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Can I Just Tell You: We can't 'opt out' of our pain

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, it is, as you know, Mother's Day. And how could you not know, what, with all the free advice from every imaginable enterprise about how to spoil mom on her special day with flowers, jewelry, chocolate, massages, perhaps an overpriced restaurant brunch or a well-meaning but maybe slightly sketchy one at home? And that's a fine tradition for many of us - the modern U.S. version attributed to an event organized by a West Virginia woman at her church in the early 1900s. But the idea of celebrating mothers and motherhood, well, that's a concept with roots in many cultures all over the world. So bring on that brunch if that's what you want.

But, of course, for some, it's all a bit much. For some, it's too much because it's a day that reminds them of what they've lost, someone deeply cherished who played an irreplaceable role in their lives. For others, it's a reminder of what they never had. And for those struggling to become mothers, it's a painful reminder of a longing yet to be fulfilled. And for others, it's a difficult day because of life in that gray zone, or maybe it's life spent stepping on eggshells, perhaps because they lived with someone who might have been a loving and needed presence in some ways but who inflicted immeasurable pain in others, someone who might have been a champ at birthday parties and Halloween costumes and hugging boo-boos on some days but who got falling-down drunk or impossibly demanding or mean and abusive on others.

Or maybe it's because of someone who was great at providing structure and sustenance and care as long as you were who they thought you were or who they decided you should be, but couldn't or wouldn't accept it when you chose or came to know that you were on a different life path than the one they knew or wanted, and they couldn't or wouldn't see you for who you were meant to be.

That's real, and many have contributed to creating space to accept those different realities, especially, I would say, writers - from Maya Angelou to Kiese Laymon, to Ocean Vuong or Giang Phan, to Richard Blanco or Cherrie Moraga. They have shared deeply personal and at times painful accounts of the many different ways families, mothers, can shape our lives. They've offered so many of us the chance to understand and deeply know that our stories, however they begin, can be written anew.

The world has taken notice of this complex reality. You might have noticed that some of your favorite brands have acknowledged this, too, not just highlighting different types of families but also creating a way to opt out of the hype entirely. Maybe you've gotten one of those emails giving you the option to not see any Mother's Day advertising at all if you want to. Can I just tell you I understand, and it seems harmless enough. I mean, how many ads for new earrings do you really need to see, anyway? But in another way, it's indicative of something more troubling - our tendency to opt out of things that might make us sad or uncomfortable.

It's not just advertising people are trying to avoid; it's knowledge. It's remarkable but not surprising that some of the same people and media outlets that ridicule trigger warnings around difficult material and condemn shouting down of certain speakers at public events are utterly silent or are complicit in the banning of books and other types of knowledge under the guise of some people's discomfort. Notice that most of them aren't arguing that the material is factually incorrect. No, it's not about facts. It's about feelings. They don't want to be sad, or they don't want their kids to be sad. But not about everything; just some things. They don't want them to be sad about the enslavement of some people - the genocide, forced displacement or forced labor of others, of history that doesn't make them proud, of facts that don't reflect them in a halo, or so they think.

But rather than figure out how to talk about these things in a productive way, in a way that recognizes the mistakes of the past while offering hope for the future, they just want to opt out. And that's so sad because some of the people these book haters are so desperate to avoid are some of the very people who might guide us to a better place, who know what it is to suffer, and who also know what it is to emerge triumphant, whole and healed.

Some years ago, when I lost someone dear to me, my colleague and mentor Bill Siemering wrote me a beautiful letter. In it, he said, the only way around is through. I've held on to that. We think we can opt out of things that make us sad or cause us pain, but they're still there. The pain of the past is still there, whether in history or in our personal lives. Maybe instead of opting out, we could find ways to get through. Those stories have been written. We just need to take them to heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.