By The Reverend Christopher West
Time to catch up on Netflix recommendations has been a tremendous gift, even though it has been afforded to us by difficult circumstances. One of the most important gifts we can give ourselves during this period of collective trauma (namely: the Covid-19 pandemic) is time – time to rest, recuperate, and enjoy the things we love to see and hear and do. So many voices, especially on social media, trying to capitalise on this trauma have left many feeling vulnerable, and so many news reports and statistics moving across our screens have left many fatigued. Fear, uncertainty, and despair are some of the prevailing emotions of our day, as the world seems to change a little – or, indeed, a lot – more with each news bulletin.
So, it was with a great sense of relief that I found the comedy-drama, I Am Not Okay with This, on Netflix. It is based on Charles Forsman’s comic book with the same name, and it follows a teenager as she comes to terms with her newfound telekinetic powers. What emerges is a beautiful piece of satire that most people, especially under the current circumstances, will resonate with. Watching the series provided something of an escape and a challenge all at once – an escape in that I was absorbed in the central characters, distracted from the various voices in the world around me, and a challenge in that it deals with the gritty realities associated with trauma with wit and grace.
To say that life for the main character of the series, Sydney, is difficult would be an understatement. Her fears are widespread, unrelenting, and instantly relatable; her anxieties are concern her own identity, her relationships, and her circumstances. Although her struggles are due, at least in part, to ongoing family troubles (her mother’s coldness towards her, especially following her father’s tragic death), difficult relationships (confusing crushes, and unstable friendships), and identity struggles (both in the human and superhuman senses), a major strength of the series is that her feelings are never rationalised or explained; they are simply described, without judgement or justification. We all struggle, this implies, and nice, neat explanations or trite clichés simply will not do – and certainly not when faced with trauma.
As Sydney demonstrates, our fears and anxieties take many forms; they are experienced and expressed in many ways, both in the public and personal sphere. A psychologist friend of mine, who is also an Anglican priest, recently quipped that Sydney’s reactions in the series mirror the three responses, broadly speaking, we might offer to any trauma. The first response involves abandoning our former approaches in their entirety, and it is usually accompanied by the insistence that only new ways will help us move forward. By way of analogy, Sydney’s friend, Stanley, maintains that she must abandon what she knows, as he clumsily tries to help her navigate her newfound supernatural abilities; instead, he argues, comic book heroes will provide her with the wise counsel she needs to cope with her strange capabilities. Stanley’s suggestions are met with a curt dismissal from Sydney, leaving him bereft and humiliated.
The second approach involves the suspicion of new ideas, and it is often combined with the conviction that older methods alone will provide the answers we need. In the series, Sydney is quick to reject Stanley’s efforts to help. She thinks that investigating her father’s death will provide her with the answers she requires. Sydney plucks up the courage to look in the basement – a room she has not entered since her father’s death. She finds her father’s belongings there, and – after an emotionally-charged conversation with her mother – she discovers that her father wrestled with similar experiences. This realisation provokes more questions than it provides answers, and it actually increases Sydney’s anxiety levels.
The third approach involves avoiding the subject matter entirely, often by denying its existence in the first place. To a degree, this describes her mother’s approach, as she refuses to talk about Sydney’s father, though Sydney herself frequently oscillates between avoidance and denial throughout the series. She rejects Stanley’s help, and refuses to talk to her best friend, Dina. It is only when she is placed in detention with Dina, and when Stanley intentionally defies a teacher so that he can join her there, that Sydney begins confronting the reality of her situation.
Of all three approaches, the third one – a combination of avoidance and denial – is perhaps the most common one in certain ecclesial circles today, especially as churches try to adapt and respond to the ongoing crisis. Social media is not always the most accurate barometer – though perhaps it is more representative than usual under the current circumstances – it is troubling to discover how many clergy are adopting this latter approach in their online presence.
One clergyperson I recently encountered implied that our doubts, in a time of national emergency, are invalid. Another has started a sermon series on the theme of creation in the Psalms, suggesting that there is a conflict between the disciplines of science and theology in the process. This is a particularly dangerous thing to say now, when public health relies on people adhering to government and church guidelines, which are founded on the relevant scientific evidence. Most of my studies have been spent with one foot in the discipline of science, and the other foot in the discipline of theology. So, it is always troubling to hear the insistence, especially in sermons, that a conflict exists between the two disciplines. A sermon series on the theme of creation in the Psalms, in which the perspective of contemporary scientists is pitted against the perspective of the psalmists – note the erroneous suggestion that there is a single, cohesive perspective in both cases – is especially disconcerting.
Perhaps such an approach is inevitable when a preacher decides that she or he does not care for the Enlightenment, and so pretends that it did not happen and back-works a worldview and theology from there. This approach quickly falls apart when we suggest that the psalmists might have been gifted with all the insight contemporary science affords but chose to sing about something else entirely. It certainly demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Psalms in particular – and the biblical texts in general – which leads to a mishandling of those texts. Gerhard von Rad often insisted that the Psalms are not a projection of the divine onto human lips but a human response to God. It seems that we are still getting this the wrong way around.
Returning, more directly, to I Am Not Okay with This…
The first season of the series is open ended, as Sydney flees homecoming after accidentally using her telekinetic powers to blow up a fellow student’s head before he can reveal her secret to the school. Sydney finds refuge in a watchtower in the woods before she comes face-to-face with a shadowy figure that has been following her throughout the series. Viewers are left wondering about the shadowy figure’s identity, as well as how her classmates might react to her powers.
To many viewers, I Am Not Okay with This seems unfinished. It must seem that way to many of the creators, too, as there is some suggestion that it will be renewed for a second series. Although I eagerly await news of a second series, I think the strange note on which the first series ends is a fitting one. In leaving a fearful silence hanging, the series is asking viewers searching questions about our own responses to trauma. Perhaps we would do well to reflect on these questions, in a careful and sensitive way, particularly considering Covid-19.
Christopher West is a postgraduate student, currently completing his Master’s degree in Theological Studies with Trinity College Dublin. The degree provides the training pathway for ministerial formation in the Church of Ireland, a province of the Anglican Communion. He is currently serving an intern year as a deacon, having been admitted to Holy Orders in September 2019.