I recently came across this meme: “Humaning is hard until one day you decide it isn’t. When you change your mind, you change your life.”

Memes like this are, if not antithetical to connection, disruptive of it. Memes like this keep us separate – from each other and from ourselves.

Here’s why.

First. This meme takes it for granted that your mind governs your relationship to reality. That difficulty is always and only a matter of perspective – that difficulty is a decision that we all make.

Of course, as scientists have been showing us, our minds do kind of govern our relationship to reality. But that neurological complexity is not what this meme is after here.

Instead, the idea draws on the cult of positive thinking: that no matter the trouble, if we change our attitudes – or “change” our very minds, whatever that may mean – we will, literally, alter the environments we inhabit.

I understand the basic impulse underlying this sentiment: that cultivating gratitude and rejecting negativity for its own sake are pathways to, if not happiness, then peace, equilibrium. That we sometimes complain too much; that many of us have more privilege than we can hold. I know I do. And an emphasis on gratitude is right, and good: gratitude has indeed been shown to increase general well-being and compassion, lower blood pressure, and help us feel more connected.

But what I take to be the meme’s intentions, as it were, do not square with what the meme literally says: that we all decide on difficulty. For so many of us, that is not the case: our circumstances are real, and they are present. The disjointed and broken state of the world is real, and it is present. Not having enough to eat, not having health care, dealing with violent discrimination, with being poor, or abused, or marginalized, or cripplingly depressed – these all constitute real hardships that cannot be chosen.

There are many ways to respond even to intractable challenges, of course – but the upshot of this meme is that, if you are suffering, if some days, or even all of them, feel hard, you are doing it wrong, you are not making the right choices.

(And you’re not doing it wrong; and not everything is a choice.)

Second. This meme relies on the idea that things – life, being human – shouldn’t be hard. That we make things hard; that if we’re doing it right, life just – well, it just won’t be.

In other words, this meme assumes it is bad to think that humaning is hard – and, also, that what is difficult should somehow be avoided or, in this case, changed with the power of positive thinking. (A far different enterprise from cultivating gratitude.)

But what if we embraced the difficulties inherent in humaning: that the imperfections, the cracks in the teacup are what make us human in the first place? There is beauty and authenticity to be found in in this “hardness.” We don’t have to make life’s challenges go away. And we don’t have to pretend these challenges aren’t exhausting, mind-numbingly so, sometimes.

Because some things really are hard. Suffering is endemic to the human condition. Sometimes, no matter how “rightly” you do a thing, it will turn out wrongly. There is horror in that knowledge; and there is also creativity and beauty in accepting it.

Third. This meme assumes that change is uncomplicated and easy – it happens “one day” when you decide that humaning is not hard.

It’s stating the obvious to say that change doesn’t happen in “one day.” It takes a lifetime; we grow, develop, backslide, learn, forget, re-learn, forget some more. We don’t ever arrive at the end goal. Some days, I get up early and write because that makes me happy and makes me feel whole. Other days – even though I know this to be true – I sleep because I’m tired, get a later start, feel like I am losing and like a loser. Not writing is hard. But getting up is also, sometimes, hard.

And part of what makes humaning hard is this relationship with ourselves, this dance with our own natures, our habits, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and whether we count.

But the corollary is a lovely one: part of what makes this dance easier is accepting and even reveling in how hard it is, having a sense of humor about how hard it is. Denying the hardship in the first place denies us this connection, this joy.

So: what if, instead of striving to change our minds we accepted that to live is to suffer, that humaning is hard? Would we be more patient? (Would I be?) Would we regard the faults of earth’s other inhabitants with more compassion and lovingkindness? Would we cultivate self-compassion, too?

I guess I think we just might. I guess I think that this compassion, these imperfections, these difficulties bind us all together, every single one.

I guess I think that the more we let go of the idea that we can control the outcome, the easier embracing life in its hardness – and its occasional ease – might be.

For from the hardness of being human arises interconnection, our care for each other, our relaxing into a warm embrace, even – maybe especially – when that embrace is one we give ourselves.

3 thoughts on “Humaning Is Hard

  1. This is lovely, and something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately (much less eloquently). I’m struck sometimes by how comforting it can be to hear someone else simply say, “Yeah, it’s really hard.” Nothing else; no advice.

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  2. The cult of positivity does nothing to alleviate social ill, it adds to it. I couldn’t agree more with this nicely outlined essay about the reasons why. Thanks for the nuanced approach, it is much needed. It is actually hilarious to think that I could just “stop” thinking the things that are upsetting me. Poof! If I can’t access that magical action, it must be because I am inherently flawed.

    Barbara Ehrenreich has written about the problems with positivity, and she speaks to many of these issues too, could be interesting to check out: https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113758696


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