this story originally appeared in the philippine daily inquirer on May 15, 1999.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines ”angst” as: ”a gloomy, often neurotic feeling of generalized anxiety and depression.” I have witnessed angst and seen so many souls afflicted by it. Here, on a lazy May afternoon, I sip a Coke, pausing ever so often as snatches from a thousand conversations with Them (those ”souls”) trickle into my mind, much like the tears that accompanied their confessions of frustration and despair.
One of the questions that I have long wanted to ask Them is why they turned out this way. Beautiful, spirited, young people with so much potential–and already so bitter at such a tender age. One of Them is 16, fiery, talented, and yet she has had the most serious bouts with insecurity and fits of rebellion. She has sat with me for some serious conversations, her defenses momentarily down, with nothing but cigarette smoke for an armor. She told me financial problems have caused divisions in her family and she could hardly cope with the reality. Even as she broke down, she assured me she was strong, and always had been, and she would survive the ordeal. She wasn’t like this before. Four years ago she gave up every bad habit she had. Now, I shudder to think how many of those habits she has reacquired since. Was that what being strong meant?
The next person is male but bisexual, 15, gifted with great oratorical, thespian and literary skills, loud and outspoken but more sensitive than he would actually let on. To me, he is more than a brother, a person who is always on the same wavelength as I. Before, he was nothing to me but an insipidly gabby nerd whose sulky face was (and still is) framed with Coke-bottle glasses. But we’ve gone a long way since then and our souls should be fused by now. I share a diary with him. Yes, a diary with everything a diary should contain, uncensored and expressed deeply and profoundly.
At this very moment, I think of him surrounded by incense smoke, his ramblings seeping through the haze, his angst stemming from a rebellion against containment and against cultural and social restrictions we both have spent many an hour dissecting. His father is a homophobe. He has said that should any of his sons turn out to be gay, he would have him beaten to a pulp. My friend wants to come out and express his sexuality, but so many things keep him from doing so–age, society, culture, etc.
The next person is a female, also bisexual and also 15. She is impetuous, musically gifted and intelligent. She is more mature in her thinking than some people thrice her age. We have gone through a lot together. Her angst stems from her parents’ methods of applying hard pressure on her and their habit of comparing her with others. They keep comparing her with her siblings and tell her she’ll never amount to anything. And they are quick to find fault with her. When we were in Grade 6, the whole class ostracized her. Now when I think about it, I don’t think she deserved to be treated that way. If you were 12 (and not at all that secure), wouldn’t being ostracized by an entire class of 41 pupils be enough to tear your self-esteem to shreds?
Last school year she was badmouthed and forced into being defensive. She desperately sought acceptance and did everything and anything possible to gain it. Then early this summer break, she ran away from home and just hang around the most unlikely places for a couple of weeks.
The last person is also 15, straight and frustrated. She is close to despair, craving for a social life. Her parents are overprotective. While other girls her age go for gimmick and frolic, she has to spend the time in solitude. H-e-l-l-o, she’s graduating in two years, and she has yet to experience what it means to be a teenager and just while the time away with her friends. In five more years, she won’t be a teenager anymore. She has too many responsibilities. The simplest mistakes are interpreted as breaking ”the rules.” All the criticisms she has to take have made her the defensive and ”tough” person she is today, but I know how sensitive she is. She has to put up these defenses and deny how hurt and angry she can be. It’s being contained that I think all four of Them rebel against.
But they also have this subliminal desire to be seen for who they are and accepted. They don’t want to be thought of in terms of the norm or statistic. They want to be seen as real persons and known for their originality and the expression of their true selves, be they unconventional and unique.
There is nothing reassuring about being considered as just another face in the crowd. It is frustrating to know deep inside you that you are a cut above the norm, and yet, since everyone is going through the same stage as you, only a select few can find liberation in being unique and original. This makes for two tragic Catch-22 situations. What you seek to escape becomes your escape, and yet you are caught in the cycle of escaping, while the desire for liberation remains, and then you are bound by so many constraints, hence the need to escape.
The other Catch-22 situation is that in seeking to be the only one true you (and being accepted, realized, liberated, etc.), you find so many others engaged in a similar quest and all are yours are made the same by that quest. Why the desire for liberation and self-expression, unbound and unhampered by convention? Why the continuous infliction on the self of perceived injustices? How many defenses should one put up? How much bitterness can a human heart carry? The media keep bombarding us with advice and ads that tell us to do this, buy that, wear this and be hip and trendy. And how many of us fall for the self-delusion? They say express yourself, your true, uncensored self. We do want to do it, and yet we run the risk of becoming outcasts (or being talked about) for going against ”the rules” or the convention, whatever.
Really, I think it’s a tragedy to be so young and already so bitter. But then perhaps this stage can only go as far as a person will allow it. I know some people who relive this stage over and over again–the frustration and despair, the escape and the disillusionment. I have passed through this stage and I feel lucky. It’s a way of self-acceptance because that manner of loving yourself leads to so many positive things. Self-hate begets nothing. I am not putting myself on a pedestal when I try to explain my perceptions. I am just trying to make sense of all this. I’ve made so many offerings to the Mother Goddess for Them, but I believe They must undergo this and find the balance themselves. I just hope They will not experience a dangerous disillusionment and sink into despair.