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The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken every aspect of society. Our democracy is a racist, elitist quagmire, just like basically every major public and private institution in our lives. And is it just me, or is it hot in here? The world is burning, retching, hacking, coughing, exploding, contracting, and cooking sea creatures in their shells — a literal living hell, at least until it kills them.
Meanwhile, people are fighting over getting a vaccine that saves lives, outraged that we’re being told it’s time to re-employ masks because not enough people are vaccinated and the herd remains vulnerable to a predator that’s demonstrated a capacity to evolve. According to the New York Times, a comprehensive analysis indicates we’re living through a record drop in poverty thanks to COVID-19 relief programs, but that may be short-lived unless those policies are extended.
As might be expected, our leaders continue to fail us in ways that border on self-parody. This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi questioned whether canceling student loan debt is a wise policy idea because it could make the taxpaying parents of kids who don’t attend college unhappy, as if almost everyone I know isn’t stuck in a job that makes them miserable because of loan debt that is determining the course of their lives. But what’s the financial security of tens of millions of borrowers compared with the happiness of some people Pelosi just made up? Let them eat cake — just not all of them. At least Pelosi made clear how unlikely debt cancellation is after months of watching President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer play policy hot potato.
The news is ugly, hard, and bitter, like a bottomless bag of barf-flavored jelly beans. At times over the course of the last year and a half, I’ve fallen into a hopelessness born out of getting washed and spun by the industrial-grade news cycle. And yet, even as I am reduced to a pulsating knot of nerves, I try not to let the overwhelming sense of impending apocalypse completely overtake me. Doom looms — by nature, that’s what it does — but by accepting our apocalyptic reality, I sometimes actually feel better. Because when I embrace the reality of our earthly rapture, instead of feeling powerless, I recognize my own power to survive, fight, and still find joy.
Living up to the reputation of potato chips as an emotional-support snack, Frito-Lay workers are among the latest to strike at my heart and give it a joyously pugilistic jolt. They’ve been fighting back against having to endure what they call “suicide shifts” in the sweltering heat of a Topeka, Kansas, plant. Though management called some claims “grossly exaggerated,” an op-ed in the Topeka Capital-Journal and an interview with Vice indicate that, to these workers, there were very big stakes in play. Hundreds of them stopped work and called for a national boycott of Frito-Lay and PepsiCo products because they wanted to live. Thanks to their strike, they won higher wages and a guarantee that they’ll get at least one day off each week.
Still, there’s no reason workers should have to fear for their health or well-being at a potato chip factory. That they might feel that way at all is another piece of evidence in the case for renaming this country the United States of Dystopia. But the fact that they stood up for themselves matters just as much as the conditions they were dealing with. After all, what good is a dystopian hellscape if you’re not going to fight back? Do you think Mad Max would have lived to see the Fury Road if Imperator Furiosa didn’t try to free those women?
It sort of feels like the end of the world as we know it, and maybe that’s fine? Not like it’s a good thing; it’s just one more thing, albeit a very big thing. I grieve for this world, for what’s already been lost and what has yet to be lost. But grief is more complicated than pure sorrow.
Consider the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who was the first to classify denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as a process. Often referred to as the five stages of grief, this framework is also apt for considering the current state of the world. For my purposes, the most important detail is that acceptance is often considered the final stage, and there’s a reason for that: It is the part of the process that lets us incorporate death and grief into our lives, which is essential in this time of pandemic and extreme climate events. It can give us space to move on from or even be motivated by these experiences instead of being controlled by other stages like denial, depression, and bargaining.
This is the crux of my postapocalyptic mindset. It is, in a sense, an embrace of nihilism: Everything is meaningless because the world is ending. But through that nothingness comes a possibility for an optimistic nihilism: Because the world is ending and everything is meaningless, I have the power to assign meaning to things, to create my own subjective, cosmological framework for the universe and live my life by the values I hold dear, not the ones I’ve been told to. I can fix something or cook something or read something, learning and practicing skills that keep me grounded and bring joy into my life.
I used to get jealous of people who seemed more capable of enjoying life. But now, I’ve learned that joy is out there. Sometimes, I just have to create it myself. Even as the water’s rising, we’ll need reasons to keep smiling. The world can be a dark place, but if you can learn to start a fire, you can make a little light.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue