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The Lowercase Version of Okay

okay

I wasn’t going to see the film version of the Fault in Our Stars.  I liked the book a lot, and I didn’t think the film version would add to the story.  But I was at the library, trying to grab a DVD, and it was the first title my eyes recognized.  So I brought it home and watched it that night, and… it may have been better than the book.  I sort of cringe writing that.

But it contained the wording of the book for a lot of the dialogue, and it stayed fairly true to the scenes in the book.  I found the actors’ versions of those characters maybe a little bit more believable than the paper versions.  I believed they were giddy teens in love, slightly awkward, definitely emotional, and just really hopeful that it would all be okay for both of them in the end.  Even if it wasn’t the traditional definition of okay.

*******

The word okay repeats many times in the book (and movie), and it becomes a running… sentiment… through the text.  I can’t really call it a running joke, because it isn’t funny.  But it definitely means something different every time it comes up, from mocking two other characters in the story to ironically admitting that everything is not okay.

I feel like for the last several years, society as a whole has been in a war against the word okay.  We curate our lives online to look happy.  We read books about how to gain happiness, either directly when we’re talking about Gretchen Rubin, or indirectly when we have people presenting happiness as the side effect that comes from decluttering your life like Marie Kondo.  We go on wellness retreats to regain happiness in our life and talk about finding bliss through ordering the perfect meal and hang inspirational quotes on our walls that we find in kitschy stores.

And all of that is okay.  Really, it’s okay.  I think it is wonderful to strive towards happiness.

But in this world we’ve created, okay becomes the last rung on the happiness ladder before one steps off into the abyss, the lowest appropriate thing a person is allowed to say as an answer to the question, “how are you?”

Even if you’re going to launch into the truth and give the decidedly not okay details of your current situation, you first need to reassure that you’re okay.  That you’re fine.  Even when you’re not fine.

We’ve created this lowercase version of okay to use as a buffer against reality, a soft landing into bad news, a little door we’re expected to open for people before we lead them somewhere unpleasant.

We use the word even when things are clearly not okay, so the word becomes, if not meaningless, then definitionally different like a homophone.  There is okay, which means that everything is fine, and then there is okay, which means that we wish it were fine, but it’s not.

I liked it when okay meant that things were okay.  That they may not be wonderful and exciting and drenched in happiness, but things weren’t bad.  They were, as I said, that final rung of the ladder dangling over the abyss.  Firm ground to stand on.

And maybe that is why I loved the movie: all the versions of okay that maybe were too subtle in the book.  The way the word was whispered or spat or said.  It became less about the two teenagers in the book, and more about all of us, as a culture, that clings so tightly to this word that we’ve rendered meaningless in a world where we present digital and actual smiles, even when things aren’t exactly okay.

Lest you worry, things are actually okay.  The movie just triggered this acknowledgment of how many times I’ve used that word when things were otherwise.

14 comments

1 nicoleandmaggie { 09.08.15 at 9:49 am }

Have you seen the shirts/tanks/hoodie? http://store.dftba.com/products/okay-okay-pullover-hoodie

(I get it now…)

2 SuzannaCatherine { 09.08.15 at 10:04 am }

You hit the nail on the head! Okay is my go to word, especially to people who I don’t know me particularly well. If they don’t already know a little of my back story, a casual “how are you?” doesn’t require a ten minute explanation of my latest health crisis and the treatment thereof. Okay is great for those situations.

3 Rachel { 09.08.15 at 10:52 am }

I’m about to post about a movie that I saw after reading a book I hated, and how it changed the meaning of the book for me – so I was pretty intrigued when I saw you had too (although, vastly different book to movie topics). I read The Fault In Our Stars, and broke my formerly unbreakable rule and went right out and saw the movie. Since then, I’ve done that one other time with Still Alice, and I’m thinking it may become a thing.

Anyway – The Fault In Our Stars was two things for me. First – it was the very first book to movie that I have ever experience where I felt like they actually honoured the storyline and kept in tune with the book, while making a great movie out of it. The second part was how incredibly emotional the movie was, where I didn’t find the book to be. Sure, it was sad. But I ugly cried in the movie and I definitely didn’t ugly cry while reading the book. I think that speaks to the excellent manner in which they capture the very real, very raw, and very scary emotions these two lovebirds were experiencing in their very young lives. I can’t say enough good things about it… I was so impressed with the book to movie transition, they really did a great job.

4 Lori Lavender Luz { 09.08.15 at 11:22 am }

Wow. I think I am sometimes guilty of using this word as a talisman to make things more okay than they maybe are. Must ponder.

And I’d like to see the movie again now.

