Death, pain, anger, the worst in people, and the lowest in people — stack them on our heads like bricks and call it hopelessness. This year was bad. It told us things we don’t like to hear, much less know: that people can be mean, broken, afraid, stubborn, cowardly, violent, and wrong, that these things shape our society and our souls as much as all the good things and sometimes more. 2016 beat up our souls and kicked them in a ditch.
And right now, as we approach a new year, our job is to stagger out of that ditch and find a way to convalesce. Celebration is very nearly out of the question, unless we’re just “celebrating life,” which tends to be shorthand for mixing up way too many kinds of liquor and blacking out in the hallway and crawling into 2017 wishing we had the energy to vomit.
My recovery strategy is the same as always: watching The Twilight Zone until I forget what year it is. I’ve always loved the show because Rod Serling was a writer of alarming lucidity, who always said exactly what he meant and believed, without clutter. But it wasn’t until I started watching it again after the election that I realized how prescient the show’s worldview really was, and how useful its lessons could be. It’s cold water in the face, a reminder that we’ve been here before, that nothing is new.
Here was a show that was written at a time when the whole world was under tangible threat of annihilation from nuclear bombs, when we were actively using them. Serling’s work never buckled under the dread. He never surrendered outright to nihilism when that would have been easy and cathartic; instead, he displayed a hard-bitten humanism that acknowledged people were capable of boundless cruelty, that finding the good in people and believing in the mercy of the world and the prospect of equality is a task that will push you to the bitter limits of your spiritual reserves. It’s a message that’s needed now. We need to remember it’s never easy.
Consider “Dust,” possibly the show’s best morality play, an episode that bottles every emotion I’ve felt over the train wreck of 2016. It’s set in a small, desolate frontier town that never stood a chance of gaining a foothold against the desert. In the episode, Serling says the place suffered from “a virus shared by its people. It was the germ of squalor, of hopelessness, of a loss of faith,” as we see three men testing a noose to prepare a hanging. Then he says that when we don’t believe in anything and have no hope, we begin to destroy ourselves.
Tumbleweeds blow through the empty streets and a penitent prisoner, a Hispanic man, an outsider in this white town, clutches the bars of his jail cell. A traveling salesman, a huckster with an evil, ugly laugh, approaches him to inform him he’ll die that day, and he’ll deserve to, because he killed a girl.
We meet the sheriff, an exhausted man with eyes full of sorrow. We see the funeral procession for the girl. We see the huckster offer his condolences to the parents by saying justice will be served soon, and we know revenge is justice to him.
The prisoner’s father approaches the parents and begs them for mercy, but they ignore him. He tells the townspeople that his son loves children and someone throws a rock at him. Finally, the sheriff tells him to go home.
Then the father breaks down and tells the sheriff his son was drunk and accidentally killed the girl with his wagon. “You never felt such misery rising in you, that salvation seemed to look at you from only out of a bottle? … He had a sadness deep inside. Sadness that there was not enough to eat. Sadness that he had no work. Sadness that the earth all around him was growing barren in the sun. He did not see the little girl.”
All the huckster sees is a mark. He offers to sell the father “magic dust,” which is just dirt from the road, “that turns hate into love.” And he laughs the laugh of a man who is preying on weakness and glorying in it.
Later, the sheriff talks with the prisoner as the hanging nears. “When was it God made people? Was it the sixth day? He should have stopped on the fifth.” The prisoner replies, “They’re tired of hating this place. … They must go out and find something else to hate.”
Then the hanging. The townspeople have gathered. They want to watch a man die. And the prisoner’s father runs to the huckster with 100 pesos, gathered from friends who sold wagons and horses and took out loans, and runs toward the gallows with his bag of dirt.
He goes to the crowd and flings the dirt through the air. He chokes back tears as he yells that they “must stop all of this and pay heed to the magic! Magic for compassion! As you yourselves, you once used to be.” And he collapses, having squandered all the energy he had left. Then the gallows swing, but the rope breaks. And his son lives, not by compassion but on dumb luck. The parents of the girl see the pain of the prisoner and the pain of his father and decide everyone has suffered enough. There was no magic, but they’ve done something they hadn’t done before: examined the consequences of an eye for an eye and found mercy.
It’s fitting that the show takes place in the old West. Westerns were at the time America’s most popular vehicle for stories of black-and-white morality, heroes and villains, killing without consequence, law that was unerring, a society that could not fail. And what Serling did with this story is unflinchingly, without sentimentality, shout from behind the screen at you that there is no black and white and that the quest for peace, the quest for compassion, the quest to beat hopelessness, is a desperate one, full of blinding sorrow.
As we head into the New Year, the spiritual lesson is that life is a daily struggle and a lonely one, filled with daily heartbreak, and our progress is measured in small and narrow victories. We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it could be. And if there’s a way to get out of bed in the morning in 2017, we have to see the real sky, not our idealization of it, bluer than the real thing. Rod Serling is helping me remember that right now. And Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, by Richard Yates, is helping me accept it.
“And where are the windows? Where does the light come in? Bernie, old friend, forgive me, but I haven’t got the answer to that one. I’m not even sure if there are any windows in this particular house. Maybe the light is just going to have to come in as best it can, through whatever chinks and cracks have been left in the builder’s faulty craftsmanship, and if that’s the case you can be sure that nobody feels worse about it than I do. God knows, Bernie; God knows there certainly ought to be a window around here somewhere, for all of us.”