“I’m Not All-Right, and You’re Not All-Right, But That’s Okay—THAT’s All-Right!” — Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum (1)
Are you okay? What’s wrong? How are you feeling? How is your pain? Anxiety level? How are things going for you? What’s on your mind today? My answers to these kinds of questions span a spectrum from “Terrific!” to “Terrible!” with varying degrees of “Okay” to “Okay-ish” to “Not Okay” in between.
Many of us engage with such questions based on our subjective sense of the interplay of our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing at any given moment (e.g., a person is more likely to feel generally positive—even about negative phenomena—if they have just been praised, paid, advised of a good health outcome, or their team won the World Series. And vice versa). Clustering responses consistently at one or the other end of the spectrum can lead to dissociation from actual feelings, misperception, and an inaccurate assessment of how a person really is doing. Nobody is actually “Terrific!” or “Terrible!” all of the time. (Someone just jumped into your head, didn’t they? Maybe you are that someone. Please keep reading.)
For many of us, to be human is to experience a sense that something is missing. Something is just not quite right. Deep down, there is always a tension that craves resolution. What is that? Nobody knows. No one has ever quite been able to put their finger on that. But it is definitely there.
Human brains seeking certainty will tend to push for an all-or-nothing resolution concluding that people are either basically “all good” or “totally depraved” and then map out systems of control accordingly. But this is not fair to our actual lived experience. We are neither perfect nor completely deplorable. A friend of mine recently put it this way, “The best you got to give might not live up to expectations, even your own.” And that’s okay. We are human.
Some people go their whole lives feeling, but not ever acknowledging this phenomenon. For others, experiences of great suffering and great love bring it unavoidably into our awareness. It is possible to become overwhelmed by it or to actively repress and ignore it.
I want to be okay, but I don’t feel okay. Am I okay with that? If not, I have some choices. Again with the spectrum: a) I can figure out how to try and feel more okay more of the time; b) I can give up and allow myself to become miserable perhaps seeking escape in substances, behaviors, and relationships to dull my sense of non-okayness; or c) I can practice learning how to become okay with not being okay.
The major religious traditions of the world make a lot of money with a smoke and mirrors affair that promises release or overcoming of a person’s not-okay-ness if they will just give, attend, adhere, believe, practice, follow enough. Gurus of every stripe and the secular wellness industry promise the same. Their selling point? “Download our app, read our book, come to our conferences and retreats, follow our program, and you too can get one up on the universe.”
When life becomes unmanageable is the point at which many people turn to a spiritual practice for help. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs of recovery provide a well-tested spiritual practice that have helped many people along this struggle. (2) The 12 Steps do not promise an all-or-nothing resolution to the dilemma of being human. They do facilitate a way of being human more fully: Through coming to embrace the paradox of okay not okay.
What would it look like to just sit with that tension without trying to resolve it? Just let it be. A little bit at a time each day. Do you feel that? Yep. There it is again. That’s it. There is nothing to accomplish. Brush your teeth. Go to work. Be a friend. Love your people. Help others. Drink water. It’s okay. Let it be.
Spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, ritual, supportive community, and service to others can help me come to accept that this tension is the way things are. Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum have thoroughly treated this subject in their masterpiece, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. (1) They write, “To be human is to ask unanswerable questions, but to persist in asking them, to be broken and ache for wholeness, to hurt and to try to find a way to healing through the hurt.” (p. 2.)
Tolstoy’s Father Sergius is a short story about a soldier who became a monastic hermit and then, years later returned to life as a private citizen. In this brief account, Tolstoy perceptively describes the arc of a spiritual journey from Wound to Heroic Effort leading to White Knuckling on to Popular Fame then Drastic Fall and finally discovery of a way of being okay with not being okay through living simply and helping others. (3)
Things don’t always go the way I wish they would, and I am at least partially responsible for that. As I age, I come to realize that the things I thought would overcome my not-okayness—careers, romantic partners, travel, wealth, possessions, religion, power, control—have all failed to do so. My ego programs for happiness have been unmasked. And what is left? I am. With all my complex, mixed-up, delightful, and beautiful personality. I am not okay. And I am okay with that.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
SNS strives to include diverse voices within the spectrum of naturalistic spirituality. Authors will vary in their opinions, terms, and outlook. The views of no single author therefore necessarily reflect those of all Spiritual Naturalists or of SNS.
(1) Kurtz, Ernest and Ketchum, Katherine, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, New York: Bantam Books (1993) (Kindle ed. 2009, available from Amazon.com).
(2) See my 11/19/2020 SNS article, The 12 Steps as Myth-Transcending Technology (online at https://www.snsociety.org/?s=myth+transcending+technology).
(3) Tolstoy, Leo, Father Sergius. (Available from Amazon.com).