Everything Okay

Okay is a key concept for which we lack a good detailed handle. 

There seems to be some sort of switch in brains, certainly in mine, that goes between modes of Okay and Not Okay. Being in Not Okay Mode is a giant ball of stress that makes it impossible to relax and demands attention. 

When I hear talk that some problem exists, my first thought often has nothing to do with the substance of the problem. Instead, I feel instantly stressed and upset that someone has taken my perfectly pleasant Okay Mode existence, and declared that we are in Not Okay Mode. 

Even if the real content of the problem is trivial. 

There is an intense desire to get back to Okay Mode.

Even if that means one must be in Okay Mode by making Not Okay be Okay. Even if that means destroying all possible superior outcomes so that the bad outcome is now seen as acceptable.


“Tell me everything is going to be okay.”

“Everything is going to be okay.”

What does that even mean? 

It is a request for permission to enter or remain in Okay Mode. That requires unpacking.

When one says this, for what value of ‘everything’ and what value of ‘okay’ is this meant?

Does the future tense matter here? If everything is going to be okay, is everything also by implication okay now, or not? If we have to ask about whether things are going to be okay in the future, does that imply they are definitely not okay now?

Here are some possibilities that I think are central at least some of the time for what the question means. 

A: Is ‘everything’ ‘okay’ in a way that is potentially meaningful in general but meaningless in a given context? The way that someone who experiences Kensho could say that everything was okay regardless of the current world state and value of everything, or that one might say that God has a plan? How central a feature of the basket of things called ‘enlightenment’ is the ability to label everything as ‘okay’ in a way your emotions will accept, and avoid the consequences of failing to do that? 

B: Is ‘everything’ ‘okay’ in a way that is meaningful in a more specific context, but is a relatively weak claim meant to provide perspective? As in, yeah, I understand that sucks a lot, but look at the bigger picture and the things that actually matter are still ‘okay’. You spilled some milk, and the milk isn’t okay, but the relevant value of ‘everything’ does not need to include the milk, because the milk is not important. We still have plenty to eat, and/or anything up to and including it not changing the probability that AGI will be friendly.

C: Is ‘everything’ ‘okay’ in the sense that the dreaded stress ball of uncertainty will be resolved, and peace will be made with the ways in which things are definitely not okay? 

D: Or, perhaps, is ‘everything’ ‘okay’ in the sense that you have put a Somebody Else’s Problem field around it so the whole thing can be ignored, which definitely resolves the stress ball brought about by uncertainty about whether something is in a state of okay or not? This is then assurance that, while things might be really awesomely terrible, no action is required or anticipated from you at this time – you don’t have to enter Not Okay mode, either in the sense of sending appropriate social signals for such a state, or in terms of actually fixing anything.

E: Or, similarly, a statement that no blame or punishment need be assigned for the current state of existence, and no scapegoat need be chosen.

F: Or, similarly, a request for an ‘I got this, you can treat this as having been handled’? 

G: This could be a general question about whether to pay attention and/or change intentions towards future actions. Most people spend most time on autopilot, and this is a check to see if the autopilots need to come off. One could view D or also F as this applied only to oneself, whereas this is a request to confirm that all autopilots can continue to function normally. This is no one’s problem, and no one has to ‘get this.’ There is no need for anyone to suddenly be a person.  

H: This could be a request to implicitly define ‘everything.’ There is something or someone or some group that is clearly not okay. Does it count? Do we care? Is it part of everything, or not?  

I: This could be a request to implicitly define ‘okay’ in context.

J: This could be an attack. The respondent now has two choices. 

If they affirm the state of okayness, several bad things happen to them. The two biggest are:

First, now it has been established that all the things that were previously wrong were ‘okay’ so they can’t go back and complain about them or blame anyone else for them later. By extension, other similar things that happen in the future are implicitly also okay, and perhaps the range of such things will now expand. 

Second, they have affirmed that everything is okay, which means that if things turn out not to be, whether for them or for other people, that’s now their fault and they are blameworthy, and the claim will be made that we were in case F and then they didn’t deliver, but also other cases can also be invoked similarly. 

Alternatively, they could deny okayness, and then different bad things happen to them.

