This weekend I collapsed after watching The Hunger Games.
My girlfriend caught me almost immediately, but still, right in the middle of the theater lobby, my limbs went numb and my head went dizzy, and I collapsed in the throes of an anxiety attack.
I have anxiety attacks sometimes, usually a couple times a year, usually escalating to tears and trouble breathing and fully body paralysis in the span of minutes, usually in response to a specific, personal, and immediate stressor- missing the bus to a conference, or that one time I forgot to turn in a form and almost lost $5,000 of funding for my student organization. But this was different. It was a slow build; I started subtly shaking during the first few scenes of the film. More importantly, there was no specific, personal, or urgent stressor. In fact as far as I was (consciously) concerned, I was having a lovely carefree Saturday and thoroughly enjoying the movie.
So what exactly was it that triggered this peculiar experience? Did I have…. a social justice anxiety attack? As an environmentalist by activist and academic training, I’ve heard of “eco-anxiety” : overwhelming and daily-life-impairing feelings of anxiety, despair, fear, and anger about global environmental destruction. If that’s a thing, then I suppose having similar feelings around the issues central to The Hunger Games- economic and racial oppression, unfettered capitalism, state sanctioned violence, the use of power to squash dissent and keep those who might challenge the status quo silent, scared, and isolated from each other. But this is a movie. It is a fictional movie about a dystopian society that is terrifying and tragic, but shouldn’t affect me so strongly because it simply isn’t real.
Except for that it is. Except for how in the crowd of District 12 residents I saw the workers of Appalachia, residents of a region that the U.S. might as well declare to be a national energy sacrifice zone, people whose poisoned water and stillbirths and stolen land we have written off as necessary. I saw the old black man in District 11 gunned down for raising a sign of resistance, and knew that is real shit that really happens in this world. I saw the intentional separation of the individuals flames of revolution igniting in each District, and thought of the organizers I know in DC who have to constantly break down the walls governments put between them, and the groups of oppressed students at Wellesley College doing all they can to defy top-down politics intended to pit them against each other.
Except for how I seem to be incapable of engaging in a Willful Suspension of Belief. I see the reality behind every book and movie. Each time I read a new report about police brutality or SNAP cuts or whatever I feel the full force of the pain like it’s something new. I literally grind my teeth at night thinking about the magnanimity of the injustice in this world, thinking about the passion of everyone working to dismantle it, and worrying about who will win the tug of war in my lifetime and in the next. And I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing for me and the movements I’m a part of; I don’t know if it’s a helpful tool in my pocket or a dangerous character flaw, or some tragic combination of the two.
Is there such a thing as being too emotionally invested in social justice?