“Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint.”
– Fanny Price in Mansfield Park
I first heard those words when watching Mansfield Park, the 1999 film adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, Love and Friendship. Debates over the phrase’s meaning have waged in literary circles for years, but those do not matter to me. As a Jane Austen addict, I realize that her power is not just in what she meant, but also in what it means to me.
Before a global pandemic radically shifted my worldview, those words meant freedom. It meant embracing the madness of life and allowing myself to be perceived as crazy, so long as I remained true to myself. It became a motto during my teenage and young adult years: remain true to me, even if the world – even if my family – thought me insane. What mattered was not so much what people perceived so much as what I perceived. In this sense, I did not want to “faint” – to become convinced of my own insanity and fall into an abyss of self-doubt. It was the epitome of my girlhood: to embrace the messy, chaotic world of puberty and self-realization.
Today, over a year after global events that have shaken every bit of my core, I look at this quote with a feeling of nostalgia and hope. Nostalgia for the carefree girl I was. Hope for days when I am no longer burdened by survivor’s guilt and the daily realization that I can become more burnt out. Will I run mad again? Am I reaching the point of fainting? Have I already fainted?
Self-doubt is rampant now. Burdened by the events of the past two decades, in which I turned from girlhood to womanhood, the world has come leering at us in a way none of us could have expected. It is not the first time humanity has felt a breaking point like this, and it certainly won’t be the last. But those historical truisms are little comfort to those of us living in the moment, realizing that we are both survivors of the past and makers of the future. What are we to do now?
Run mad, my thoughts whisper, but do not faint.
A rallying cry is what Jane’s words have become. We are burnt out, but we have not fainted (i.e., given up). We are feeling new levels of self-doubt and insanity, but we are not insane. We are facing the unknown, but with the knowledge that the future is what we make of it. Our choices determine our fate just as much as any scissor-wielding weaver goddesses.
Run mad. Embrace it. Allow yourself to feel the emotions, to take time to comfort yourself and your loved ones, to embrace chaos as part of living. Find the space to breathe in a world that kept pushing us to be, to do, to succeed. Success is no longer some unattainable goal – it is a definition we can make, rather than some abstraction society pushes us toward.
The last years have taught me this: my life – and its measurement – are mine to make. Will I have children or go childless? Will I travel the world or write novels at home? Will I make enough money to retire in luxury, or enjoy each day no matter the paycheck? These questions are mine to answer – no one else can make those choices for me, nor should they. I define my life and measure my own success, and no one can take that from me, even if they think I’m insane for it.
But do not faint. Self-doubt will happen. Crises will happen. There will be hard – no, insufferable, insomniatic, even insane – times that make everything seem absolutely impossible. I will face them. I will experience them. I will embrace their chaos. But I will not let it defeat me. I will remember – and help others to remember – that life is not about what stops us in our tracks. Life is about the tracks we make, the journey itself. A metaphorical curveball can hit at any time; my success is not measured by the dirt I lay in, but rather by the way I carry on even when covered in it.
We will survive this pandemic. We survived the Trump presidency. We survived two economic downturns that upended our way of life. We have seen climate change rear its ugly head and we are heeding the rallying cries to change the way we live so we can survive as a species. We are waging war against centuries of oppression and hate, and we will win it. We are going to forge a new future – a brighter, greener, more respectful future built on the visions of love, friendship, and cooperation that we know are the heart of who we as a species are and want to be. We may be crazy dreamers to think so – and history may judge us to be crazy.
But quite frankly, crazy is how shit gets done.
Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint.
-Tiffany Rhoades Isselhardt
Girl Museum Inc.