First, they have now disturbed flow and made things socially awkward, to at least some extent. They have shown that they are a complainer, a person who is not okay with things, not comfortable. They are then seen as the aggressor, the one causing trouble and escalating. Bad improv. They will lose points.

Second, not only have they admitted they know there is a problem, they now have interacted with the problem. Oh no. All sorts of blame is now in play. All sorts of additional demands for explicitness can be made, and being explicit costs even more points. Exactly what is and isn’t okay, and exactly what counts as everything, are now among the questions that they might have to answer. So is how one might make things not okay.

Third, it is now on them to propose a way to make things okay again. Otherwise, who are they to claim that things are not okay without proposing a solution? And of course, if a solution is proposed, then the solution can be attacked and ridiculed. 

Thus, the person asking if everything is okay is saying, either wave your right to complain and potentially be assigned blame if things go wrong, or make a stand and have it out now, while being marked as the one making things awkward and causing a problem, forcing us to be in Not Okay Mode, since otherwise everyone could have agreed to be in Okay Mode.  

K: This could be a request for actual information about the state of the world. There is a set of things, everything, that can be in various states. How are those states? The better defined both ‘everything’ and ‘okay’ are in context, the more useful the question becomes. Note the distinction between asking about what social or other actions might be required, and asking purely for the world state.

L: This can be a demand for certainty. For choices and commitments – any choice and any commitment – to be made now in order to reduce the stress of the choices not having been made. This can happen for matters both great and small. If there are two possible futures, and both have big advantages and disadvantages, then one cannot be assured that any of the realms involved is “okay” because there is a trade-off and a different choice might get made. Thus, anything that could get worse or better or merely be different somehow is now Not Okay. Thus, even if there are large unknowns or there are otherwise huge advantages to not committing to a choice and no actual reason why a choice needs to be made yet, even if there is important information that will only be available later, optionality might have to be sacrificed on this alter. 

M: It can be an accusation. You are pretending as if everything is ok, but I do not believe this, and you had better admit whatever it is that is not okay, or else.

N: It can be an assertion that someone should not objectively be Okay, and should instead be Not Okay, especially when combined with terms like “Are you sure that…” 

O: It can be a social script for generic meaningless reassurance, which may be a request for an enactive statement rather than something descriptive. ‘Everything’ and ‘okay’ need not have any values at all, because to many, words don’t have meanings. Interpreting this as a claim that there exists a set of things that is being claimed to be in a particular state, or that will be in a particular state, would be a pure category error. Saying this merely builds momentum towards the Okay state.  

P: This could be an establishment of dominance and submission. The exchange reminds both parties who decides whether things are Okay or Not Okay, granting power over the other’s emotional state, which can be used as power generally. And, of course, that power is now okay.

Q: This could be a debate about the ‘right to complain.’ Complaining can be about information and moving towards solutions or better understanding, but it can also (more frequently) be about scoring points, or about needing to feel heard, or punishing the scapegoat. Saying everything is okay in this mode is therefore an assertion that there is no right to complain, whereas saying that everything is not okay is both itself a complaint and a prelude to more complaining. Asking if everything is okay can be an invitation that this is a good time to complain (either something might be done, or you might get a sympathetic ear, or if you gotta do it all right let’s get it over with, or speak now or forever hold your peace) or could be the opposite. 

R: Or perhaps is ‘everything’ ‘okay’ because actually yeah, actual everything is actually okay now?

Primary Meanings Chart
What does Everything Mean?
All of existenceABR
Your desire to be OkayCDP
Your desire to avoid blameE
Some meaningful local issue, or youFGKLMNQ
You tell meH
Could be anythingIJ
Is meaninglessO
What does Okay Mean?
Not requiring stressABCLNO
Not requiring actionDFGJK
Not requiring blameEMPQ
Could be anythingH
You tell meI
All of itR

There are a lot of these that combine multiple meanings, or can mean different ones in different ways. In some cases it would be reasonable to disagree with which meaning is the locally primary one, but this is an attempt to group them together.

Different contexts have different defaults and distributions of possible explanations. The D/F/G/K cluster of related interpretations is closest to my default generic assumption, with the differences between those three often being important. Also note that one can respond with a different type of response than what was requested, either intentionally or unintentionally, and make this clear through other words or even through tone, subtly (for example) transforming a ‘nothing need be done’ into ‘I got this’ or vice versa.

