in my head. It’s the reason I was able to tell my brother, albeit with some reservation, that yes, no matter what his okay looked like or how long it would take to get there, I knew that at some point he would be okay. And as far as I can tell, that’s me being pragmatic.

Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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