Ashley Abramson

Ashley Abramson is a writing coach and freelancer whose natural habitat is any combination of words and people. Editor of Tapestry Magazine, Ashley has also written for RELEVANT, Scary Mommy, and the Influence Network. She, her husband, and red-headed toddler son live in Minneapolis, but you can find her online at ashleyabramson.com and on Instagram @ashleyabrmsn.

Thumbs Down, Crying Eyes

In my iPhone, hidden among the pre-packaged, processed verbiage of my text threads and emails, probably buried somewhere beneath the emoji, I keep an arsenal of verbs I stumble upon. They’re relics of my reading, souvenirs of indulgence in fiction. They’re verbs that stump me, woo me, and intrigue me, obliging me to run my fingers along their edges, a menagerie of action words, that crucial role in sharpening my view of their stories.  I tend this list for a few reasons, but mostly because I’m a writer who believes verbs, when thoughtfully wielded and precisely placed, are the most important part of a sentence.

Even by themselves, verbs communicate. If you strip down a paragraph to just its verbs, you may miss some important details, but you can still grasp at least the tone and even the movement. For example, a chronological excerpt of a few verbs from my list, all from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, still communicates: swarm, buzz, trickle, melt, thaw, spill, bow, sweet, wave, recede, crumble, hoard, mirror, prowl, brim, seep, upend, swing, slosh. In its proper context, each one of these verbs grounds us as readers and propels us deeper into the story, evoking wonder and curiosity in their sounds as much as their meanings. In his book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser notes the power of verbs to move stories forward: “Verbs are the most important of all your tools. They push the sentence forward and give it momentum.”

Without verbs and their adjacent nouns and modifiers, we miss something. Take emoji for example, the Japanese iPhone keyboard with hundreds of cartoon symbols which were designed and devised for convenience in communication. According to Spectator, emoji characters “were dreamt up in the mid-1990s by Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese tech developer, as a way of making unfashionable corporate pagers appeal to teenagers.” And fashionable they have become, perhaps even a mode of propaganda: the White House has started using them in social media campaigns for millennials, and, according to New York Magazine, recruiters for ISIS are using emoji in their friendly sounding, ISIS-promoting tweets.”

I’m not involved in the business of propaganda, but I get it. Because sometimes, instead of perusing my verb collection for just the right word to describe my toddler’s tornadic behavior on any given afternoon, I settle for the cartoon versions (yes, both the baby and tornado emoji exist). Because, like that Japanese businessman and the White House, sometimes I don’t know what to say. But I want to connect. I want to make it easy. And most of all, I want to ensure I’m understood the first time around.

That’s what emoji are, aren’t they? Cute cartoon symbols devised to connect a message with a particular set of consumers—a means of convenience, which, if we value function over form, may not appear to be a problem on its own. Unless you’re a sentimental writer like me, hungry for cadence and vitality, but instead commonly settling for a diet of convenience and virality.

What could possibly be missing from the nearly 1,000 emoji? For the pragmatist, not much. But for English majors like me, everything. Emoji can say a lot, but are missing the little things that make English beautiful, the small, unappreciated words that direct our gaze, orient our souls, and shape our perspectives. As an article in Wired states, “all the little linking words that we take for granted but give English the power to identify, modify, and look at things far away in space and time.”

But emoji’s limitations don’t just drain the nostalgic; their excessive use will affect anyone who treasures human connection. The same Wired article (in a pro-emoji article, I should mention) acknowledges emoji’s limitations and how they affect us socially: “Digital communications have always been a little socially handicapped. Unlike the written and typed communiques that came before, digital mixes immediacy with intimacy in a way that strips nuance and drains context.”

Our long strings of emoji are missing specificity, even precision. And if speaking or writing with precision is one powerful means we have to elicit specific responses and strengthen relationships, we may be doing something wrong in choosing the thumbs up emoji instead of a genuine, affirming word. When we pick the pre-packaged version of what we intend to say, we sacrifice a valuable dimension of real connection. We converse in a way that waters down or even avoids the beauty of words. Emoji may not be the problem, but they are certainly a symptom—just one sign of a culture afflicted by convenience.

Such symptoms go way beyond how we use our iPhones—they’re all over our language and conversations. In her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, author Marilyn Chandler McEntyre likens our preparation and consumption of language to nutrition, lamenting the demise of enlivening language in favor of ease:

“Like food, language has been “industrialized.” Words come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed. And just as it takes a little extra effort and intention to find, buy, eat, and support the production of organic foods, it is a strenuous business to insist on usable, flexible, precise, enlivening language.