These groupings suggest a few categories. 

A, B and R represent the cluster of universalized claims about all of existence. That seems central to these. In other ways they are mostly part of the second category.

C, I, L, N and O are treating okay as not stressing out about local concerns, and debating whether or not one has earned the right to be in Okay Mode or not. 

D, F, G and K, are attempts to determine if action is necessary, and if so who must take what action, with varying levels of clarity creation versus emotional needs and blame avoidance. 

E, M, P and Q are focused on assigning blame and on social roles.

J is an attack, which puts it in its own category.

That leaves H, which depending on what ‘okay’ means could be part of any of the middle three categories, sufficiently that I didn’t want to place it in any of them, but it falls into some combination of those.

The big two groups are those where the concern is ability to stress or avoid stress, and those where the issue is where it is necessary to take action or assign blame, with J as perhaps a special super-case in the second category. 

A major motivating factor for creating this taxonomy is how easy it is for stress concerns to override non-stress concerns, and for the dominant dynamic to become what will allow people’s brains to give themselves permission to shift back into Okay. In this model, that is what drives any action taken, or any blame assigned. 

What else can ‘okay’ and ‘everything’ mean, in what combinations? To what extent can we profit by tabooing the word okay, or most of these uses for it? What is the best way to reliably get the benefits of ‘okay’ in avoiding giant stress balls, while still retaining the motivation to act and address problems or opportunities? How should one react to those who are primarily optimizing for being in Okay Mode at the expense of other concerns, or those who are using Okay as a weapon? 

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4 Responses to Everything Okay

  1. Benquo says:

    When an infant in his presence starts to get upset, my father will catch its eye and grin and say “smile time!”. There’s a nearby thing one can do that involves empathy, and it’s not what he’s doing. He must have done this to me when I was an infant, and it seems very probable from what I now know about attachment (compare the still face experiment) that this sent me the message that if I revealed distress, those on whom I depended for everything would withdraw from me, but that if I put on a cheerful mask, we could interact.

    Gordon Ramsay is known for verbally abusing people in a subordinate position to him. In Kitchen Nightmares, sometimes when he’s delivering bad news to an unoffending restaurant owner, usually a woman, she starts crying. His response is to say, in a gentle voice, “don’t cry.” This is a dramatic representation of sympathy, but I don’t think that it’s actually less sadistic in the technical sense than yelling at people, just less of a dramatic representation of sadism; it’s literally asking for suppression of distress signals, for the inversion of represented values, instead of engaging with the distress as *about* something, as part of an information-processing system working towards common goals.

    I’ve recently started tracking phenomenological distinction between a sort of wide but squinty visual mode associated with evasiveness that I usually wake up in, and a taller-feeling one that has lookahead and intentions and includes third eye and felt draining to occupy mostly because I felt like I’d be attacked if I held that visual orientation. Let’s call the first one peripheral and the second one lookahead.

    Peripheral mode seems to be a lot more like a behaviorist’s idea of a human, a stimulus-response machine, but mostly paying attention to social threat. In peripheral mode I care about whether things are “okay” as a judgment about blame flows.

    In lookahead mode I care about specifics about what’s likely to happen, my preferences, others’ preferences. But when I’m not careful to distinguish these modes, I’ll project lookahead-style intentions onto peripheral behaviors, and assume that “Okay” and “Not Okay” are about objective reality, not social reality, because the former is what people would want to track together if they weren’t mostly just navigating their mutual fear.

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  3. Michael Hollander says:

    i enjoyed this article and read some of it to my 13 year old kid who lives in a very anxiety-grounded frame of experience, and he got it immediately. he started doing improv on being not okay, which was fun for him and me, but in another room my other half heard our ruckus and herself went into not okay mode. but all became okay after a brief explanation.

  4. Yosarian says:

    Usually the first time I ask if someone is ok, it’s O. It’s understood to to a social script.

    Then after talking to them for a bit I might ask it again, this time as an invitation to talk about their troubles with me. If I ask it twice then people understand I actually want to know how they are doing.

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