But soon photos were spreading over social media, captioned with heart eye emojis and prayer hands: The seniors had transformed the bathroom into a shrine of positivity.
I went in the morning, with a friend before the first period, to see it myself. Erected artfully on the gray tile, over the Windexed mirrors — a huge grid, square after square of Sticky notes, plastered all over in green and pink and purple. They were stuck there firmly, with purpose, scrawled in Sharpie and hearts and smiling faces, boldly pronouncing, “You are beautiful,” “Remember that you’re appreciated” and “Smile, don’t stress!”
“Look,” murmured my friend, her finger tracing the outline of the beautifully calligraphed note as she read from it. “Everything’s going to be OK.”
But when I glanced at her I knew she didn’t believe her own words either, not when Russia had invaded Ukraine, people were falling below poverty lines and kneeling before graves.
Will it be? I wanted to say to her, but I didn’t; I didn’t want to be pessimistic, and neither did she, and the question hung thickly between us, unaddressed. When we arrived in class the disillusion vanished, or at least receded temporarily, drowned in the stress of projects, grades, maintaining social lives, homework and due dates, formulas and parabolas that stretched to infinity, bound to nowhere.
Martin Seligman, considered one of the founding fathers of psychology, argued that anybody could cultivate a positive perspective on life. He coined this “learned optimism.” The benefits of mastering this, of course, were vastly advantageous: higher motivation levels, longer life spans,and better mental health.
Anyone, claimed Seligman, could learn how to be positive by following the ABCDE model. In fact, it’s a coping method humans use almost subconsciously in their daily lives. For example, say that a friend doesn’t follow up with lunch plans. This may catalyze a torrent of irrational anxieties: Do they not like me? What have I done wrong?
But if we ceased to learn helplessness — limiting negative self-talk or giving up when you believe nothing you do will ever make a difference — even the most pessimistic of people could be trained to challenge negative thoughts.
Programming fears away sounded like a brilliant idea to me. The only problem was, how?
As soon as Gen Z grew into young adults, their childhood boogeymen — the Freddy Kreuger’s of their youth — morphed into scarier modern fears: war, climate change, racial inequality, gun violence and financial instability. Kids my age — and increasingly younger demographics now — are victims of this endlessly shape-shifting monster. The beast brings panic and uncertainty that’s both ambiguous to describe, but distressingly concrete in our daily lives.
I wonder when exactly I, along with the majority of Gen Z, acknowledged our fall into a dull, anesthetized stage. Moving from one armageddon to the next, we’re shocked, but not entirely surprised. We aren’t sure when the alarms began blaring — they still are. But it’s all a numbing drone now.
Throughout this, we are told constantly to persevere. Persevere, even when Omicron surged and the possibility of returning to quarantine a second time wearied us in a way nothing else could. We’re almost there, we are reminded. It could be worse. At least we’re living in America.
Where does the model of optimism come from? In history, maybe. I look back at the ancestry of this nation and I think of resilience, I think of the American Dream. Perhaps it started in the eyes of those immigrants, flocking to eastern shores and hoping for a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.
Upon interpreting the works of Alexander de Tocqueville, a French observer of the United States in the 19th century, Irish philosopher Charles Handy wrote: “Anyone visiting America from Europe cannot fail to be struck by the energy, enthusiasm, and confidence in their country’s future that he or she will meet among ordinary Americans….Most Americans seem to believe that the future can be better and that they are responsible for doing their best to make it that way.”
But what is the future? the cynicism of Gen Z cries out, defiant. These sentiments feel like beautiful antiquity, an outdated ideal of confidence that eludes us. Freedom feels like a slap in the face now, when high school protestors proudly flaunt mask choice.
All around us, we witness freedom, the love of the word, twisted into a fight for selfish and privileged liberties. The world is crumbling around you, and, by the way, you’re also unpatriotic. You’re just young and soft and naive. But you also want to help, heal — even if it comes from a wildly simplified infographic from behind a screen.
Gen Z has a peculiar relationship with social media and technology — we’re deemed true “digital natives.” We’re labeled an “influential demographic” due to this keen interest in technology, a saturation of global culture and virtual reality into everyday realities.
I’m carpooling home with a friend, and we’re mulling over social movements that were embraced with such fury, and then suddenly discarded. What’s happening with anti-Asian hate protests now? he wonders, speaking of the woman who’d been stabbed to death in New York City. He talks about how, during the pandemic, entire humanitarian crusades by our peers were carried out via Instagram infographics.
“You almost feel bad if you don’t have an opinion on literally everything,” he says.
Maybe it’s the guilt of scrolling past. Maybe it’s the inner obligation of being given a platform. We skirt around the issue of morality: how being a humanitarian has become a way of satiating some inner guilt and conflict, how a temporary post that’ll be deleted in a week is just a way of telling yourself that you’re doing the best you can to make a difference.
“Let’s manufacture a giant Band-Aid and slap it over the universe,” he continues. “Let’s send President Biden a Change.org button that’ll end institutionalized racism upon his signing.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I say. “When should we implement it?”
We smile. The talk, our listless dreaming, lessens our anxiety somewhat. In the cupholder, his phone buzzes and we both turn to look at the notification that pops up there. We stare at each for a long beat, gravity tying us heavily down, even when the light turns green and someone honks.
Kyiv had just been bombed.