Emily Articulated

Existential dread

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

If my brain had a chamber that held all the existential dread I could carry about the state of the world, it would have a heavy door with a creaky spoke handle and a red blinking light. Next to it would be a mounted keypad for plunking in my password and a hastily slapped on sticky note with the words, “Are you sure you want to open this?” scratched in black marker.

If I heaved open the chamber door, the first thing I’d see would be a dark hallway illuminated by a “Vaccine Disinformation” sign, an intimidating threshold I’d tentatively — reluctantly — cross. Flashes of people’s fear would greet me, with their “anti-vaxxer” title emblemizing the turning of their backs against leading epidemiologists and medical researchers as if their medicine cabinets weren’t already filled with bottles crafted by the same scientists.

Emily Erickson.

These anti-vaxxers would be adorned with profile picture frames that read, “Stop the mandate; I stand for medical freedom,” as if they didn’t also advocate for the control and regulation of women’s reproductive organs. They’d start comparing the use of vaccination cards to Nazi mandates, like the Holocaust could be used as a piece of political red meat, or that electing to have reduced choices at restaurants is on the same plane as orchestrated genocide.

Before I’d be consumed by brash sentiments like, “What is wrong with people?” or, “Opting out of the vaccine should also be an opt out of an ICU bed,” I’d make my way to another hallway in the chamber of existential dread.

Following a tendril of smoke that grew into a thick cloud, I’d duck under a sign reading “Climate Crisis.” The smoke, a companion of devastating wildfires, would be co-mingling with excessive flooding, catastrophic dust storms, crippling heat and myriad other extreme or unprecedented weather-related events. A report by the IPCC would be blaring, “Code Red for Humanity,” formally concluding that the can we’ve been kicking down the road is rapidly approaching a dead end.

The planet’s profiteers would be glancing over the report like it was news, saying, “I guess those climate-doomsayers were right after all” — meanwhile clutching their riches in their fists. Billionaires would be rocketing out into space like they weren’t practicing their exit plan, enthusiastically waving down at the employees left propping up more sandbags against a rising tide.

Before being suffocated by anger and hopelessness, I’d continue through the chamber to the hallway labeled “Blind Patriotism.”

Upon entry, I’d be fitted for my armor — the suit of patriotism we’re expected to wear without thinking. This armor would be blown of thick glass, solid and immovable, not flexible or made with the expectation of growth or change. Questions about our systems of oppression, our acts of injustice or our failed attempts at nation-building would be met with the firm response of, “If you don’t like it, you can leave,” like the people calling for improvement have any less claim on being American than those happy in their suits of glass.

Concepts like equality, reparations, reform and justice would be stones — perceived as weapons by those wearing fragile armor, vehemently denying that the fundamentals of democracy wouldn’t be better crafted in malleable clay.

Nearing toxic levels of exposure to my own anxiety and frustration, I’d be forced to leave the chamber. Upon heaving the door closed and temporarily locking away my existential dread, I’d regain control over my breathing.

In a painstaking process of reflection and reclamation of empathy, I’d be reminded that creating art, committing acts of kindness, seeing live music, and having heart-to-heart conversations with friends and strangers is the remedy to seeing our world as painted in black and white.

In the catharsis of putting words to paper, and sharing the depths of my fear, anger and existential dread with a community I love, I’d find comfort in the fact that there’s an outside to those feelings — a place in which humanity is complex and where people are nuanced. And that, for better or worse, we are all in this together.

Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.

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