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You know the sign. It started appearing on phone cases, canvases, greeting cards, journal covers, and coffee mugs around the nation circa 2008-ish. It was the meme that found a home on the walls of my freshman year dorm room (my roommate’s choice, not mine). Not long after, we began seeing it in advertising morphed to fit a certain niche (“Keep Calm and Blankety-Blank”). I still remember the bright red poster with bold white text giving me the unsolicited advice of staying chill in stressful situations: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” In fact, it was no new concept since the catchphrase originally appeared on a WWII era British piece of propaganda. There was a crown at the very top of the poster as if to suggest that royalty uses this phrase as an everyday mantra and that if we were to aspire to the successes of queens, we were to bury all problematic thoughts and under the guise of being “calm.”
Maybe as an 18-year-old new to a collegiate world, it was sound advice that could be pigeon-holed into the concept: “regardless of your workload, you better study for that final exam.” Sure. That kind of works. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how problematic this blanket suggestion of “keep calm and carry on” truly can be.
“Isn’t it just a poster, though, Katie?”
Sure. In fact, when it first began to grow popularity in America, I thought It was cool. I didn’t think it was groundbreaking advice, but it had a cool retro look to it and I thought it was cute hanging on my dorm room wall. The poster on its own isn’t much more than an irritating trend that seemingly will not die, but the quotation is one small facet of a bigger trend: desensitizing ourselves.
I’ve grown to realize that I can’t relate to the message the poster conveys. Trust me, I wish that I could make incredible progress towards my goals without risking feeling uncomfortable, anxious, nervous, or fearing failure. I’d love to feel calm while making strides of greatness. Who the hell wouldn’t? But you know what? It’s the incredibly engaged and passionate people who are committed to being all in, who lose themselves in their ideas, who risk being vulnerable for success… and that’s a huge leap of faith. The concept of “keeping calm” is to protect people against the downside of being heartfelt and emotionally engaged. Being impassioned means that occasionally you’ll regret saying something too soon or that you’ll steer into the danger zone. To reach the peak of greatness, you’ll run the risk that sometimes you’ll go too far.
“Keep calm and carry on.” Those who use this as their life slogan will probably always be fine, feel fine, and do fine. But they will never feel greatness. Because to keep things calm, we’re required to emotionally detach ourselves from things that might be incredibly valid to react about. For some people, “keeping calm and carrying on” through trauma, stress, sadness, etc. can just lead to coping mechanisms that direct to even more negative feelings. Booze, drugs, sex, junk food, and toxic partnerships are all examples of instant gratification that become our support system because we don’t know how else to feel other than “calm.”
Keeping calm elicits that we never get overtly angry, frustrated, excited, sad, or even passionate. Why is that message something we aspire to adopt in our daily actions? Why do we mentally check out on things that are clearly important to us? Why do we accept the instinct that we have to carry on with life as it is, hoping things will change without any emotional vulnerability on our part? Why is it a bad thing to think and feel deeply about things that matter, and god forbid, be open about those things? If “keep calm and carry on” boils down to being a metaphor for running away from our feelings, when did desensitization become cool?
“Carrying on” is appropriate when someone keeps their head down, works, and maintains the status quo… and that’s advice rarely offered by great leaders. Promoting a “keep calm and carry on” approach to life reinforces the idea of helplessness and contributes to remaining complacent. The past ten days have arguably been some of the hardest of my adult life, but I genuinely believe that allowing myself to feel deeply about certain things is not inherently bad.
Emotion and passion are things that are incredibly powerful. Like most powerful things, it can be risky. But you know what? If you want to walk on the moon, you’re going to need some fuel for the rocket. Sure, you’re going to risk the occasional explosion. But if you want to see the moon, you’ll never get there on empty.
You’re better than “keeping calm and carrying on.” We all are. .