I’m a participant in the consumption of fast language. It is easy to choose comfort and convenience in a pinch, because cadent language struggles to keep up with an un-cadent life. There is little space to pause for beauty. A quick question demands a quick answer, hence the pre-packaged predictive iPhone text like “I’m on my way!” or “Can’t talk now!” It’s the difference between fast food and local, farm-to-table fare. One is lightning fast but leaves you hungry shortly after, while the other marinades and simmers a bit longer, but whose complexity of flavor both quenches hunger and dances on the palate.

Our choice of viral over vital and convenience over cadence shows we are satisfied with the approximate when abundance awaits us. But how do we build a balanced diet, especially as digital communication continues to grow? Maybe we just need to slow down. Maybe we need to adopt mindful thinking, even in the crevices of our lives to which we assign less importance.

Maybe, to learn how to pause for beauty—a discipline that will nourish us all our lives—we must start in the small places, like our phones and our text threads. And maybe, when we slow down, we will find the right words have been there all along—tucked away in our iPhones, somewhere between the thumbs up and heart eyes emoji, waiting for us to wield them.

The Landscape of Joy in a Fast-Happy Society

Pseudo-spiritual self-help memoirs line bookstore shelves, instructing us how to use our breath to get happy. Hot Yoga classes with a side of watered-down Buddhism shape our bodies and minds, selling self-actualization like a commodity. We sample the aspects of cultures and religions we find rewarding, spending time and money excessively to achieve “flash happiness.” But what happens when the flash burns out? Again, we toil.

If happiness is a commodity, then we’re facing a recession. According to a recent Harris poll, only one third of Americans are “very happy,” and The World Happiness Report ranked the U.S. number fifteen of all countries—puzzling when our wealth and resources far exceed most of the countries ranking above us. Where have we gone wrong? Perhaps the answer lies in our definition of happiness, which, according to The Washington Post, has come to mean increasing comfort by achieving a higher individual income—less about a journey, more about a destination. So, rather than a hard-wrought reward of plunging our own depths in self-examination, rather than the presence of joy, happiness has become more about what it isn’t. Our idea of happiness has morphed into avoiding suffering.

So what’s beyond the name-brand happiness we strive for? Could there be a more nourishing, sustainable landscape for us to step into? And if so, how do we get there? Therein lies the paradox of our solo quests for satisfaction—maybe it’s not about avoiding suffering, but walking right through it, all the way to joy.

Joy, like many virtues, is hard to find. But ten minutes into Pixar’s Inside Out, I was convinced it would find me. The film gives us a peek inside the mind of eleven-year-old Riley, whose family endures a difficult cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Through the journey, we see her emotions of sadness, disgust, fear, anger, and joy personified, running a “command center” in Riley’s brain. Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is the peppy ringleader.

The relationship between Joy and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith of The Office) intrigued me from the beginning. Joy, head of the command center, harnesses all the other emotions, takes especial care to protect Riley from Sadness. In one instance, we see Sadness fumbling around the command center, unable to pull herself out of a slump of melancholy. Fearful Sadness will take the steering wheel of Riley’s brain on a whim, Joy commands her, “Stay in your circle!” As the determined Joy fights for her rightful plot in Riley’s mind, a thesis practically built itself in my mine—joy commands us! Happiness will find us! Joy is the most powerful, poignant emotion, to which sadness is ultimately subservient.

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But as the movie progresses, Joy and Sadness develop a rapport, even a partnership, collaborating and sharing resources to give Riley a full, genuine emotional experience. Where Joy used to call the shots, she begins to yield to other emotions, realizing they may lead Riley to something more lasting: a more complex form of joy, sweetened and hallowed by the pain of knowing loss.

One scene in Inside Out shows the power of Sadness to reap lasting happiness. In a quest to cheer Riley up, Joy revels in a memory of a hockey game, and what appears to be a celebration. But Sadness remembers it differently: the team had actually lost, discouraging Riley, but also leading her to the joy of genuine time with her family. Sorrow lent the celebration a more complex flavor: a little bit bitter because of the loss, but a sweet finish because her family was there to encourage her. It was the initial sting of loss and the vulnerability of suffering that prompted Riley to seek comfort in her parents, opening her up to the joy of intimacy and connection with those close to her. At this point, Joy starts to realize the power Sadness might have to enrich Riley’s life.

