“No one is okay.”
I think anyone with a scrap of sentience would agree with this one. We’re navigating a period of collective grief, disaster, melancholia, and despair in real time, and we can’t stop tweeting about it.
Can you blame us?
In just the past few weeks, Texas passed a law banning almost all abortions in the state and the Supreme Court did nothing to stop it. A forever war ended without conclusion, leaving a huge death toll and worsening refugee crises in its wake. A deadly hurricane triggered a succession of disasters across the country, destroying homes and overpowering already rocky infrastructure on multiple coasts. At least three million are at risk of becoming unhoused with the end of the COVID eviction moratorium and two pandemic-specific unemployment benefit programs are over. Voting rights remain on the chopping block and — lest we forget — all of this is happening amid the backdrop of a global pandemic that rages on, just in time for back to school.
As the barrage of bad news, known as life in 2021, remains dialed all the way up, various iterations of “No one is okay” proliferate across my timeline. The banality of this simple declaration, juxtaposed with the gravity of this moment in time, feels significant. There’s a lot going on. And while there has been for a while, it feels like our collective capacity for handling immense stress is just about tapped out. In 2019, shortly after being elected to her first term in Congress, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told Rolling Stone, “We’ve been tolerating the intolerable.”
Millennials and Gen Zers have been “tolerating the intolerable” our whole lives. Yet things just keep getting worse. We keep holding our breath, readying ourselves for a break, but with our backs constantly up against the wall, that respite always remains just out of reach. At least that’s how it feels, and feelings have significance — culturally and politically — especially today.
“I view the phrase ‘No one is okay’ as a form of social action and a call for recognizing and validating collective feelings during these chaotic and uncertain times,” said Wendy Klein, associate professor in the linguistics department at California State University, Long Beach, in an email interview with Teen Vogue.
“The apparent increase in the word ‘feel’ in our culture (as in ‘I feel you’) also highlights the recent elevation and normalization of affect and sensory experience (vs. the cold logic of ‘thought’) in our discursive responses to the continuous flow of news and images we consume regularly.” Or, as best-selling author Ashley C. Ford put it on Twitter recently, “I have to feel my feelings to use them intentionally, and I honestly hate that.”
Perhaps we have to tweet our feelings too. It’s okay to keep verbalizing the obvious, even if it feels redundant, even if the constant barrage of calamity has numbed our capacity to differentiate between how we emote different tragedies and choose (or choose not) to verbalize our response.
“It is darkly funny that everyone is wondering about why the vibes are off or why they’re not *thriving* when the world is so f**king bad,” writer Molly Taft tweeted on September 1.
“I don’t understand how I’m supposed to go to school and just pretend like everything is normal when nothing is normal,” 14-year-old Catlyn Savado tweeted on August 31. “Everything keeps repeating itself. trauma. emotions. hurt. silence. trauma. emotions. hurt. silence. repeat. no one even asks if anyone’s ok. what is happening?”
“Everything's happened so fast,” Catlyn said in an interview with Teen Vogue. “And that's not how our brains are supposed to cope with trauma. We're supposed to be able to have time and space to take up and kind of just sit with [it], and I feel like a lot of times online it's a lot easier to just express exactly how you feel.”
Is no one asking if anyone’s okay because the assumption is that the answer is no? Or is the proliferation of this simple, negative declaration, “No one is okay,” really — at its heart —a series of questions we’re desperate to answer, but don’t know how to ask: How could I be okay right now? Do you feel okay? Are we going to be okay?
“Starting with millennials, but certainly up to Gen Z, we’re going through this incredible letdown, a sort of long-term disappointment and disillusionment with the package that we were sold labeled ‘America,’” Norma Mendoza-Denton, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, told Teen Vogue. “And in that package was endless progress, democracy and freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. And that — especially the endless progress package — has really soured.”
We’ve realized that the illusion of endless progress has come at the expense of social injustice, Mendoza-Denton pointed out. It “was built, literally, on the backs of the working poor and minorities and the degradation of the environment...the destruction and complete stomping on everything about the world around us.”
“In English, beginning a phrase with a negative strengthens the sentiment or ideological notion being expressed,” Klein said. “The phrase also reflects recent discourses about destigmatizing mental health issues and publicly sharing one's vulnerabilities.” “It’s okay not to be okay,” has been used in several suicide-prevention initiatives. At least one U.K.-based freelance journalist, Evie Muir, whose writing focuses on gender, racial, and wider social issues, takes umbrage: “Those of us with serious mental health issues have been told ‘it’s okay to not be okay’ for years,” she wrote earlier this year. “For how long are we expected to be content in our suffering?”
It feels like we’ve reached a collective acceptance that the jig is up. No one is okay, and that’s not okay. But what are we to do about it? What’s next?
“I think the millennial generation has been on the receiving end of the downturn of this American dream, and the realization that things can't be the way that we were told they would be,” said Mendoza-Denton. “[The realization] that democracy is an illusion, and not only is it an illusion but our society can easily give rise to a despot, a megalomaniac kind of person at its head, and people will still vote for that,” she continued. “So that realization politically, environmentally… the realization that our world may be screwed up beyond all recovery…. And socially, that the gains that we have achieved have been achieved through injustice, and if you're lucky enough to be on the side of the not so oppressed, then that means you have benefitted from that injustice. I think all of these realizations are heavy realizations for millennials.”
Mendoza-Denton said she’s hopeful that Gen Z is “able to perceive this impasse and stop tolerating the intolerable.” She referenced KC Green’s ubiquitous 2013 webcomic: the “This is fine” dog, who sits at a table while the house around him goes up in flames. “That is just the meme that captures this entire situation,” she said. “That’s the impasse. You're sort of holding out, having been told that this is fine. The house is on fire and you're just going to sit there and have a coffee until you melt.”
Fresh horrors await us with every refresh of the page and it is not okay that we are all expected to just plod along, waiting for the next crisis. But there is power in the repeated, collective callout of the status quo.
At the conclusion of Darcie Wilder’s novel, Literally Show Me a Healthy Person, published in 2017, the narrator says, “‘Okay’ doesn’t mean anything.” I would posit that “okay” is actually a tipping point. On the other side of “okay” is the rage that can effect change.
“I think rage is very powerful because it violates social norms normally,” Mendoza-Denton said. “People freak out when [Greta Thunberg] starts putting their feet to the fire. They've never seen a [young woman] be both angry and right at the same time in such a powerful way, in such a smart way.”
It's past time for collective action and responses that actually meet the scale of the moment, and we can’t rely on politicians alone to rise to this momentous occasion. They won’t unless we make them, so let’s try our hardest and find ways to work outside the system too. At this point, a general strike or a Green New Deal isn't radical — it's necessary. But I’m just stating the obvious, over and over again.
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