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The Day the World Trauma Dumped on Elmo

The Day the World Trauma Dumped on Elmo

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Every once in a while, there’s a chink of light parting the clouds of the hellscape known as the 2020s. Just such a moment happened yesterday. Innocently, Elmo—that’s right, the Sesame Street character, or at least his Twitter account—asked: how’s everyone doing.

A flood roared to life. The internet convulsed. Thousands upon thousands of replies poured in. It was that rarest of things in times like these—a genuine moment of poignant, touching hilarity. A bittersweet one.

Most people told Elmo that, well, times were awful, and they felt pretty bad. Poor Elmo. In response, much to their credit, Sesame Street then shared mental health links with everyone.

Why am I even talking about this little moment? There’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. It sums up our age neatly—the surreality of it, the dystopia, and the taboos, too. A finer cultural commentary could hardly be had. Why do I say that?

Welcome to the age of trauma dumping. What are we all doing out there, on the barren wilds of the internet, lately, anyways? We “doomscroll,” which is to say, we look at the headlines. They fill us with the characteristic emotions of now: dread, fear, hopelessness, a kind of numb terror. Traumatized by the relentless bleakness, the never-ending gusher of bad news, which seems to bubble up from the shadowy center of the earth itself, what are we to…

Do with it all?

So we’ve begun to trauma dump. My kid sis—God bless her—pointed this out to me not so long ago. I’m guilty of it, with her. One day, she said to me, you’re trauma dumping on me, laughing. She’s made of tougher stuff than me. Me? I’d been talking about climate, the economy, politics—does it really matter, though, when the smorgasbord of dystopia is so broad?

What are we to do with it all? We…trauma dump. Because we’re traumatized.

I’ve discussed that in many ways. I call perhaps the foremost macro trend of this age “The Modern Crisis of Being.” It’s summed up in what I call the most important chart of the 21st century—remember it? It shows happiness flatlining and or falling, while unhappiness, in all its components, explodes upwards. That’s now a long run effect, and that distinction matters. Taking place over well more than a decade now, the explosion in human unhappiness is now approaching two solid decades of startling rises.

And by now?

Emotions aren’t linear. After a certain amount of unhappiness—and that’s far too broad a term, so let’s define it a little more finely—fear, dread, hopelessness, what happens? One begins to suffer the psychosocial equivalent of what economists call “scarring.” In other words, wounds form. It takes it’s toll on relationships, on the psyche, on will, on all the fundamental aspects of well-being, this constant, unrelenting storm. Not just of “bad news,” but of…

What, exactly?

We’re in a dire, dire age. Let’s go back to Elmo. What made this moment not just so funny, but so genuine? So touching, in that bittersweet, surreal way? It’s that finally, the taboo shattered.

You see, we’re not supposed to say it out loud. Things are awful, and they’re breaking me. They’re cracking my brain apart. My mind hurts. My heart is breaking. With the sheer grim horror of it all.

And it is horrible. Democracy, as I often point, is now not just declining, but imploding, at the rate of 10% a decade. That’s from a current level of 20%. That gives us two to three decades before we’re in democracy’s twilight, historically. Horror? Forget horror movies—we’re living in one. What happens…then? Is it…1984…by way of the Handmaid’s Tale? Are we back to shades of the Weimar Republic, crossed with the fall of Rome? History can only provide us blurry outlines of distant memories. Memories of folly, ruin, self-destruction.

This is the sort of age we’re in.

And most of us know it. At least those of us who are sane and thoughtful people. Yet we’re subjected to a series of maddening rituals, which have come to inhabit the place we once used to call a thriving culture and civil society. Open a newspaper, and you’re forced to read “two sides.” As if there’s some sort of sane argument to be made against democracy, or for authoritarianism. There’s some pundit, no-big-dealing…the planet on fire. What on earth?

That’s the first set of the maddening ritual. The second stage, though, is even worse, and I mean that in every sense, socially, culturally, individually. We’re not supposed to talk about it in adult, mature ways—especially in the context of our leaders. Our leaders are out there telling us things are…great! Fantastic! Excellent! Nothing to worry about here, folks! What are you people so worried about?

The average American now needs about $11K more just to afford the basics than they did just a few short years ago. The economy, our leaders say, is “booming.” Meanwhile, the actual statistics are incredibly dire—from not being able to make ends meet, to debt soaring off the charts, to a sense of fatalism and defeat and hopelessness.

What are you people so worried about?

The second stage of the ritual is that our leaders almost seemingly peformatively ignore the problems of this age—the Great Existential Threats which are now visibly laying waste to a little thing called “human civilization”—and we’re supposed to go along with this dance. This…tango of ruin. Have you heard of a folie a deux? It’s an actual thing, a shared madness between two people, collective delusion. We’re supposed to play along with a folie du monde.

We’re all supposed to politely advance the fiction, and be part of the collective delusion, that everything’s fine, great, excellent, nothing to worry about here, folks. Hence, all the trauma builds up…that we need to eventually dump. After we grit our teeth and staring our backs collectively to repress it, that is.

What do you call all that? What happens when your trauma isn’t even acknowledged, but brushed under the rug, swept aside, hidden, erased? That’s a form of dehumanization. It’s a message, loud and clear, that you don’t matter—not in any real way, not as a human being, just as a consumer, producer, a dollar sign, a wallet, a resource to be exploited and extracted.

That’s why the world poured its broken heart to…Elmo. There was nobody else left we could tell. Not in any leadership position, anyways. Not any figure in power, really, who the average person could say: “I am hurting, because things are awful. I am losing hope, and I feel powerless.” Presidents, Prime Ministers, Senators, Congressmen and women. All busy projecting this ridiculous illusion of confidence in a broken everything. And so only Elmo was left. That’s what made this moment so genuine, raw, real.

What are we doing as we experience all this trauma, the hurt of a shattered age? We regress, even if we try not to. Infantile regression is the mind’s most elemental and basic defense mechanism against such constant threat—the feeling of a world, a moral universe, a social order, in which nothing and nobody is safe, sacred, or even worth a damn anymore. In which lies trump truth, aggression and domination win, hate snarls, and spite curdles on so many lips.

Infantile regression. It’s what’s behind today’s epidemic of demagoguery—lost souls, regressed back to helpless, childlike states, seeking strength, security, and protection, in the arms of strongmen. But it’s also why, funnily, sadly, we turned to…Elmo…in the depths of our…existential despair. If you’re feeling that bad, who better to pour your heart out to than…a gentle, friendly kids’ puppet? But we’re all adults—and that’s what made the moment so bleakly funny.

All this, in other words, is part and parcel of the many, many ways in which our world is going wrong. Nobody’s listening. The world is burning, but it feels like there are no adults in the room. Hey, everything’s on fire, we shout. Is anybody there? Anyone? Look, there’s…Elmo. Maybe we can tell him. He can’t do much, but at least he’ll do something so, so many others won’t. Listen.

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