This is a post about being alive, and maybe even liking it
Does anyone remember Heathers?
A better question might be, who doesn’t remember Heathers? Well…some people, probably, because in fact I recently rewatched Heathers with someone who had never seen it before. That was certainly an experience. In that this newbie to Heathers managed to point out several things about the movie that had echoed into the present tense. The similarity, for example, of Christian Slater’s character (his trench coat, his ideology) to those of a few notorious late Columbine students.
(What a great lead-in to this piece, huh?)
Dense as it may sound, I hadn’t noticed that before.
One piece of Heathers that hasn’t rippled into today very robustly is its sharp satirical take on something very serious. I haven’t seen much of that when it comes to one of the key topics it skewers, which is teenage despair and suicide. (Or general despair and suicide, maybe, since, hey, guess what, teenagers are people! I know, it’s crazy.) Rather, I’ve seen a lot of nihilistic sarcasm, a sort of wittily composed resignation, and it kind of infiltrates everything. I mean, the word “doomscroll” exists and isn’t used in a heavy, “that-which-shall-not-be-named” sense. It’s a normal, average, everyday word.
I’ve read a few articles—good ones—expressing concern about this. Most notably, this NYT Magazine piece from a few days back. “Teenagers are telling us that something is wrong with America,” it trumpets, an obvious headline that belies the rather astute points that the writer makes. And actually, one of those points considers different responses to despair on a spectrum. Starting with, of course, “a relentless internal attack: ‘where is your sense of self?’” And moving to, “the other end…[where] one can often find in the stories of adolescent, mostly white, male school shooters the same set of difficulties swimming around identity, a self that is falling apart.”
Maybe there needs to be a new Heathers, one with a similar thesis to the first one, but that builds upon the point the essay’s author Dr. Jamieson Webster is making. Mainly, that the remedy for a lack of sense of self isn’t self-esteem. It’s meaning. It’s having a place. It’s having a life that’s your own, and a journey that belongs to you. And not something prescribed that you’ve noticed, oh hey, nobody seems to care for much when they get it.
Back to the doomscroll. Something that I, too, used to do—which, duh, of course I did. Everyone probably has at some point. It’s not a habit I have anymore (mostly), but at that point, I was more drawn to r/collapse than anything else.
(No idea what that says about me; probably nothing great, but if you’re still here, cool, we’ll keep going.)
Unhealthy response to life circumstances that it was, there was still a sort of catharsis in wading into that murky online swamp back around 2016 and 2017. There was a sense, admittedly, of superiority that came with it, not unlike—I imagine—that which conspiracy theorists and religious fundamentalists acquire and consequently cling to. The kind that says everyone else is blind for not adopting this same fixed mindset, this particular set of dark truths.
Cathartic though it may have seemed, it also completely sucked. Sucked the life out of me, sucked my hope completely dry, et cetera.
It’s hard not to think that this is what happens to everyone every day now.
But is ignoring the reality the answer? Probably not. Still. When you’re not given evidence that changing the state of things is even possible, you’d be hard-pressed to do otherwise. What else could everyone possibly do in response, except make jokes about how nothing really matters?
Of course, if you look for it, you’ll find evidence that says the opposite. But you have to want to look for it. And despair and lethargy don’t really create that desire. That’s not what they’re good at.
Hope, on the other hand—well, I like hope. Or something like hope. The last few Rob Bell podcast episodes discussed hope (or something like it) recently. And towards the end of the series, he noted that hope wasn’t really the word he meant, but it’s the word that people use, and it translates the idea well. I like that. Because I agree. It’s not just hope; it’s not even belief, or faith. It’s a sense that life is possible. It’s something bigger than all of that that’s needed to change systems for the better.
(And not piles of opinion pieces that equate to “old man yells at cloud” and are little more than radioactive zones of ageism and lack of data.)
Because the thing is, having hope (or more than hope) requires listening to the despair. Not denying it, not shoving it aside, not calling it a phase. Letting it speak. And then doing something about it.
After all, this continues to be true: It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
This is why I’m glad the movie Nope exists, especially in contrast to the fetishization of violence that’s proven to be stubbornly still here, what with Blonde and “Dahmer” receiving so much attention lately and thus perpetuating this gazing-into-the-void. (Please please please don’t get me started there~)
(Warning: mild, vague spoilers for Nope ahead)
This is not exactly a monster movie, but then, that’s what it turns out to be in the end. Because yes, there is a monster, but it only goes after the people who look directly at it. People who just have to look at it, even if it’s fatal and destructive and dark. (Hmm, sounds familiar.) There is definitely symbolism there for anything that demands your attention. And your energy, and your everything. It’s not just a potent metaphor for Hollywood—it’s massively relevant to what it requires lately to take part in cultural discourse. The real monster is whatever steals what you have to give.
Continuing to connect this with Rob Bell’s series on hope, I’m quite interested in the idea he presented that we are not separate from the world, or from said discourse. The world, and the world’s discourse, do not exist without our engagement.
So when we decide that despair and polarization and emptiness are all there is, then that’s exactly what is true. That’s what we create. And guess who takes that in and acts it out?
If it’s not obvious by now, the age 15 to 24 demographic, mostly. Of course this is not limited to the under-35 set, but they are the lightning rod of what’s happening with the rest of us.
Doomscrolling is part of this, too. Conceding to the idea that the worst is coming leaves us vulnerable to the worst taking everything over. That is how it has happened, and that is how it will continue to happen. What you feed into continues to exist. When you keep looking and believe that all there is is what you see (and what you see is all there is), you make it true. You perpetuate everything you don’t want.
And it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m not saying suicidal ideation and depression and anxiety can be cured by…well…hope. This is a toxic positivity-free zone. (Exhibit A!) But hope isn’t a bad place to start. It is not the solution, but it creates action, which does lead to other solutions and ideas and newness.
It can lead to small daily actions to create a better world, which do resonate with people and can even make them believe in themselves. In their capabilities. Hell, even just watching news clips where Floridians save each other from rising floodwaters can do a lot. Or reading something like A Paradise Built in Hell.
Because hope implies that you know when something is wrong, and if you have to start changing it even from a dark place, you will—but you’re still going to start.
Hope is what leads to believing that life should be livable, and in turn, lends itself to creating more connection, more community, and more human-centered systems. That’s really important.
And you know what else is important? Individuation, and owning your life. Knowing that your life can belong to you and that you aren’t nothing. That you aren’t a lost cause. That you can pursue whatever has always been alive inside of you. (At least, that’s what helped my own dark thought patterns once upon a time. Another story for another day, maybe.)
That’s how you know it can exist. That’s how it changes you, first.
I started writing this because, a few years ago, I went through a weird edgy phase where I honestly believed hope was an addiction. Said it out loud more times than I’d like to admit. To a degree, I suppose that still could be true. More than that, though, I just find it exhausting that people my age and older (and…corporations…) try to impress upon younger people that they have to have hope. That it’s their job.
It’s not. It’s the task of those who have lived longer and more to create an environment where having hope is remotely possible. Even if we’ve experienced the opposite. Especially if we’ve experienced the opposite. That’s when hope becomes less of something to cling to, and more of a natural outpouring of what you already know to be true.
Why not start trying to make that truth more visible now?
+ Stock photos from @priscilladupreez and @jumbofotovia via Unsplash