Safe spaces. Where we gonna find those these days?
The news is a nightmare. Concerts are killing grounds, and old enemies threaten nuclear devastation. Our dream merchants rape their employees while the president of the United States bullies Americans on the daily, and we’re left to wonder: What territory — physically, emotionally, metaphorically — is even marginally safe?
So yeah, tough-talking red-blooded types can mock millennials and the academics charged with educating them, but safe spaces are in short supply everywhere. Even in red states: The MAGA types would never admit it, but listen to their hillbilly elegies and you’ll hear the existential terror driving their nihilistic rage — the insistent, internal voices telling them their day in the American sun is done.
Which is to say that getting through the day, these days, can be a bitch no matter where you’re sitting.
Me, I’ve been sitting with The Arsonists for eight weeks or so now, as part of this writer-in-residence-kinda-thing I’m doing with Woolly Mammoth, and from my first read of the script through to the third time I saw it performed, two moments kept jumping out at me. This diagnosis of the way we read the world, from the play’s Greek-style Chorus, is one of those moments:
In order to know
What dangers we face
We look at our cellphones, keep up with the news.
Each morning at breakfast
Appalled by distant events
We let others explain what is happening.
“Let others explain what is happening” is the bit that resonates, both in the world of the play and even more worryingly in the world we’re navigating. So much of what ails us as a nation, so much of what divides us as a people, has to do with whom and what we fear — and that’s a dynamic driven so ruthlessly and so shamelessly by the rapacious entertainment engines currently masquerading as broadcast news.
I’m a longtime journalist with a family full of people who don’t read newspapers. Like so depressingly many of us, they get headlines, snippets, fragments of news from their social-media feeds or at their church socials — and endless reams of “analysis” from TV and talk-radio shoutfests produced by networks with News in their names but not in their actual games.
And no, these family members are neither particularly rational nor especially well informed, but they’re also terrified. How do you convince your mother that Syrian refugees don’t pose a threat to her Myrtle Beach cul-de-sac when her good friend Sean Hannity is in her living room night after night, furiously urging her to check for ISIS behind the potted palms? Fear sells; fear keeps people tuned in; fear motivates.
But fear paralyzes, too:
Hoping the evil
Is not really evil,
[The timid] welcome the evil.
Defenseless, exhausted by fear,
They hope for the best …
Until it’s too late.
That’s the Chorus again, cautioning us about exactly the fright-warning freeze instinct that keeps George Betterman from taking any real steps to oust the killers who’ve taken up residence under his roof.
So what the hell? What the hell are we supposed to do?
If you know anything about me as a person in the real world, you probably know by now that I’m a drunk. I mean, I try not to be these days, but that’s the baseline I’m working from. And as all good go-to-meeting drunks know, we get a lot of our crazy from struggling with the entirely human need for emotional security. We will lie to our lovers, our mothers, our coworkers, our priests, and oh yes our own sweet selves if we can just pretend that everything’s going fine.
We learn to short-circuit that crazy by letting go of that want, that hunger for security, that impulse to control the world around us or at least to pretend that we’re in control of it — First Step territory, Buddhism territory, Real Simple territory maybe. Choose your approach.
And yet to live now as First Worlders, as people of conscience, as social-media junkies in a news cycle that never slows down (never mind stopping), is to live with a constant sense of escalating urgency, of rising panic, of intensifying anxiety. (In The New York Times Magazine today: “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?”)
Every wrathful tweet we read, every push notification from The Washington Post, is a provocation, a call to arms, an insistence that attention must be paid and something must finally for the love of God be done. An invitation, in other words, to wrestle for control, to start that spiral toward despair and paralysis and “Fuck it,” which for lots of us leads to the bottle and for some leads to darker corners still.
There is a middle ground. In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, which I tore through in an escapist hunger a week or so ago, the protagonist muses on what pain does to the body and the spirit, how it poisons us or paralyzes us or pushes us toward a precipice. But sometimes, he realizes, if we can learn to make it work for us the way an oyster knows how to work with and around the inevitable chafe of life’s constant insinuating grit, pain can spur us to seize it and claim it and make something shimmering and spectacular of it.
“No man, proclaimed Donne, is an Island, and he was wrong,” Gaiman writes, trading pearls for poets and turning his protective metaphor inside out. “If we were not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each others’ tragedies. We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others.”
If we can isolate the pain a bit, in other words — or insulate ourselves from it just a little, wrap ourselves in something lustrous and beautiful, without ever forgetting the irritant is there — we might be able to produce something worth keeping.
Me, I’m disconnecting more often these days. Back to the library, away from Twitter and Facebook. (Ironic, for someone who works as a social-media strategist.) Out to the zoo, into the woods, down to the beach — just into the world rather than into my head or into the void.
I can’t live in fear all the time!
That’s the cornered, outraged, desperate George Betterman to The Arsonists’ imploring Chorus, in one of the play’s most nakedly honest moments.
No, he can’t. No, we can’t.
But if we islands should learn where our own shorelines are, where they must be to keep us sane, we can still watch out for each other from those waterlines, and touch hands when we row out to explore our shared archipelagos.
We can stay awake in the night, Choruses every one of us. We can wrap our agonies in armor built from what’s most beautiful, and we can refuse to drown.