Maybe that’s the sweet spot we’re missing in a fast-happy culture. The contrived veneer of happiness will always fail us, because it doesn’t have a foundation. After all, why would we treasure joy if we hadn’t first experienced its absence? The film suggests that joy and sadness can indeed coexist, and they should—their collaboration yields the happiness we search for. Real joy, then, isn’t a commodity, but a discipline, the hard-won fruit of being willing to first trudge through undesirable emotions.

On the other side of the hustle for happiness is the mindfulness movement emphasizing mindful meditation, a practice designed to reduce stress and anxiety not by consuming, but through quiet noticing. Through increased attention to the mundane of the physical, mindfulness practices summon us to observe the very sensations that keep us alive, ultimately minimizing stress and reducing pain.

Sounds good, right? Not to critics of “McMindfulness,” who claim the “colonized” American version, uncoupled from the ancient Buddhist practice, is “marketed to reduce stress,” when it is actually meant to be part of an ethical program to propagate “wise action.” Ron Purser, Professor of Management at San Francisco State University, wrote in The Huffington Post: “When mindfulness practice is compartmentalized in this way, the interconnectedness of personal motives is lost. There is a dissociation between one’s own personal transformation.”

This version of mindfulness meditation promotes noticing without the act of judging. But is simply noticing sadness enough to achieve real joy? Or does genuine happiness reside on the other side of the transforming crucible of suffering?

Though we pour our money and time into escaping the discomfort bound to plague us, Christian writer C.S. Lewis argued that our desires, especially our desire for happiness, aren’t too strong; rather, they’re too weak. He writes in The Weight of Glory, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

If mud pies are the happiness we forge with feeble hands, joy is the holiday at sea. And according to Inside Out, there is no way there but through sadness—we must exist in it, engage with it, trudge through it to experience real, meaningful joy. Like Robert Frost writes in his poem “A Servant to Servants,” “the best way out is always through.”

Toward the end of Inside Out, in a culmination of fear, disgust, and anger, Riley runs away from home, hopping on a bus back to Minnesota where she thinks she’ll find joy again. Of course, Riley does choose to return safely home, but it’s not Joy who convinces her— Sadness propels her back into her parents’ arms. The sadness of imagining life without her family led her home, to joy, where she belongs. Joy gets the last say, but not without the help of her counterpart, Sadness.

It’s certainly possible to experience isolated joy without the prerequisite of sadness, and Riley does—the film flashes back to early, foundational memories of pure joy, like her first hockey goal while skating with her parents on a lake and laughing with a friend while blowing bubbles in milk. But the emotion that propels her to take positive action in her life—the one that brings her home—is the same one we try to escape from: sadness. Maybe the isolated moments make us happy, but it’s the mingling of pain and beauty that makes us human, drawing us into the most vibrant version of ourselves. That’s the beauty of collaborating with the whole spectrum of emotions. When sadness carves a deep valley in us, it’s also making space for joy to burst in—our holiday at sea.

Already, Not Yet

I dare you to scroll any vein of social media for thirty seconds without colliding with authenticity. If you do so successfully, I applaud you for somehow finding a trapdoor from the confusing cultural crisis of #liveauthentic—as I write, there are nearly 5.9 million Instagram posts with the hashtag.

Should you choose to continue down the rabbit trail of local lavender lattes alongside styled succulents, it won’t take you long to find Socality Barbie, which The Atlantic describes as “a tongue-in-cheek Instagram account [that] underscores the paradox of social-media authenticity.” Socality Barbie’s creator, who chooses to remain anonymous, said in an interview with The Atlantic: “I created the account to make fun of the people who were using the ‘liveauthentic’ hashtag on Instagram. All their pictures looked alike to me and I couldn’t tell them apart anymore so it just didn’t seem all that authentic.”

Unfortunately, I have played the part—the stay-at-home mom crafting a cunning caption about gracious, attentive living while simultaneously shushing the screaming toddler vying for my attention. Maybe that’s why Socality Barbie stings a little, because it’s true of me and my millennial cohorts who get so wrapped up in the hustle toward our own brand of authenticity that we spiral into just the opposite until our lives fade into the 5.9 million others. In our striving pursuit of authenticity as a brand, we may risk losing our authenticity altogether.

I felt a similar sting of conviction while watching Noah Baumbach’s 2014 “dramedy” While We’re Young. Employing two couples, Josh and Cornelia Srebnik and their younger counterparts Jamie and Darby Massey, Baumbach draws an important distinction between an “authentic” lifestyle and an actual life. While the duos, particularly the men, have some blatant differences, each strives after his own idea of success at the expense of his marriage and career. Baumbach’s point here is clear: pursue a life of shiny authenticity without the grit of soul-mining and you don’t have authenticity at all—you have a wobbly framework, waiting to fold in on itself.

