It is so easy to get swept under the current. It’s easy to be trapped there, to feel yourself losing air. I’m careful with my words (in this space at least) and I mean that. To feel the last of your hope, the last of your essence, the last of everything slip out. To feel it in your chest and to know what it means for you in your brain.
We don’t talk about that enough: how hard it is, how hard it can be, to exist as a human. It’s hard to be connected to people. It’s hard to depend on people and to be depended on. It’s hard when someone you know kills someone and it’s hard when his birthday comes up on your phone as a reminder from that time you gave Facebook permission to download to your calendar. It’s hard to survive a pandemic and it’s hard when its existence is a debate. It’s hard to know that your life matters only to some people, only under certain conditions they don’t even hold themselves to. It’s hard to be out of work and trapped in your home each and every day. It’s hard when your home burns down and ash fills your lungs.
Even in normal times, it’s hard to be a solitary person in a sea of seven billion.
When I interviewed a graduate student at a school I didn’t attend to see if I could picture myself in the city, I got lucky. She had also lived in Seattle and was now living in a small, rural college town much like the one I ended up in. I asked her what that was like, how it felt to find yourself in a field after blooming in the shadow of skyscrapers.
“There’s an undercurrent,” she said “at least I feel there is, in the city. There’s a sense that you always need to be on edge. There’s traffic and impatience. There’s a clock you set yourself to and a way you look over your shoulder. But here, in this town, I’ve felt that slip away. I’ve felt a deliberate slowing, a return to baseline. A chance to breathe.”
There’s some truth to this, I can already say that in a month living in a smaller urban town. There is also a beauty that big cities offer that small ones never could. But that sounds nice doesn’t it? In 2020? To escape to a slowing, a deliberate return to something missing.
When I took a break from social media, in an attempt to gain a modicum of control back over my life, I hadn’t intended to come back so soon (I’m still not quite back on Facebook but I’ll get there soon). Being connected to other humans, absorbing their griefs, listening to their insane debates and dehumanization, floating in a sea of noise, is painful and overwhelming. At a time when none of us are at our best, in a binary, one-dimensional space designed to bring out our worst, it’s easy to get swept under and believe principally, in the very worst of humanity.
I came out two days after a friend of mine went on a homophobic rant on a mutual friend’s thread about LGBT identities and Christianity. That same friend reached out and offered undying support in a private message. I think a lot of my motivation to retreat into a bubble, where I could only be reached by those I reached to, stemmed from this deepening understanding of the human experience of connection. I have never been more fully convinced that very few people in this world are good and that very few people in this world are bad.
There’s a mistake here that many of my friends will make. This idea doesn’t excuse behavior. It doesn’t suddenly make it appropriate to be a critic in public but a supporter in private. It doesn’t make it right to speak into situations and dynamics that don’t directly involve you. But it does humanize and contextualize behavior beyond some arbitrary conception of good or evil. And in 2020, when everything feels like a byproduct of our inhumanity – terrorism and violence, climate change and sickness, fascism and irreverence – it can be enough to simply see one another as a combination of all the good and all the evil. It can be enough to say “I’m not sure if I like this person, or if this person is good for me.” It can be enough to live in that gray space of exceptional pain and betrayal, and the full illuminated beauty of being seen.
Being a human is exhausting. I can’t help but think, though, of how exhausting it has always been and how incrementally less exhausting it has gotten. I think about a brick being thrown at a bar in 1960’s New York because someone decided that day to be seen and heard. I think about a tired woman staying seated when everyone expected her to stand. I think about generations of small acts of good work that made the world a little more inhabitable.
Laying in your bed past noon and allowing yourself to feel the weight of it all is good work. You make your body a little more homey for the grief you harbor in your soul.
Standing on a street corner holding a sign is good work. You make that street a little easier to walk down for someone worried about getting shot in the back.
Therapy is good work. Activism is good work. Prayer is good work. Abolishing an old system and crafting a new one is good work. You are a good work and the work you do is good. Keep going.
It is so easy to be swept under that current and become convinced that drowning is the same thing as breathing. I believe in the power of the current to take us down. I also believe in that small seed of hope that’s planted when you kick and come up for just one second of air.
Bryce Van Vleet is the author of Tired Pages which can be purchased here. You can support him by clicking through blog posts or donating (scroll to the bottom of the page). Like him on Facebook or follow him on Goodreads.
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