Over the past few days, I’ve seen a number of tweets that all hammer home the same, sadly relatable message: things are not okay.
The Wall Street Journal @WSJRising rates of depression and anxiety in wealthy countries like the U.S. may be a result of our brains getting hooked on dopamine from digital pleasures like texting, tweeting and online shopping, writes psychiatrist and professor Anna Lembke https://t.co/3wjbpzwXC7
Matt Gaetz @mattgaetz.@TuckerCarlson is CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America. The ADL is a racist organization. https://t.co/32Vu60HrJK
“Everything is really bad and I only see it getting worse and I’m trying to ignore it and just live my life but it’s really hard,” tweeted writer Elizabeth Picciuto on Sunday evening.
For months, I’ve been trying to pinpoint this exact feeling. Gnawing at my patience, chipping away at my will to create change in this world, I have an ever-closer relationship with dread and despair, and it seems like I’m not alone.
Picciuto’s tweet was a response to Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL)’s declaration that “[Tucker Carlson] is CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America. The [Anti-Defamation League] is a racist organization.”
Yes, Gaetz’s tweet is evidence that the chants of tiki torch-wielding neo-Nazis on the streets of Charlottesville have essentially become mainstream views in the Republican Party — which is depressing if not entirely surprising — but Picciuto’s response would have fit in response to any number of other crises of the moment. Some bad news about the pandemic or a grim new report on the status of climate change could easily evoke that same feeling.
There is just… a lot happening right now, and it is getting increasingly difficult to compartmentalize it all.
Act 1: “I Think I’m OKAY”
“How are you?”
It’s a question we’ve all asked with varying degrees of interest, a question we’ve all answered with varying degrees of honesty. I’ve always felt strange about it as a greeting for that reason. In fairness, this isn’t something I’d give much thought to in normal times. I’d usually go through the motions, responding with, “Good! And you?” as I started to zone out while my momentary conversation partner partakes in the same ritual. Rinse, repeat.
But these aren’t normal times.
Between the pandemic, climate change, the persistent threat of right-wing authoritarianism, religious extremism, gun violence, poverty, war, and ecological collapse, there’s a lot happening right now. In fact, just as I started writing this, I got a push notification on my phone for a Popular Mechanics article from June about the earth’s core “rapidly growing lopsided” complete with the subheadline “This shouldn’t be happening.” Great. Add it to the list. And these are just the society-wide problems! Once you start adding in personal issues like health, relationships, work, etc., oh boy.
Act 2: “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”
Recently, I’ve been making a point of being more honest when responding to the question. There’s a part of me that had hoped there’d be a sense of freedom in answering, “Oh, me? Things have been a wreck. I can’t stop thinking about all the ways the world is broken beyond repair, I’m consumed by sadness and anger and fear, my mental health has never been worse and I’m just trying to make it to tomorrow even though there’s nothing particularly notable about tomorrow, either.” But there wasn’t, unfortunately.
For me, I think a big part of the problem when it comes to addressing questions of whether or not I’m okay or things are okay… is just that I don’t know what “okay” even means. Is “okay” just a baseline that can move over time? Is “okay” good? Is today’s “okay” yesterday’s “bad?” It’s hard to define.
Act 3: “Existential Dread, Six Hours’ Time”
I’ve tried to make peace with the fact that the world is a mess right now, and I’ve tried to make peace with the fact that I alone cannot affect the type of change necessary to fix any of the problems that weigh so heavily on my mind, let alone all of them. So for now, I just try to fight through the discomfort of existential dread to a point of acceptance.
There’s a web comic I think about constantly. It’s called “Busy Work,” which is episode 59 of Bluenotes, a comic by Shen. It’s a collection of panels featuring a character doing things like buying a tie, cooking macaroni, doing cardio, and… sitting still while trying not to let the existential dread in.
We’re all the character in the comic at times. We’re all doing the busy work of life as we try to brush off threats to our collective wellbeing. I can go to therapy, smile and nod, discuss all my problems, and… well, that’s just it, isn’t it? What am I accomplishing? What am I working towards?
If I can’t change the world around me, am I just trying to block out the bad? Because blocking out the bad doesn’t change the fact that “the bad” is still there, whether I’m thinking about it or not. Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time doing it. On a subconscious level, I will always know that the problems happening all around us are still there, even if I’m momentarily blocking out the negative thoughts as I play video games or have dinner.
Epilogue: “Everything Is Alright”
I don’t understand how anyone can truly be okay at this moment in time, but as I mentioned earlier, that probably comes down to the fact that there’s no single agreed upon definition of okay. But maybe there’s some comfort in knowing that if everything seems broken with the world right now, you’re not alone in feeling that way.
“It’s okay to not be okay” is overdone, but it’s something I think we could all benefit from working into our lives a bit more. It’s okay to feel sad, angry, lost, frustrated, confused, incomplete. It’s okay that the baseline for “okay” is pretty crappy right now.
It’s okay. It’s okay, okay? Maybe it’s helpful to know that if you’re having a rough time with things, you’re not alone. We’re all struggling in our own ways.
Finally, as I was in the middle of writing this, the amazing Charlie Warzel at his Galaxy Brain Substack published his own piece that really nails the vibe of just… everything. Please check it out, and subscribe to his newsletter. It’s great.
Thanks, everyone. Please stay okay.