by Joshua Ellis
originally posted on Zenarchery, August 1, 2014
Get Joshua’s complete book of essays and writing Everyone I Know Is Brokenhearted: Collected Essays And Writing, 1998-2018
All the genuinely smart, talented, funny people I know seem to be miserable these days. You feel it on Twitter more than Facebook, because Facebook is where you go to do your performance art where you pretend to be a hip, urbane person with the most awesomest friends and the best relationships and the very best lunches ever. Facebook is surface; Twitter is subtext, and judging by what I’ve seen, the subtext is aching sadness.
I’m not immune to this. I don’t remember ever feeling this miserable and depressed in my life, this sense of futility that makes you wish you’d simply go numb and not care anymore. I think a lot about killing myself these days. Don’t worry, I’m not going to do it and this isn’t a cry for help. But I wake up and think: fuck, more of this? Really? How much more? And is it really worth it?
In my case, much of it stems from my divorce and the collapse of the next relationship I had. But that’s not really the cause. I think that those relationships were bulwarks, charms against the dark I’ve felt growing in this world for a long time now. When I was in love, the world outside didn’t matter so much. But without it, there is nothing keeping the wolf from the door.
It didn’t used to be like this when I was a kid. I’m not getting nostalgic here, or pretending that my adolescence and my twenties were some kind of soft-focused Golden Age. Life sucked when I was young. I was unhappy then too. But there was always the sense that it was just a temporary thing,that if I stuck it out eventually the world was going to get better — become awesome, in fact.
But the reality is that the three generations who ended the 20th century, the Boomers, their Generation X children, and Generation Y, have architected a Western civilization that’s kind of a shit show. Being born in 1978, I fall at either the tail end of Gen X or the beginning of Gen Y, depending on how you look at it. I became an adolescent at the time Nirvana was ushering in a decade of “slacker” ideology, as the pundits liked to put it. But the reality is that I didn’t know a whole lot of actual slackers in the 1990s. I did know a lot of people who found themselves disillusioned with the materialism of the 1980s and what we saw as the failed rhetoric of the Sixties generation, who were all about peace and love right until the time they put on suits and ties and figured out how to divide up the world. I knew a lot of people who weren’t very interested in that path.
The joke, of course, is that every generation kills the thing they love. The hippies became yuppies; Gen X talked a lot about the revolution, and then went and got themselves some venture capital and started laying into place the oversaturated, paranoid world we live in now. A lot of them tried to tell themselves they were still punk as fuck, but it’s hard to morally reconcile the thing where you listen to Fugazi on the way to your job where you help find new ways to trick people into giving up their data to advertisers. Most people don’t even bother. They just compartmentalize.
And I’m not blaming them. The world came apart at the end of the 90s, when the World Trade Center did. My buddy Brent and I were talking about this one night last year — about how the end of the 90s looked like revolution. Everybody was talking about Naomi Klein and anti-consumerism and people in Seattle were rioting over the WTO. Hell, a major motion picture company put out Fight Club, which is about as unsubtle an attack on consumer corporate capitalism as you can get. We were poised on the brink of something. You could feel it.
And then the World Trade Center went down. And all of a sudden calling yourself an “anticapitalist terrorist” was no longer a cool posture to psych yourself up for protest. It became something you might go to jail for — or worse, to one of the Black Camps on some shithole island somewhere. Corporate capitalism became conflated somehow with patriotism. And the idea that the things you own end up defining you became quaint, as ridiculous spoken aloud as “tune in, turn on, drop out”. In fact, it became a positive: if you bought the right laptop, the right smartphone, the right backpack, exciting strangers would want to have sex with you!
It’s no wonder that Gen X began seeking the largely mythological stability of their forebearers; to stop fucking around and eating mushrooms at the Rage Against The Machine show, and to try and root yourself. Get a decent car — something you can pass off as utilitarian — and a solid career. Put your babies in Black Flag onesies, but make sure their stroller is more high tech than anything mankind ever took to the Moon, because that wolf is always at the door. And buy yourself a house, because property is always valuable. Even if you don’t have the credit, because there’s this thing called a “subprime mortgage” you can get now!
But the world changed again. And kept changing. So now you’ve got this degree that’s worth fuck-all, a house that’s worth more as scrap lumber than as a substantial investment, and you’re either going to lose your job or have to do the work of two people, because there’s a recession on. Except they keep saying the recession ended, so why are you still working twice as hard for the same amount of money?
We started two wars, only one of them even marginally justifiable, and thousands and thousands of people died. Some of them were Americans, most of them weren’t. The world hated us again. It’s psychically oppressive to realize you’re the bad guy.
Of course, for a lot of the world, America had always been the bad guy…but we didn’t really know that before, because we didn’t have the Internet in our pocket, to be pulled out at every lunch break and before the meal came and when the episode of Scrubs on TV dragged a little, and before bed. We were encouraged to immerse ourselves in the endless flow of information, to become better informed, because knowing more about the world made us better people. And maybe it did, but it also made us haunted people.
Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I clicked on a video in my Twitter feed that showed mutilated children being dragged from the streets of Gaza. And I started sobbing — just sobbing, sitting there in my bed with the covers around my waist, saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” over and over to the empty room. Dead children, torn to bits. And then it was time for…what? Get up, eat my cereal, go about my day? Every day?
So you’re haunted, and you’re outraged, and you go on Twitter and you go on Facebook and you change your avatar or your profile picture to a slogan somebody thoughtfully made for you, so that you can show the world that you’re watching, that you care, that it matters. But if you’re at all observant, you begin to realize after a while that it doesn’t matter; that your opinion matters for very little in the world. You voted for Obama, because Obama was about hope and change; except he seems to be mostly about hope and change for rich people, and not about hope at all for the people who are killed by American drones or who are locked away without trial in American internment camps or who are prosecuted because they stand up and tell the truth about their employers. There does seem to be a lot of hope and change in Fort Meade and Langley, though, where the NSA and CIA are given more and more leeway to spy on everyone in the world, including American citizens, not for what they’ve done but what they might do.
And the rest of the world? They keep making more dead children. They slaughter each other in the streets of Baghdad and Libya and Gaza and Tel Aviv; they slaughter each other in the hills of Syria; and, increasingly, they slaughter each other in American schools and movie theaters and college campuses.
And when you speak up about that — when you write to your Congressperson to say that you believe in, say, stricter control on the purchase of assault weapons, or limiting the rights of corporations to do astonishing environmental damage, or not sending billions of dollars to the kind of people who think it’s funny to launch missiles filled with flechette rounds into the middle of schools where children huddle together — you’re told that, no, you’re the fascist: that people have the right to defend themselves and make money, and that those rights trump your right to not be killed by some fucking lunatic when you’re waiting in line at Chipotle to grab a chicken burrito, and your right to not be able to light your tapwater on fire with a Zippo because of the chemicals in it, or not to end up in a grainy YouTube video while some demented religious fanatic hacks your head off with a rusty bayonet because your country — not you, but who’s counting — is the Great Satan.
And the music sucks. Dear God, the music sucks. Witless, vapid bullshit that makes the worst airheaded wannabe profundities of the grunge era look like the collected works of Thomas Locke. Half the songs on the radio aren’t anything more than a looped 808 beat and some dude grunting and occasionally talking about how he likes to fuck bitches in the ass. The other half are grown-ass adults singing about their stunted, adolescent romantic ideals and playing a goddamn washtub while dressed like extras from The Waltons.
The music sucks. The movies suck — I mean, they didn’t suck the first time they came out, in the 1980s, but the remakes and gritty reboots and decades-past-their-sell-by-date sequels suck. Indiana Jones is awesome, but nobody needs to see a geriatric Harrison Ford, lured out of retirement by the promise of building another mansion onto his mansion, running around with fucking Shia LeBeouf in the jungle. And besides, we’re all media experts now; we can spot the merchandising nods from the trailer all the way to the final credits. There’s no magic left. It’s just another company figuring out a way to suck the very last molecules of profit out of the things we cherish, because that’s what corporations do.
Everything is branded. Even people. People are “personal brands”, despite the fact that, by and large, you can’t figure out what most of them are actually even good for. They just exist to be snarky and post selfies and demand that you buy something, anything, with their picture on it.
You actually know who Kim Kardashian is. In an ideal world, you’d be as unaware of her existence as you are of the names of the Chinese kids who made the futurephone or featherweight laptop you’re almost certainly reading this on. In an ideal world, Kim Kardashian would have spent her life getting sport-fucked anonymously by hip-hop stars in some Bel Air mansion, ran a salon, and either died of a coke overdose or Botox poisoning. There is no reason that her face and her life and her tits and her deathless thoughts needed to be foisted upon the world outside of the 90210 ZIP code. Except that somebody figured out that you could make money off showing people the car accident in slow motion, that people would watch that. Sure they will. People love to watch stupid people do stupid things. It makes them feel less stupid.
And the Internet.
We built this thing — I include myself in that because I started doing HTML in 1994 and was part of the generation who took to the new medium like water and have made the majority of our adult lives creating it, to a greater or lesser degree — because we believed it would make things better for everyone. We believed it would give voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless, bring us all together, help us to understand and empathize and share with one another. We believed it could tear down the walls.
And in a lot of ways it has. But in just as many ways, it has driven us all insane. There’s an old story — I have no idea if it’s true — about monkeys who had the pleasure centers of their brains wired up to a button. Push it, Mr. Monkey, and you have an orgasm. And the monkeys did. They pushed the button and they pushed the button, until they forgot about eating and they forgot about drinking and sleeping and simply fell down and died.
What do you do when you first wake up? What do you do as soon as you get into work? After work? Before bed? Hell, some of us wake up in the night and check our feeds, terrified that we’ve missed out on something.
We do it because we are given that reward, that stimulus that tells us oooh, a new shiny! It’s the fourteenth Guardians Of The Galaxy trailer, with 200% more Rocket Raccoon! Some fucking null node in Portland made a portrait of every single character from Adventure Time out of bacon and Legos! And, maybe most poisonous, maybe most soul-crushing: somebody said something I don’t like that makes me feel frightened and threatened! It’s time to put on my superhero costume and forward unto battle!
