I know what it’s like. You’ve surrendered to this floating, punishing reality that is living in the United States of America in the year 2017. You hate the news but are glued to each new mind-boggling report, hate your phone but spend every spare minute looking at it, hate half of your Facebook friends but still oscillate your thumb wildly in the endless scroll-down that is your social life now.
You are reading this with 13 other tabs open. You are blindsided by “On This Day” memories forced in your face as a form of emotional terrorism, reminding you when life was more serene. You used to get more exercise. You want to unplug but cannot, afraid you’ll miss something important to… what? To be angry about? To go protest? To make a knee-jerk post for, adding to the booming outrage cycle?
You go to bed every night thinking “It can’t get any worse,” and then you wake up screaming.
I know what it’s like because I, too, am at least a half-conscious human being in this country, invested with care in the state of things and simultaneously pummeled by it on a near-constant basis. You, me, all of us — we’re completely stumped at what the hell to do. Pay attention, or log off? Be engaged, or take care of ourselves? Find purpose, or find comfort?
This is the fundamental question that we are faced with, hundreds of times a day in a blink-of-an-eye fight-or-flight way online, and once or twice a day in a giant, existential, who-am-I-even-and-how-am-I-gonna-get-by-in-this-world way. And between the two is the ostensibly normal way: in face-to-face human interaction, which is quickly seeming like more and more of a not-normal thing.
The answer to the question, I’ve found, is to stop bombarding yourself with the question.
During her days fronting the great band Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna coined a phrase that’s been rolling around in my head lately. It pops up like a giant helpful billboard on life’s highway whenever I find myself crippled by how I should move through this stupefying new world. It tells me: Resist Psychic Death.
Resist psychic death. It’s as easy as that. Don’t allow the insanity to consume you to the point that you second-guess your every thought. Resist psychic death. Take action and fire off postcards and phone calls when you need to, and rest and laugh and rejuvenate when your mind and body tells you to. Resist psychic death. Don’t be crippled by a false dichotomy of taking care of yourself versus taking care of the world. Do both. All of the above. Follow your heart. Resist psychic death.
I am not alone these days in having a crisis of faith about my work. Suddenly, covering the arts doesn’t seem so important anymore. My friends who work as legal analysts, or waitresses, or genetic research scientists, or record store clerks, the whole spectrum — they all feel it too.
The past eight months have sneered at basic human decency, and robbed us of common sense. But we don’t always acknowledge the subtle, cruel way it’s sapped us of that most important thing of all: our purpose.
Kathleen Hanna said another smart thing that I’ve kept in mind lately. “Being told you are a worthless piece of shit and not believing it,” she once wrote, “is a form of resistance.”
There’s now an ongoing discussion about the role of art in this new America, splintered into various debates, all variations on the same question. Should art directly address the state of the world? Or should it offer an escape from it?
Will music become more reactive and angry? Is political art reductive by nature? Is it OK to go see a matinee of this dumb comedy while Houston is underwater? Have you read the latest New Yorker feature? Did you see Kara Walker’s artist statement? Should bands at music festivals comment on current events, or shut up and play?
To resist psychic death is to choose all of the above. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ probing essay about Donald Trump and white supremacy, and then unwind with a 1,000-page fantasy paperback. Digest the ugliness that is a tone-deaf response to Charlotesville, then take in the utter beauty that is Makoto Shinkai’s animated film Your Name. Cogitate upon a historical collection of Filipino art, and take selfies at the silly Color Factory. Watch An Inconvenient Sequel and then go with friends to see Girls Trip.
Art is where we find our way, whatever it may be. Art is where we lift our head up, ready to fight, and where we deflate in tears — whatever’s needed at the moment. Art is where we can lose ourselves and find ourselves. Art is what can make us feel warm memories of the past, and, believe it or not, hope for the future.
I know what it’s like to need that hope, because just like you, I have pondered with a level of seriousness not felt since the Cold War the very real and terrifying possibility that we may not collectively make it through this year alive.
But: you are alive now, and you can think, and feel. While you can, resist psychic death. And, by all means, get off the internet.
Gabe Meline is KQED Arts’ Online Editor.