Nora McInerny immediately noticed fundamental differences in people’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
For some, the deadly virus and its upheaval was the “first big thing they’ve ever been through.” Meanwhile, McInerny and others whose lives have been marked by grief, loss or tragedy have long known that “life is fragile and our pace unsustainable in this modern world.”
McInerny’s first husband, Aaron, died three days before Thanksgiving 2014, leaving her to raise their son, Ralphie. She had just miscarried. She had lost her father less than a month earlier.
Her work—including hosting the Terrible, Thanks for Asking podcast and authoring It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too) and No Happy Endings—reflects these losses and counters societal pressures to “live, laugh and love” with openness, realism and ironic humor.
Her new collection of essays, Bad Vibes Only: (And Other Things I Bring to the Table) offers a cutting and comedic riposte to “our aggressive, oppressively optimistic culture” and “obsession with self-improvement.”
The slogan “Good Vibes Only” is “a cute saying for a cup, but a pretty ominous interpersonal standard,” McInerny wrote.
Here she suggests honesty and underachievement as goals that more closely match reality.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What do you hope to achieve from your work?
Nora McInerny: I want my work to lower the bar for people. We have so much intense pressure to perform and perform in the face of all the suffering and struggles of modern life. All you have to do is be a decent human and survive.
The year 2021 was the worst year of my life since 2014 when my husband Aaron passed away. This terrible disease spread across our globe, and immediately people began to see “the good side” of it. I remember sitting cross-legged in my living room trying to figure out how we could get more work done with fewer resources. Meanwhile, people tried to brush it up and alchemize it into some sort of self-improvement lesson. I resist it. All my work kind of pushed against the upbeat industrial complex.
CNN: How does perfectionism relate to this kind of optimism?
McInerny: The pipeline from gifted children to above-average professional women is filled with perfectionists. What is a perfectionist if not just someone who hates himself – who can’t just enjoy life?
From the moment Aaron died, I felt like I had to earn my place on this planet – just do, do, do. I had to figure out how to present myself as a worthy human being. When a therapist asked me who I would be without all my jobs and titles, I stared at him blankly.
The book is about existing in the contradictions of modern life. There is almost no way to get off the fire hose, to see other people’s lives fueling deep insecurity and fear for our own. Every single person in my life – except for the few who don’t have social media – stars, produces and directs their own reality show for the consumption of mostly strangers, myself included. What a strange world.
CNN: You write, “Every beleaguered and jaded millennial I know fantasizes about a life connected to something bigger than Wi-Fi…and longs for a bit of calm in a world that’s constantly turning us into little rectangles.” yelling at our pockets.” Where do you get that connection from?
McInerny: What has helped me is honesty and hearing other people’s stories remind me that I am not alone.
I will say that most in the self-help industry are scammers who sell millions of books by spreading the dream that you too can do the same when the vast majority of people cannot. There is something to be said just to be realistic. Scammers are scammers trying to tell you, “Take these five quick steps and you’ll be fine.” Saying “The answer is within you” represents the trap that if you cannot find the answer, you must be defective.
I’m not talking about qualified psychologists and researchers. If they tell you to eat mindfully and go outside and look at the grass for five minutes, do it. Sitting here petting my dog and not scrolling helps me. Putting my phone down helped me, as I’m sure it would help most of us.
Every generation believes it’s never been worse. But all that fear and existential boredom is a perfectly normal reaction to an uncaring world where billionaires are trying to rocket ship off this planet and we’re fighting over junk. Why wouldn’t you worry
CNN: What advice do you have for people fighting the tide of optimism that feels forced or false?
McInerny: First, “Cs get degrees.” I started saying that during the pandemic, but it took me a long time to believe it myself. Give your best. The need to do your best in every situation is a lie sold to you by a gym teacher, a coach, and capitalism. No, you do not owe everything 110%. In fact, you owe most things a 70, maybe even a 60. The world doesn’t ask for your perfection.
The second is that you don’t have to be an open book. Not everyone deserves the full truth, but you need to find at least one person to tell the whole story – one who knows what it’s like.
This book is a collection of essays. Readers won’t get away with five tips or tricks. There are no tips. There are no tricks – just the very messy business of trying to be a person in a really difficult world.