I used to love reading dystopian novels in middle school. “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “The Maze Runner,” “Legend,” “The 5th Wave.” Wherever I went, at least one of those books followed. Family vacations, book. In the classroom when I was supposed to be paying attention to my teacher, book. At the grocery store with my mom, book. At home when I had mounds of homework to get done, book. Reading was my way to escape the excruciatingly mundane childhood I had. I got to imagine myself in the shoes of another kid, confident in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, fighting valiantly for the future of the world.
In living vicariously through the characters on the page, I also inherited their feelings of angst and worry when the odds were stacked against them. When Katniss and Peeta were chased by mutant dogs and when Thomas and his crew fought off monstrous creatures to escape the maze, I felt their fright and terror. Even so, when those feelings became overwhelming, I could always close the book and return to reality.
But what happens when your reality becomes a dystopia? What happens when your president threatens the foundation of democracy? Or when people who look like you are murdered without consequences? What happens when the Earth itself starts to wilt around you? Or when hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives to a deadly disease? What do you do when the people you placed your hope in pass away, leaving your best bet for the future of the nation to an average white guy quite literally, and unironically, named Joe?
The line between reality and those dystopian novels is now blurred. The walls of the world are closing in on us, trapping us, suffocating us. As much as we may try to escape –– by throwing ourselves into social media, joking about our situation and trying to carry on with life as if nothing has changed –– we can’t. Contrary to what our president suggests, closing our eyes will not make our problems go away. We cannot turn away — because if we do, we cede power to a society bound to drive itself into the ground.
The weight of the country’s circumstances seems to rest almost entirely on the shoulders of young people. Young people are tasked with trying to convince ancient politicians that climate change is a problem because we will be the ones to live through its consequences. Young people are asked to volunteer as poll workers and hold the election system together because we are less likely to die from COVID-19. Young people are pushed to lead protests and reinvigorate social movements because no one else is willing to stand up for us.
The blame traditionally heaped on young people when our political system fails us has always baffled me. Adults regularly harp on the inconsistency with which young people vote instead of turning their focus to an election system rife with gerrymandering, skewed representation — cough, the Senate, cough — voter suppression and an Electoral College that allows unpopular candidates to reach the highest office in the land. Youth are seen as perpetrators of violence and reckless abandon, without any consideration for the frustration that comes with consistently being excluded from the political arena.
The tension that exists between young Americans and the rest of the nation leaves no time nor space for us to actually be young. We can’t live recklessly and messily and learn and make mistakes and explore and grow freely. Because we might just be the last generation that has a shot at changing things, we must work diligently to correct the mistakes of the past in an effort to save the future.
Our time is running out, and our backs are against the wall. So with nothing left to do, we fight. Just like the endless iterations of the same archetypal teenage character in the novels I used to read, we approach our fight with boldness and resolve. Unlike those novels, however, our story’s ending has not yet been written. We have to write one ourselves. It will be hard, it will be frustrating, but we cannot stop fighting.
CALEB DUNSON is a first year in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.