Who would succumb to the rickety framework first: Josh or Jamie? I found myself equal parts motion sick and entertained as the film volleyed me between the two different characters, both about to collapse. Not surprisingly, Baumbach paints Jamie (Adam Driver of HBO’s Girls) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried of Mean Girls) as millennial archetypes: a manic-pixie-dream-couple housed in a Brooklyn loft with a flaky female roommate, reclaimed wood shelves littered with vintage vinyl, and, predictably, a cage full of chickens. 

whilewereyoung-01

On the other side of the fence reside Josh and Cornelia (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts respectively), an unglamorous forty-something couple disgruntled about their advancing age. One of the first scenes of the film pictures the couple visiting friends who’d recently had a baby. Upon leaving, the Srebniks question their decision not to have children, justifying it with the freedom childlessness affords them: “The point is we still have freedom,” Josh says. “What we do with it isn’t that important.”

What does Josh do with his copious free time then? Pursue his career, at the expense of his character. A troubled documentarian, Josh struggles to finish his “breakthrough” film on leftist Ira Mandelstam, making no real progress after ten years. Paying no regard to anyone’s needs but his own, Josh runs hard after his “art” full-time, teaching continuing education film courses on the side.

Enter Jamie, who coyly approaches Josh after one of his night classes, obviously pursuing an art of his own. Josh instantly latches onto Jamie’s excessive flattery (which, as it turns out, is Jamie’s attempt at getting close to Cornelia’s father, a renowned documentarian). The two couples have dinner together afterward because, as Jamie exclaims, “my wife and I are going to the same damn place!” And the nausea begins.

Scene by scene, Jamie and Darby’s whimsical lifestyle provides a trapdoor for the Srebniks to escape the mundaneness of their own predictable day-to-day. One evening, both couples sprawled on couches—most likely vintage, of course—in the Masseys apartment, they try to remember the word “marzipan.” Endearingly resourceful Josh pulls out his smartphone to Google it, but Jamie rebuts, “No, don’t look it up. That’s too easy. Let’s just not know it.”

bikes

And just like that, by the thin whimsy of a life unplugged and the foggy visage of authenticity, Josh is pulled in. “They’re so excited for each other. It’s selfless,” Josh tells Cornelia post-hangout. “They ask questions. We always talk about ourselves.” It’s clear that for Josh, the younger couple embodies authenticity—so he dives head first into the pursuit of it, with Jamie as his god.

Josh and Jamie grow concentric as the film unfolds, each one feeding off the other, using each other to get where they want to go. Josh borrows a few of Jamie’s superficial tricks for his own de-aging arsenal—a fedora hat and wing-tip shoes to name a few—while Jamie manipulates Josh into participating in his documentary to get his idol, Cornelia’s father, involved.

Suddenly, in the mess of desperate striving and deceit, it’s difficult to tell where Josh ends and Jamie begins. The two are bound together by their restlessness, striving toward some ambiguous, looming “authentic” life they might never attain. While Josh shapes his life around buying time, Jamie’s aim is to put on maturity without the work, cutting corners to make connections for his own success. The aging Josh strives to escape his “already” to win back the possibility of youth, and Jamie hustles to escape his own age into the “not yet,” or the perceived possibility of his future.

In pointing their livelihoods at what they don’t have, both characters miss out on their own actual lives—the messy stuff that can’t be sustained by the wobbly framework of a style of life or pattern of consumption. The men’s restlessness, manifested in craftily curated images, soon threatens to destroy their marriages and their careers. As it turns out, scaling the fence toward the greener grass has its risks.

At a black-tie award ceremony for his father-in-law, Josh cathartically vies for justice after discovering an apparently unethical interview process in Jamie’s documentary. Josh finally realizes what’s been important all along, and mostly what’s been missing: integrity, or as Donald Miller describes it in his book Scary Close, “a soul fully integrated, no difference between his act and person.”

The viewer can finally exhale when Josh heroically reclaims his real life, however human, however mundane, at the end of the film. “Such is one of the rare benefits of age,” wrote Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review on the film. “Maybe you can start, at last, to tell the difference between a life style and a life.” As Baumbach suggests, true authenticity flourishes in the mess of being fully human, and it simply can’t exclude integrity. In fact, it probably depends on it.