Samantha Irby, author, comedian, and screenwriter, has a new collection of essays titled “Wow, No Thank You,” to be published in March. For those uninitiated with the work of this midwesterner blogger-turned-author, then oofta, are you in for a treat. On her site Bitches Gotta Eat, Irby frequently writes about the pressing issues and absolute horrors of our daily lives. You know the ones: weight, age, chronic illness, shopping at Trader Joe’s, peeing your pants, sex life, race, carb-heavy recipes, and the general anxiety and despair of just being alive in this beautiful world today.
For me, no one quite gets to the core of low-anthro as well as Irby. Just this week, The New Yorker published an excerpt, entitled “Hello, 911?”, from her forthcoming book. In the essay, Sam shares reasons, from mundane to bizarre, for which she feels totally helpless and in need of help. Some goods ones —
Hello, 911? I’ve been lying awake for an hour each night for the past eight months, reliving a two-second awkward experience I had in front of a casual acquaintance three years ago.
|Samantha Irby (c) E. Jason Wambsgans
Hello, 911? Which line is moving faster, the one I’m in or that other line, and do you think I should switch? Does it matter? It’s not like I have anywhere to be, but just standing here makes me feel like my organs are going to burst out of my skin. I can’t prove it, but I think this line is moving incrementally slower. Why does that make me feel like I’m losing a race? Should I just stay where I am, or do you think it’s O.K. if I ease over to Lane 8 in a way that silently telegraphs to the checkout girl, “I’m not mad, just having an inexplicable panic attack, please ignore me”? If I move to that other line, will the Target gods smite me by throwing a clearance-rack shirt with a missing price tag into that lady’s cart? Why did I even come here?
What Irby is getting at here, especially in the dread associated with something as mundane as the Target line, seems to fall into what theologian Charles Taylor calls the “spectre of meaninglessness.” In How (Not) to Be Secular, author James K. A. Smith says that Taylor’s “spectre of meaninglessness” “is, in a sense, a dispatch from fullness. And because this won’t go away, but rather keeps pressing and pulling, it generates an ‘unease’ and ‘restlessness.’” As Irby says, she has no need to rush, so what’s causing this visceral reaction and inexplicable panic attack?
If you didn’t fully catch onto the anxiety and despair with an equal dose of unease and restlessness, then try this bit of fun on for size —
Hello, 911? It’s eleven-thirty at night and I’ve got an important meeting (LOL) tomorrow morning at nine-thirty. I set my alarm for eight. That should give me plenty of time, right? Google Maps says it’s probably going to take seventeen minutes to get there from my hotel, barring any major traffic, but what if the Lyft driver is late? Alternatively, what if the doorman can’t find a cab? I’m planning to go down at nine. Does that leave enough time for me to get eggs from room service? But they run late sometimes, right? Should I risk it? It’s midnight now and I think I’ll be hungry in the morning, but what if I’m not? Then I’m stuck waiting for eggs I don’t want. Maybe I should set my alarm for eight-thirty. I definitely want to sleep off this Xanax, but does that give me enough time to take an actual crevice-cleaning, hair-washing shower? Should I be honest about who I really am as a person and factor in twenty minutes of bedside-sitting-and-staring-into-space time? It’s twelve-thirty, but to be safe I’m going to set the alarm for seven-thirty. Should I attempt to impress these people with eye makeup, or do they not care because they are serious businesspersons? Let me just go ahead and set my phone for 6:55, so I have plenty of time to contour and blend (i.e., totally f*** it up and wipe it all off while crying). Since I’m up, it wouldn’t hurt to iron my pants, just in case I can’t hide my legs under a table. Why does everyone want to “meet” on couches these days? An electric chair would be more relaxing. Wait a minute—it’s already one o’clock?!
Smith writes that “tedium and ennui are demons of modernity.” Wasted hours before bed languishing over what time to get up; accounting for my desire to just sit and do nothing; critiquing my ability to impress others with my makeup — all of this certainly feels a bit too close for comfort. These demons, and their cousins, boredom and comparison, seem to be in need of my constant attention, and maybe yours, too.
Hello, 911? My brain is a prison, and anxiety is the warden. I am besieged by an undeniable urge to peel off my skin like the layers of an onion until death claims me and I find relief in its cool embrace, and I know it took me a long time to finally call and I’m not a hundred per cent sure that this qualifies as an emergency, but I think I’ve reached my limit and I might need some help.
Yikes. If you too feel like you’re at your limit and might need some help, you’re certainly not alone. While I generally don’t count myself as an “anxious person,” the morbid desire to just peel off my skinsuit, layer by layer, like a human-Shrek-ogre-onion-mutant, until I stop existing isn’t unknown to me.
Smith continues, “The upshot will be that Christianity can provide a better way to account for this — not necessarily a way to quell it so we can all live in the happily ever after, but a way to name it and be honest about this dis-ease.”
In their song “Tell The Truth,” the Avett Brothers sing, “Tell the truth to yourself and the rest will fall in place,” echoing many of the beliefs taught in AA: the first step to admitting we have a problem is simply naming that problem. When beholding the ugly truth of our diagnoses, we realize we have yet to solve our problems with our own power. Miraculously, as the Big Book teaches, the second step is to believe in a power greater than ourselves who can restore us to sanity.
Alternatively, the Good Book teaches that we can find sanity through the God who came down to Earth as the man Jesus, in a human skin-suit, to live with us in this messy tedium of time and space. More-so, we believe God is here with us now, in this “spectre of meaninglessness.” We are loved in our deepest moments of angst and anxiety, whether that’s in line at Target, or wide-awake in bed wrestling the demons of tedium and ennui.
Our need for help, the desire to be restored to sanity, doesn’t separate us from God, but draws him nearer to us. Emmanuel, “God with us” — the only one who can love us fully while we fumble through life, emergency to emergency. When we are stripped down to our naked and exposed selves (perhaps while sitting on our beds in a towel, post-shower, just staring off into the abyss, wishing to be anywhere or anyone else) we are met with the ugly truth — we are in no position to save ourselves. In those moments of crisis, we can get down on our knees and say:
Hello, Lord? Have mercy upon us.