For Writers Feeling Helpless in the Darkness

2022.05.25 - Darkness post

No antonym exists for the word terrorist. I checked. I tried to invent one, to give name to what I’ve seen people do. But nothing sounded right.

I dissected the word: terror, a feeling; -ist, one who creates it. There’s also the implicit scale of a terrorist’s acts—huge, exploding, newsworthy.

I keep thinking about what Jonathan Larson wrote in Rent, that “the opposite of war isn’t peace . . . it’s creation.”

There must be an opposite of terrorism. I’ve felt it. There must be an opposite of terrorists. I’ve seen them. I’ve seen people I’ll call “joyists,” like the hip-hop group Run the Jewels, who made an album called Meow the Jewels, with their songs remixed with cat sounds and renamed with cat puns. They wrapped the album in a fur record cover and sold it to raise money for charity.

I used to think you were either a terrorist or not a terrorist, and that to not be a terrorist was enough. But I’ve been shown a third option. The opposite of terrorism is the best way I can describe what artists do. Instead of one antonym for terrorist, there are a thousand: wonderist, gratitudist, curiositist, lovist.

What emotion do you want to manufacture?

The more I’m exposed to art, the more radicalized I become.

When I receive an Ashley C. Ford communiqué that helps me feel as if everything is going to be OK. When Radiohead permeates every cell of a crowd with beats and light and makes it feel as if nothing else matters but that feeling. When Lin- Manuel Miranda makes a proclamation to the 8.7 million people watching the Tony Awards that “love is love is love,” and I see it written inside a bathroom stall a week later.

I want to make awe and glee. I want to remind people (especially those wondering whether being not alive would be better than being alive) that even though life can be shockingly terrible, it’s also shockingly, mind-blowingly wondrous. And who am I kidding? I need the reminder too. Let’s not forget we live in outer space with narwhals and northern lights and lava and bioluminescent plankton and the giggles of children we love. Your body is 99.9999999 percent empty space. How incredible that literature exists, floating right here with us.

Why do we keep forgetting?

Because there are also murderers in schools and climate change and human trafficking. At the same time I’m planning to light up a room with a karaoke party next year, someone else is planning to light up a room with an AR-15.

That force will always, always be working. Which is why I work in this force. Sometimes I work in the inspiration division, and sometimes I go over to the catharsis squad. I don’t make that much of a difference by myself, but look at all the people working alongside me. We make the empathy machines, laughter, and movies in people’s minds.

Does it feel as if the bad guys are winning? Yes, all the time. Perhaps we are just the musicians playing as the ship sinks. Even if we are, I’ll take it.

All I know is that when I hear that again, somewhere, we’ve blown each other up, we’ve ripped each other  apart, labeled each other and made each other bleed for those labels, I think, What is the opposite of this, and how do I make myself a part of it?

A version of this excerpt originally appeared in Welcome to the Writer’s Life.

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