5 Ana { 09.08.15 at 11:22 am }

I was putting off watching the movie but you’ve convinced me to go for it…I really liked the book a lot. It was the first John Green novel I read (which is relevant, because it seems to be following the law of diminishing returns for me).
I agree with you, even as I quote Gretchen Rubin and want to Kondo up my house. I feel like this focus on constant happiness makes NOT feeling utterly joyful to be a personal failing. You’re doing something wrong if you’re not delighted with every moment of every day—you should do a happiness project! Change your career to follow your passion! Outsource! In-source! Or maybe, sadness/boredom/”okayness” is part of life and the moments of joy are meant to be fleeting & spread out and we should just be lucky to experience them at all. Its okay to be “okay”

6 apluseffort { 09.08.15 at 11:34 am }

Yes! This concept is why my first blog name was missohkay (except I had to spell okay wrong because okay was already taken). I’d had miscarriages that devastated me, but I was still okay.

7 Charlotte { 09.08.15 at 11:40 am }

I wish more people were okay with just being okay. There is so much pressure to be All The Things all of the time. And constant happiness is unattainable. And not good for you. If you never experience the middle and lows of being okay and dare I say sad, then any one thing no matter how small can send you into a deep dark spiral.
My life is okay. Some days it feels pretty perfect, some days it feels pretty blah, but most days it is okay…and that is enough for me.

8 Peg { 09.08.15 at 12:25 pm }

Loved the book. Loved the movie.

I totally agree with the fluid definition of the work okay or fine. I could actually use a little okay in the truest sense of the word. I usually use it when things are very not okay or fine and I don’t have the energy to emotionally invest in a real answer for that person.

Loved this post.

9 Working mom of 2 { 09.08.15 at 1:36 pm }

Interesting. In our house okay currently means allowed–at some point we started saying “it’s not okay to xxx” e.g., hit your sister. Now my 2 going on 3 year old will say “it’s not okay” a lot, sometimes to ward off her sister misbehaving or sometimes it seems just to reinforce her own understanding of the rules.

But I get your point. Sometimes I use it when really the truthful answer to “how are you doing” is “quite terrible”. Although I think if someone gets an okay they should back off. When my dad was dying in the hospital a relative whom I had met twice, last seen over 30 years ago, kept calling. I answered okay when asked how I was doing and she said “no really, tell me how you are.” I was thinking f$ck you, obviously I’m doing awful, if I wanted to talk to you in great detail about just how awful, I would have said something other than okay.

10 loribeth { 09.08.15 at 3:22 pm }

I’m so glad you liked the movie! 🙂 I am often disappointed by the movie versions of books I’ve loved, but I really thought this one was well done & pretty true to the book in most respects.

I’ve been guilty of telling people that I’m OK when I’m really not. But sometimes “okay,” while not “fabulous,” is good enough. 😉 That’s the kind of day I’m having right now.

11 Mali { 09.08.15 at 11:29 pm }

I haven’t read the book or seen the movie. Must do one or both.

Okay seems to me to be slightly higher than the bottom step of the ladder. Like everyone, of course, I have said I’m okay when I’m not, in the same way I’ve said “I’m good” when I’m not, or “I’m fine” when I’m clearly not. All of these quite often mean, “I don’t want to talk about it!” You’ve got me thinking though – I wonder if our different cultures use okay differently, or if it is more individual than that.

12 Jamie { 09.09.15 at 1:42 am }

I read the book and have been wanting to see the movie. I’ve hesitated because there are many times when the movie leaves you feeling lacking. So, good to hear it is worth the rental.

I really like this post. Really like this post. Okay is such a simple word, but quietly has greater depth given tone and context. It is a subtlety rich word, but kind of humble.

13 a { 09.09.15 at 4:08 pm }

I have not watched the movie, because I’m not a fan of the cast. Shailene Woodley gets on my nerves for some reason. Loved the book, though.

OK to me means not great but not terrible, although I mostly use it as an acknowledgement of a request or statement. When people ask me how I am, my response is either “Just lovely” or “Tired and cranky as usual.” I usually use OK in quality terms as a review of food or books or movies.

As far as the people who consistently pursue some state of happiness or joy or whatever…well, I just don’t understand them. I look for calm, which is a good state in which to appreciate all the good things in my life.

14 Jess { 09.13.15 at 12:27 am }

Oh, I loved the movie, not quite as much as the book but it was a close second. I felt the grief deeply for the person who portrayed it, which I thought was well done (trying not to be a spoiler). I hear you on okay. I feel like one of the most uncomfortable things you can do is to reply to how are you?” with “okay” or something further down the abyss than “good, you?” Okay can be a good way to alert that you aren’t actually okay. I loved all the nuance in the okays in TFIOS… It’s definitely food for thought! I loved the last okay the best.

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