Dancing to the apocalypse


It’s a typical Friday night. People stroll the squares, ignoring the frigid wind and drizzle. It’s another Friday we have fought hard for, another denouement to a week of classes that we’re happy to have survived. In a few hours people will be hitting the bars, the clubs, the concerts in force. Some people will be laughing, some people will be drunk, some people will dance, some people might actually meet somebody worth more than five minutes of their time. Almost everybody will be trying to have fun.

What we won’t admit, or try not to, is how much we’ll all still be trying to forget.

It’s been over three weeks since the towers fell and the world stopped feeling safe. There have been over three full weeks to react, reflect, reconsider. Three weeks full of rhetoric and bombast, three weeks where we saw patriotism and unity overwhelm a few Americans’ disturbing xenophobia. In the wake of the mourning and the pain is solidarity and, for many, a renewed sense of purpose.

You cannot celebrate the fruits of tragedy, but in the aftermath of one, you can still try to enjoy yourself. I’ve spent many nights “on the town” trying to entertain myself in the past three weeks. The haunts still look the same — the glassy place downtown with all the people dressed in black, purposefully aloof, the sweaty throngs in the college bars, the smoky rock venues. The music is as loud as ever, exhorting us to joy, demanding that we move.

One recent night, a club played a house remix of U2’s “Beautiful Day,” the jubilant radio hit that brought Bono and Co. back to the top of the charts. “It’s a beautiful day,” the song goes, “don’t let it get away.” But as the song played, and the bodies ground together and the hands went into the air, I couldn’t help but say to myself that no, it wasn’t.

As the drinks go down our throats, I feel like we’re all dancing into the apocalypse. There’s an attempted amnesia, an unspoken rule that says not to talk about “it,” or think about “it.” Just, as the Madonna song says, let the music set you free.

But there is no song to take me away from “it.” There is no party big enough, there is no novel absorbing enough. Going on with our lives means returning to the things we loved doing before — and in many cases, that definitely includes music and dancing and partying. But rather than feel like an escape or a way to forget, it all feels like a sick joke. It doesn’t feel right or honest to try to get lost in fiction. The shattering, terrible facts of reality loom far too large.

During other times of crisis, our popular culture — especially the fortunate youth — often responded by partying harder. Eras that saw us sink into depression and war were also marked by all-night dance contests and a panoply of upbeat radio jingles and saccharine films. The drinks still went down. The hands still went up. Perhaps, whether they knew it or not, people were trying to live that great mantra of the Jewish faith — “L’Chaim,” or, to life. To life, as it is today, regardless of circumstances and in spite of hardships. To me, it means that whether life is in turmoil or not, you try to enjoy today as much as you can.

Certainly, looking toward tomorrow seems awfully painful right now.

Perhaps that is the inevitable response, once the mourning recedes and the guilt subsides. Perhaps our culture will propagate an escapist fantasy of parties and peppy feel-goodism. That might be good for America — it might be a sign we’re finally healing.

There is value in living for the times as they are, in being able to move onward and forward. Right now, it still seems barely possible to breathe through the crippling asphyxia of anxiety. But hopefully our future will mean more than that. Hopefully it will mean a reconsideration of what we are living for, of how we will redefine our confused legacy. From today’s strife can be tomorrow’s strength; from today’s fear can come tomorrow’s resolve. This place provides an opportunity for each of us to help make tomorrow something more than just something we want to forget. It is an opportunity more important than any party or colossal paycheck.

It may well be an opportunity worth living for.

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