Searching For A New Kind Of Optimism

Listening to punk rock in the dark and trying to find a place for hope in 2017

It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.

—Zora Neale Hurston

My friends and I were wrong about a whole lot of things in 2016, and I imagine you and your friends were, too, if the concert of all our cages rattling in unison in our respective corners of the internet is any indication. I was once content with being wrong about the big things, as long as I could cloak myself in hope for something better. But at the end of a year in which I was wrong about almost everything, nothing about that felt worthy of praise, so I opted for silence. A few days before Christmas, I drove to Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the very tip of Cape Cod. A beach town consumed by tourists in the summer months, it is largely silent in the winter. You might see a few committed locals, a handful of artists, a small mass of people shifting from bar to bar and tripping down Commercial Street, swaying and drunkenly singing into the calm. It gets dark early there, on the very northeastern edge of the country. On the day I arrived, it was the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. At 4 p.m., it was pitch black. There's a particular kind of darkness that hangs over a space that’s surrounded by nothing but an ocean — a vast, swallowing darkness. It's the kind that makes the memory of light seem hopeless, impossible.

In a Cape Cod record store two days before Christmas, I picked up a copy of the 1977 Richard Hell and the Voidoids album Blank Generation. Richard Hell holds open a leather jacket on the album cover, the words “YOU MAKE ME ________” scrawled across his chest. I thought about the old Lester Bangs profile, from shortly after this album came out, in which Hell prattled on about how much he wanted to die. Later, rereading that profile, I found that Hell wasn’t searching for death as much as he was looking for a way to halt feeling entirely. I find myself personally far removed from such longing, and I also find it worth pointing out that Hell is still alive in 2017. In his more recent writings, he seems resigned to the wisdom that can come with age. So does Pete Townshend, long after he hoped to die before he got old. But even if I don’t long for destruction the way these men once did, I understand how it feels to desire that kind of longing.

All emotion, when performed genuinely and facing an audience, can be currency. Sadness and fear are, perhaps, the two biggest bills in the billfold, and what was haunting about both Townshend and Hell in their youth is that their death wishes seemed believable. They didn’t sound like friends of mine joking on social media about wanting an asteroid to take us all out; theirs wasn't a hope for human extinction, just the extinction of the self, the feelings that come with having to exist in uncertain times. There is plenty of rock optimism to counter this, of course, from Bruce Springsteen’s insistence on overcoming through labor to Tom Petty’s slick nostalgia as a survival tool. But when you grow up with punks, the kind of kids who listened to Richard Hell records and then found more like that, it’s easy to feel some distance from the kind of optimism that we’re taught to lean into during difficult times. Even now, I’m not as invested in things getting better as I am in things getting honest. The week of Christmas, I drove alone into the dark, and I did that, in part, knowing that the dark was going to be there when I arrived, knowing that it would still be my work to find something small and hopeful within.

My friends say that I’ve gotten too cynical, and I suspect this might be true, judging by how quickly many people get exhausted when talking to me about the future. I am working on it, truly. A therapist tells me to challenge my “inner cynic,” but when I do, I simply find another inner cynic behind that one. I am, it turns out, a nesting doll of cynics. There is no evidence to suggest that humans are going to become any more kind this year, or more empathetic, or more loving toward each other. If anything, with our constant exposure to all of one another’s most intense moments, the bar for what we seem prepared to tolerate gets lower with every second we spend screaming into each other’s open windows. Yes, without question, 2016 was a year that dragged on more heavily than most before it. It felt exhausting, and like it would never end. But all past logic was pulling us toward that breaking point: a year that finally pushed us to the edge. And all logic in this moment points to another year that might not feel quite as long but will surely be just as trying.

I have been thinking, then, about the value of optimism while cities burn, while people are fearing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, while discourse is reduced to laughing through a chorus of anxiety. A woman in a Cape Cod diner the day after Christmas saw me eyeing the news and shaking my head. She told me that “things will get better,” and I wasn’t sure they would, but I nodded and said, “They surely can’t get any worse,” which is the lie that we all tell, the one that we want to believe, even as there are jaws opening before us.

I’m not sold on pessimism as the new optimism. I need something that allows us to hope for something greater while confronting the mess of whatever all this blind hopefulness has driven us to. America is not what people thought it was before, even for those of us who already knew its many flaws. What good is endless hope in a country that never runs out of ways to drain you of it? What does it mean to claim that a president is not your own as he pushes the lives of those you love closer to the brink? What is it to avoid acknowledging the target but still come, ready, to the resistance?

The greatest song on Blank Generation is the title track, on which Richard Hell shouts, “It’s such a gamble / When you get a face.” I laughed when I heard that line in an empty room in the seeming always-darkness of the Cape in winter. In 2016, the gamble returned not only a bad face, but a hall full of mirrors turned on the faces of everyone who avoided looking deeply into those mirrors in past years in the name of hope.

The day before leaving the Cape, I ran into a man I had been seeing in the streets since the day I arrived. He was often drunk but very kind. He stopped me on my run and asked if he could make a call on my phone. I didn’t have it with me, and I muttered out an awkward response, littered with too much information about not carrying it while I ran. From the open door of a coffee shop, more news about Donald Trump blared from the television, flooding out into the street where we were standing. The man looked past me to the beach, drenched in gray and threatening clouds. “We’re all going to die,” he said. Then he was gone.

We are all going to die. That’s true, though I hope I get a few more trips on this sometimes wretched ride. I have tasted enough of its highs to know that they’re worth sticking around for, though not worth worshiping as a sole survival tool in the face of its lows. I’ve abandoned hopeless hope, but I am not rooting for the meteor. I’m still rooting for us, my people and their people and their people beyond that. I’m rooting for us to clean off the dusty mirror and look at the bad bet staring back. This is me challenging my inner cynic the best way I know how — taking a few lazy swings and seeing if I can tire him out in time to get back to whatever the real work may be this time. It is another new year, and most of my pals made it to the other side with me. Some of us called each other and heard each other’s voices. Some sent blurry pictures, drowning in fluorescent light. Some of us made sure that those who weren’t alone knew that they weren’t alone.

I have started other years at funerals, in hospital rooms, in studio apartments with my phone off entirely. So in spite of the newest realities that we must confront and stay uncomfortable with, I’m hoping that I get to stick around for a while. I am hoping, mostly, that we all get better at wishing on the things we need, even in darkness.