One of the books recommended to me as part of my fiction-writing journey was Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It’s a book I have mixed feelings about (though I think that’s less of a reflection on the book, and more on the lessons I need/ed to learn not being the ones it was trying to teach me), but one moment in it that got me thinking was a short diatribe about the word “OK”.
Is OK just a hiding place?
Cameron describes OK as a concealing word – one we use when we don’t want to talk about our socially unacceptable real emotions. “Okay is a blanket word for most of us,” the author says. “It covers all sorts of squirmy feelings… We officially feel ok, but do we?”
This bothered me when I first read it, though I couldn’t immediately put my finger on why. Because it is true – “I’m OK” is the trite answer to the equally trite question “How are you?”, exchanged at work over morning coffee or with the mandatory cheeriness of a receptionist’s greeting. Neither question nor answer intended as a true exploration of personal feelings – it’s the friendly surface chatter that cements casual relationships without demanding anything deeper.
The ease with which we commandeer “OK” as a meaningless default answer is one of the reasons why so many people in the mental health community are deeply uncomfortable with the concept behind RUOK Day. “OK” can be used to cover an ocean of darker feelings, and unless you have a huge amount of trust in the person asking the question, we often find it safer to default back to it. We overuse it to the point of meaninglessness.
(This is only one of the problems with RUOK Day. Others, like the lack of information around what to do is someone does answer honestly and, more broadly, the paucity of support services for mental illness, are also important to think about.)
And yet. For all our casual, thoughtless use of the word, it’s rare to stop and consider what it means to be genuinely “OK”.
The middle of the scale
I have an app on my phone called How Are You Feeling. It’s a very basic app: a simple scale of brightly-coloured buttons ranging from “excellent” (bold yellow) to “terrible” (black), that sends me a reminder every two hours to check in with how I’m feeling and record the answer.
I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with this app over the course of my attempts to find mental health strategies that work for me, but mostly I find that being reminded to check in with myself on a regular basis helps me spot the bad patches early and start practising the coping mechanisms I use to help me through.
One of my favourite things about the app is that the three middle buttons on the scale are all labelled “ok”: “ok-“, “ok”, and “ok+”. I think of them like this: “ok-” is when I’m feeling kinda flat, a little bit off, but I’m handling it, I’m getting on with things without any problems. The middle one, “ok”, is when I’m feeling alert and interested in the world around me or the task I’m doing – I’m not doing anything particularly exciting or interesting, or maybe I’m doing something actively challenging, but I’m fine. And “ok+” is when, even though there’s nothing amazing going on, I’m still feeling generally contented with my lot in life.
The pursuit of OK-ness
In day-to-day life, I’m rarely up in the greens and yellows of “pretty good” or “excellent” – and even when I hit those highs, it’s fleeting: a eureka moment of inspiration; a few minutes of helpless laughter if Ben and I have gone silly over some joke that really shouldn’t be that funny; a few hours of delight watching a particularly good show; occasionally, if I’m lucky, a buoyant day or two carried along on the “woohoo!” of achieving something really important to me.
And that’s fine – more than that, it’s perfectly normal. Life is full of mundane situations and tasks that just aren’t that exciting, and if you’re as thrilled by doing the dishes as you are by winning the lottery, then it should probably be cause for concern. It’s the nature of joy to be fleeting, which is why – as Russ Harris explains in his book The Happiness Trap – it’s ultimately self-sabotaging to try to chase after it as a permanent state of being.
(A quick note on that book: it’s based on the Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) theory of psychology, which gave me many key components of my personal brain weasel-wrangling toolkit. Harris’s writing style is teeth-grindingly perky, but if you can get past that it’s a book full of useful concepts and tools.)
There’s nothing wrong with living in the middle of the emotional scale. But more than that, as someone who has spent more time than is healthy down the other end of the scale, the middle is a hell of a nice place to be.
The power of OK
Every time I open that app and record “ok”,even if it’s only “ok-“, it’s evidence that I’m winning. The middle of the scale represents victory over the brain weasels that want to drag me down into “bad” and “terrible” and keep me there.*
When I’m feeling genuinely OK, it’s no mere filler word. It’s a power word. It’s the word used by an injured climber to the rescue workers airlifting them from the bottom of the cliff: “Mate, are you OK?” “Yes – I’m OK!”
“OK” is a more complicated concept than we usually recognise in our casual, throwaway usage of it. In the face of the mundane, it’s a state of contentment. In the face of an imperfect life, it’s a state of acceptance. And in the face of all the bullshit the world – and our own minds – can throw at us, it’s a state of resilience.
*There are, of course, ways to be not-OK that aren’t brain weasels, and it’s important to recognise and accept genuine feelings like grief and anger (hello again, ACT). But that’s very different from the feelings of hopelessness and misery that can come from mental illness.