What Do We Mean By “Messy?”

Thanks, everyone who left thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post!

from Flickr user JugglerPM, used under CC license
from Flickr user JugglerPM, used under CC license

I wanted to clarify a few points:

#1 Some of you pointed out that “messy” can be a useful term and shouldn’t be lumped in with the careles use of “manic,” “bipolar,” “psychotic,” etc.

You’re probably right. ‘Messy’ is in a different category, and we all have messes in our lives.

I’m not objecting to the use of ‘messy’ per se. I’m objecting to the way “messy” is thrown out there on the Internet as a “just folks” line when every other marker indicates the absolute opposite. (See the example under point #3)

It’s like when people who were clearly cool and popular in high school try to backtrack and say they were actually nerdy outsiders once being a nerdy outsider became its own kind of cool.

#2 I do realize that wealth and privilege are no barrier against mental illness, alcoholism, and abusive, horrific family situations.

And I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.

Those who’ve read The Glass Castle know that (spoiler!) Jeannette Walls’ mother was in fact sitting on real estate valued at over a million dollars while her children scrounged in the garbage cans for food.

{There’s also this horrific story of the “Poorest Rich Kids in the World” in Rolling Stone}

However, I wanted to make clear my appreciation for Jeannette Walls’ refusal to romanticize her upbringing, especially in a cultural moment that occasionally indulges in nostalgie de la boue–this sense that poverty is somehow ennobling and simple and even desirable. I’m

#3 I do (tentatively of course) stand by my hunch that middle- and upper-middle class folks curate a certain image and then protesteth that image much.

Example? Jen Hatmaker’s post on her family’s new reality show on HGTV, where she talks about how chaotic and crazy they all are (“we are doomed, cause we can lay us down some crazy”) and how horrible and wrecked their fixer-upper of a house is and yet, somehow, every person and every room in every photo is nothing less than adorable.

Edith Schaeffer kept quiet about the ‘messiness’ of her life with the well-known teacher and author Francis Schaeffer and presented a highly polished and competent picture of herself to the world. That’s what was acceptable and desirable in her day.

In our day, it seems, we want people to admit to ‘messiness’ but only if can still be picturesque, somehow.

That’s weird to me, and, not to belabor the point, may trivialize real suffering. I’m not calling people’s ‘first-world problems’ unimportant or non-existent. I’m just saying we shouldn’t give credit for being ‘confessional’ and ‘raw’ if what’s being confessed isn’t all that raw, and just allows one to seem quirky and adorable instead of actually messed up.

Otherwise, we’re no better off than we were when we were just keeping up appearances. Only now, we have the pressure to keep up an “honest” and “raw” appearance that’s still cute. (See also: Manic Pixie Dream Girl or, better, Mindy Kaling’s New Yorker piece, “Flick Chicks.”)

#4 The point about the Trader Joe’s frozen dinners and Annie’s Organic boxed mac & cheese was not meant to imply that people who can provide such things have no problems.

Rather, as Emily Matchar pointed out in her very intelligent book Homeward Bound, the pressure on mothers to DIY it all perfectly and picturesquely has meant that for some people, Trader Joe’s frozen food represents failure. My point is that it clearly does not.

#5 Thanks for bearing with me.

Often my blog is a place to work out ideas in draft form. Thanks for helping me think through things a little more carefully!

Please Stop Calling Your Relatively Privileged Life “Crazy” and “Messy.”

A few weeks ago, I asked folks on Twitter–and specifically, my colleague Amy Simpson, who has recently published a book on mental illness and the mission of the church:

What do you think about the way people use words like “bipolar,” “crazy,” and “manic” when they really mean “moody,” “energetic,” “quirky” and even “fun”?

It’s part of a pattern I’ve noticed lately–and maybe you’ve noticed it too.

People with beautiful headshots, flawlessly designed websites, and enviable accomplishments insist that they are really just a ‘mess.’ Or that their families are ‘crazy.’ Or that their homes and lives are every bit as complicated and frustrating as everyone else’s…meanwhile, their Instagram feeds show nothing but beauty; if ‘chaos’ is there, it’s only ever of the picturesque kind.

