Allegheny is stuck in ‘the Sad Gap’

Allow me to paint you a picture. Tell me if it sounds familiar. You are reading the news or Twitter or Facebook or this week’s edition of The Campus. Everywhere you look, every new Tweet or article or post, all you see are bad news and crises: COVID-19 cases surging, the war in Ukraine worsening, climate change, midterm elections, political corruption, migrant bans, train accidents, religious strife and sexual harassment.
I should point out at this juncture that it may seem like I am exaggerating — writing an exhaustive list to illustrate my point — but these are, in fact, all stories in the New York Times on the day that I am writing this article.
We live in a unique era of disaster and strife. It seems that everything is both perpetually bad and broken beyond repair. Discordance is nothing new to planet Earth, but the heavy cloak of anxiety and despair that we all now wear is a relatively recent development, and the reason why is simple: we now have unprecedented, firsthand, boots-on-the-ground access to the trouble. Problems halfway across the world are pinged to our pockets in a second, and we are expected to make every problem our problem.
Aside from the other problems of modern life, there is an onus on the average person — every person — to crusade for a utopian world where no conflict exists, devoting every spare minute of your life to ethical consumption, moral practices and thoughtful protest. We put pressure on ourselves to be perfect, to have the smallest negative impact possible and treat every decision as if it were the trolley problem. Like Chidi in “The Good Place,” we become paralyzed by the burden of trying to be a decent person in an increasingly indecent environment.
This is when we fall into what online personality and author Hank Green calls the “Sad Gap”: the space between learning about the “definite, real, concrete, inexcusable, terrible, frightening consequences” of a problem and constructively working toward a solution. In the Sad Gap, problems are not only terrifying, they are also overwhelming — created and prolonged by evil people. In the Sad Gap, it looks like there will never be a solution. It is all too easy to become blindly terrified and angry, lashing out at the world, and far too difficult to dig deep, think critically and engage meaningfully.
In Green’s words, “It’s easier to make people aware of the definite, obvious, clear problem than it is the misty, vague and uncertain solutions.” This is the world we live in, a world of oversimplification and manipulation of belief and emotion. When you are in the Sad Gap, you believe that a problem has no solution. You are discouraged, beaten down and disenchanted. It is easier to curl up into the fetal position or take to the woods and live off the grid. These are, oddly enough, the people that will find their way out of the Sad Gap — but more on that later.
Meanwhile, in my eyes, there is a second group that sits in the Sad Gap: the people who have set up camp down there. These are people that relish being in the Sad Gap. They will get very loud about a problem without understanding the nuance. They will take Sharpie to cardboard at a protest and draw on sidewalks, making sure to have their photo taken. They might post something on their Instagram story to demonstrate how much they care. These are the performative activists who want everybody to know just how deep they have burrowed into the Sad Gap. They want to prove to the world how many problems they know about but very rarely offer any productive solutions or meaningful engagement — only the outward appearance of involvement and devotion.
Allegheny College is in the Sad Gap, and I worry that most of us are the second type: the Sad Gap-dwellers who are very comfortable in their smug despair, thank you very much. It is a blatant fact that there are problems on our campus: the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, the restructuring of academic departments and the impending loss of a whole slough of faculty members, to name a few. In some cases, strong actions have been taken. Students have taken a stand and gotten loud.
But sit in McKinley’s or Brooks and listen to the conversations. For the most part, we are addicted to complaining loudly about our problems and allergic to any meaningful involvement beyond signing a petition and standing outside of the Campus Center for an hour. When we do anything more than that, it is big, performative, made-to-post actions like taking over the halls of Bentley — actions which are all well and good, but only if they are coupled with or followed by the unglamourous work that gets things done such as meetings, open dialogues and forums.
See, the permanent residents of the Sad Gap are a species born out of a different kind of fear, I think. Rather than existential despair, it is fear of the complexity of the world and fear of being proven wrong that fuels this group. To research a problem, to think about it complexly, is to find a way out of the Sad Gap. As Green points out, “It is too easy to get to the place in knowledge where you are sad and angry and (it is) too hard to cross the gap over to being engaged and helpful.”
Too many people on this campus are afraid of being wrong. They are afraid of the dimensionality of life, a problem heightened by the flatness of internet culture. They are well-intentioned — we all, I think, want to be responsible and helpful members of society at the end of the day. But we turn to scapegoating and blind anger as a solution when it clearly, vehemently, absolutely is not one. We blame authority figures for systemic injustices because they are the public face. Instead of deconstructing structural problems, we angrily and insistently point them out over and over again, asking louder and louder why, oh why, isn’t anybody doing something about this?
The way to cross the Sad Gap and enter the world of constructive problem-solving is to be enlightened and focused. Do research — good, broad research, not the first YouTube video that pops up — and think hard, really hard. Open dialogues with the people you are opposed to. Sit down at a table rather than yelling across a crowded room, or, worse, typing in ALL CAPS on an anonymous social network. Take responsibility for your own actions, your own emotions, and your own personal Sad Gap. Embrace the fact that you are going to be confused, scared and disenchanted in the meantime, and acknowledge the fact that you are never going to solve every problem — perhaps not even any. That is okay. The importance is in trying and helping others to try.
Crossing the Sad Gap is never going to be an easy task. It requires dedicated work — internal and external, personal and public. The first step to getting our campus community to the other side of the Sad Gap is to start examining ourselves: our fears and our prejudices. We must give up on the surface-level skimming that populates much of our public discourse and consciously choose to tunnel deeper and imagine other places, people and problems with all the complexity they contain. We must take misdirected anger and turn it into a productive discussion, and then, slowly but surely, we will build a sort of rope bridge. It may be fragile, it may not support all of us at once. The fall down will probably look pretty scary, the crossing treacherous and rickety, but what lies on the other side is far better than what we will leave behind.