30 September, 2022

Aggressive Cheer

"Have a spectacular day."

"Damned it if I'm not just overjoyed to be here."

"These are the best grits I've had in my life. In my life!"

These are quotes from people who've presented examples of a phenomenon I call aggressive cheer. I could offer you more of them, but you get the general idea. Each of the sentences above belong to a species of overcompensation that flourishes in prison, an ironic use of joviality, intended as a funny counterpoint to the undercurrent of misery in this place. They come not with a smile but with a grimace. The guys who deploy this kind of forced, faux bonhomie have usually done a lot of time. Over the decades of their imprisonment, they seem to have moved past active self-pity, into a realm of begrudging acceptance of their situation. Still, they know prison sucks, and so they bare their teeth, crinkle up their eyes, and hiss "Oh, peachy!" in response to your question of how they're doing today. At least it sounds less disagreeable than the truth would. It took me a while to understand this. A born literalist, my first encounters with aggressive cheer found me oblivious to the underlying sentiment. I thought these guys were actually stoked about greeting the day. What I learned over the years of being locked up was that, in fact, aggressive cheer is just another in the long list of coping mechanisms brought to bear against prison's daily grind, another technique for fending off despair. There's a version of aggressive cheer that I consider aspirational. Those who display it are members of the fake-it-till-you-make-it school of personal development. They want desperately for it to be true, but as they force a grin and an overly nice sentiment, the effect ultimately rings hollow. This is especially heard from people who wrap themselves up tight in a security blanket of religion.
I used to ask a neighbor, "How are you this morning?" Every time, without fail, he replied, "Blessed by the best, Mister Case, as we all are." I soon stopped asking. He wasn't giving me a response; he was reciting a slogan. Since he never thought to ask my religion (or my perspective on it) before telling me how I should feel, his answer also seemed a little bossy and self-absorbed. A more polite, cognizant response would've been, simply, "I feel blessed." Not even that would've been true, however, because this is a man I never hear speaking unless he's complaining. A more honest answer might've been, "Well, Mister Case, I feel like shit, but I'm making do and keeping my trust in God that things will turn around." Those are good words I could appreciate.

Many perpetrators of aggressive cheer, such as the guy I just described, probably don't even realize what they're doing when do it. This is why I now satisfy myself with telling him, "Good morning" simply, and with sincerity when we cross paths en route to breakfast.

Years ago, an exaggerated "Good morning!" held a certain appeal for my cynical temperament. It afforded me the appearance of not being miserable, which seemed like half the battle won. What I realized, though, was that the underlying problem remained. I eventually found within myself the means to meet my day-to-day with equanimity. It just took a while.
Today, when I ask people how they're doing, it's not perfunctory; I actually want to know. I'm nothing if not a sincere person. If someone replies by spreading a hard grin across their face and spitting empty words of happiness, I understand where they're coming from; but it's empathy without endorsement. I can no longer relate.

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Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.