From Flickr User Tanja. CC license.
There’s nothing picturesque about true squalor of the sort that Jeannette Walls endured.                              From Flickr User Tanja. CC license.

There are no birdcages sprouting stalagmites and stalactites of bird droppings. There are no snotty-nosed, unwashed, half-dressed, hungry children who’ve never visited a dentist in their lives. There is food in the fridge and on the table, and it isn’t even growing mold or crawling with roaches or undulating with maggots. In fact, it’s from Trader Joe’s and may even be organic! There is no broken glass or police officers showing up because the neighbors heard screaming. There is electricity and running water and indoor toilets.

Yeah, there’s raised voices and tempers and conflicts. But that makes you human. Not crazy. Not dysfunctional. Not “a mess.”

Screen shot 2013-10-29 at 9.29.23 AM

This weekend, I read and then immediately re-read Jeannette Walls’ instant classic of a memoir, The Glass Castle. It disturbed me deeply, but reminded me very much of one of my favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is hard to resist a story of a girl triumphing over seemingly insurmountable adversities.

One of the things that I appreciated deeply about the book is that while it ends, ultimately, on a note of grace, and while there are glimpses of light even in the most dismal of episodes as her truly dysfunctional parents (both probably bipolar, and one a severe alcoholic), Walls never glamorizes the poverty that they endured. She does not romanticize any of it. She makes no attempt to paint her childhood as in any way quirky, cute, or picturesque.

Without lapsing into melodrama, she portrays it as the nearly unmitigated horror that it was.

And while she and two of her siblings managed to endure and make something of their lives, she makes no attempt to hide the fact that one of them–her younger sister, Maureen–didn’t seem to. Nor does she disguise the scars–some of them literal–that they bear because of their parents’ recklessness and refusal–or inability–to care for them properly.

There are two things that I keep thinking of as I reflect on this book.

The first is that while it is easy to celebrate the hard work and grit and good luck that allowed someone like Jeannette Walls to triumph and to tell her story with such grace and elegance, there are millions of children in the US who endure terrible suffering and do not emerge victorious but instead become the victims of their parents’–and society’s–failure to help them while help is still possible.

As I think each time I reflect on Anne Frank, how many stories like hers never got to be told? How many stories of triumph over poverty, ignorance, and mental illness could be told in this land of plenty and opportunity, if resources were directed away from war and toward the kinds of programs that make it possible for all children to succeed?

The second is that I’m really tired of seeing words like “bipolar,” “crazy,” and “messy” thrown around by middle and upper-middle class folks who have beautiful headshots and gorgeous websites and lovely homes and the time and resources to document their “messiness” and “craziness” on Instagram. Not wanting to make your kid a costume for a school play or serving a frozen Trader Joe’s meal for dinner is not a “mom fail.”

Losing your temper with the kids moments after you were laughing uproariously with your girlfriends does not make you “bipolar.” Running from school to music lessons to sports practice to a church event might mean you’re overscheduled–but not that you’re “manic.”

These words describe serious and scary symptoms of serious disease. Millions of children–in the US–would count it a huge step up to be eating Annie’s Organics mac & cheese made from a box or making do with a less-than-Pinterest-ready birthday party.

In her memoir A Good and Perfect Gift, my friend Amy Julia Becker noted the pain she felt when a friend described her Ivy League-educated husband as “retarded” because he couldn’t remember to take out the recycling. The words were like a slap: no, he clearly did not have an intellectual disability. But Amy Julia’s own beloved daughter, born with Down syndrome, did.

Using words in that thoughtless and inaccurate way may seem harmless, but it trivializes the real struggles of real people.

So let’s not make light of real suffering by calling our generally okay, pretty much functional, and actually pretty privileged lives “messy,” “dysfunctional,” and “crazy.”

And as we celebrate people like Jeannette Walls (whose book spent almost 2 years on the New York Times’ bestseller list) let’s remember the people who never lived, much less wrote, stories of triumph.