Except it doesn’t matter. Because you’re not really changing anybody’s mind. How often does that little skirmish end with anybody changing their mind at all, even a little bit? Or does it just end with one of you invariably either blocking the other or saying something like “You know what, I’m going to stop now, because this is getting out of hand.”
Getting out of hand?
Everything they told you about how to live in the world when you were a kid is a lie. Education doesn’t matter, not even on paper. Being ethical doesn’t matter. Being a good person doesn’t matter. What matters now is that you’re endlessly capable of the hustle, of bringing in that long green, of being entertaining to enough people that somebody will want to give you money or fuck you or fund your startup. We’re all sharks now; if we stop swimming for just a little too long, we die. We lose followers. We’re lame. We’re not worth funding, or fucking. Because all that matters is the endless churn, the endless parade, the endless cycle of buying and trying to sell and being bought and sold by people who tell you that they’re your friends, man, not like those others. Microsoft is evil and Google is not evil, except when they are, but that’s not really important, and if you decide that maybe you’re tired of being reduced to nothing more than a potential lead for a sales pitch, like something out of a fucking David Mamet play, then you’re a hater and irrelevant and a Luddite. And besides, what would you do with yourself if you weren’t checking Facebook or playing Candy Crush Saga or watching some teenage dumbass smash his genitals on the side of a pool on YouTube? What the fuck would you even do, bro?
The comedian Bill Hicks used to do a bit where he invited the advertisers and marketers in his audience to kill themselves. He imagined them turning it into an ad campaign: “Oh, the righteous indignation dollar, that’s a good dollar, Bill’s smart to do that.” He laid out the futility of trying to escape: “I’m just caught in a fucking web,” he’d say.
And that’s where we are. You, me, we’re trapped, between being nothing more than consumers, every aspect of our lives quantified and turned into demographic data, or being fucking Amish cavemen drifting into increasing irrelevancy. Because it really does feel like there’s no middle ground anymore, doesn’t it? There’s no way to stay an active, informed citizen of the world without some motherfucker figuring out a way to squirm into your life to try and get a dollar out of you. Only fools expect something for free, and only bigger fools believe they’re anything other than a consumable or a consumer.
We didn’t get the William Gibson future where you can live like a stainless steel rat in the Wwalls between the corporate enclaves, tearing at the system from within with your anarchy and your superior knowledge of Unix command lines. Now it’s just pissed off teenagers who blame you because their lives are going to suck a cock and billionaire thugs trying to sell you headphones and handbags, all to a soundtrack of some waterhead muttering “Bubble butt, bubble bubble bubble butt” over and over while a shite beat thumps in the background.
I know a lot of people who privately long for an apocalypse of some kind, a breakdown of the ancient Western code, because then they’d either be dead or free. How fucking horrifying is that?
But nobody pulls that trigger, because now we’ve all seen what apocalypses look like. We saw Manhattan in 2001 and New Orleans in 2005 and Thailand in 2004 and the Middle East pretty much any given day. Nobody wants to hate, because we’re pummeled with hate every day, by people who are too fucking stupid to understand that the world has passed them by as much as it’s passed by the dude in the Soundgarden t-shirt who still drives around singing along to “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” on his way to his dead-end job. The best lack all conviction, and the people who are full of passionate intensity? Fuck them. We’re all sick of their shit anyway.
And that’s where we are, and is it any goddamn wonder at all that the most profitable drugs sold in America for like a decade running have been antipsychotics? The world seems psychotic.
I feel like I need to figure this out, like figuring all of this out and finding new ways to live has become the most important thing I could possibly do, not just for myself and the people I love but for the entire human race. I don’t mean me alone — I’m far too self-loathing to have a messiah complex — but I feel like, for me, this is the best use of my time. Because the world is making me crazy and sad and wanting to just put a gun in my mouth, and it’s doing the same thing to a lot of people who shouldn’t have to feel this way.
I don’t believe anymore that the answer lies in more or better tech, or even awareness. I think the only thing that can save us is us. I think we need to find ways to tribe up again, to find each other and put our arms around each other and make that charm against the dark. I don’t mean in any hateful or exclusionary way, of course. But I think like minds need to pull together and pool our resources and rage against the dying of the light. And I do think rage is a component that’s necessary here: a final fundamental fed-up-ness with the bullshit and an unwillingness to give any more ground to the things that are doing us in. To stop being reasonable. To stop being well-behaved. Not to hate those who are hurting us with their greed and psychopathic self-interest, but to simply stop letting them do it. The best way to defeat an enemy is not to destroy them, but to make them irrelevant.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t know some truth that I can reveal to everyone. All I can do is hurt, and try to stop hurting, and try to help other people stop hurting. Maybe that’s all any of us can do. But isn’t that something worth devoting yourself to, more than building another retarded app that just puts more nonsense and bullshit into the world? Just finding people to love, and healing each other? I think it is.
Until I know more, I’ll just keep holding on. I won’t put the gun in my mouth. Because all of this sadness is worth it if there’s still hope. And I want to still have hope so badly. I still want to believe, in myself, and in you.