On January 6th, my weekly video chat with my friends from home was interrupted by an attempted coup. We stayed on the call, alternating between giving college advice to our friend applying for college and telling each other that the fascists were doing a bad job of taking over, that it would have to end eventually. My mom played the news at full volume in the background. It was hard to know how much we were supposed to be reassuring each other, or how much we should try to think about other things, or how much we were allowed to think about other things.
Two days later I was playing Dungeons & Dragons, and the session ground to a halt for a few minutes so we could talk about Trump conceding. Things felt better, sort of—like we could all safely move on to dealing with a government that was only the regular amount of corrupt, like maybe we’d be able to get a couple good days in before the next catastrophic event. It took us a couple minutes to get back into the game after that. Moving seamlessly from processing the latest societal trauma to something like fantasy roleplay is a skill this generation has learned a little too well; it’s a skill that sometimes feels like a sin.
We’re living in a guilty, guilty world. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism; all the money I spend will inevitably end up in the wrong hands, and the things I spent it on cost so much water to make that they’ve probably brought the world one year closer to collapsing. So I’ve cut back on retail therapy and tried to spend more time with the people who matter to me, but there’s no ethical contact in the middle of a pandemic. I compliment my roommate on his mask on our way out the door, and I invite someone over to sit several feet away from me while we eat lunch, and by the end of it all I somehow feel more alone than I did before.
I think that eventually things will get better. I believe that eventually we’ll be living in a world that we aren’t actively killing, that it’s entirely possible to pull everything up by its roots and start over. But I can’t shake the feeling that any comforting thoughts about the future fly in the face of what’s happening in our present. My happiness about my grandparents getting the COVID vaccine makes me feel like I’m ignoring the massive spike in positive cases this month. My excitement at starting work and school again feels like it’s mocking all the people who were sent home last March and still haven’t found their footing. I go to turn on a movie and I wonder if I should keep watching the news. My optimism feels irresponsible.
It’s hard to find balance between taking a break and falling down a rabbit hole of escapism and internet algorithms; in my attempts to walk that line, I usually end up standing still, unsure of which to choose. I’m starting to figure things out, but it’s a slow process and it won’t be done anytime soon. I donate what I can to help pay someone’s rent and I go for a two-hour walk through the park by my dorm. I get my bi-weekly COVID test and I buy myself boba on the way back. I teach on Zoom four times a week, which means that four times a week somebody gets to learn, and that has to count for something. And on Sundays I eat dinner on the common room floor and play D&D with my friends.
The little things don’t do a lot, but they do something. I know that a new set of dice doesn’t help fix the things that are crumbling around me; they feel nice in my hand, though. My biweekly boba won’t guarantee a negative test result for myself or anyone around me, but it tastes good, and the caffeine helps propel me through the rest of my day. The thing about small comforts is that they aren’t solutions. Right now, anything that isn’t a solution tends to feel counterproductive in some way. But they’re comforts, and we’re still allowed to have those.
There’s no way to properly grieve all the people and possibilities we’ve lost in the last year. We have to pick our battles, and if I’m being honest I spend more of my time worrying I’ve picked the wrong ones than actually fighting them. As often as I can, though, I remind myself that my comfort isn’t always at the expense of someone else’s. Irresponsible or not, my optimism isn’t hurting anyone.
By Jack Loney
Illustration by Robyn Phelps