Collective delusions of a past that didn't exist

Published on 2024-01-29

When I was in my last stretch of high school one of my closest friends and I were really into this game called Omori. It's a JRPG game in the tradition of Undertale or Earthbound that has themes of childhood trauma and dreams, both figuratively and literally.

The game takes place between two worlds: one where the protagonist Sunny is asleep (Headspace) and one where he's awake (Faraway Town). Headspace is a sort of idealized and fantastical image of Sunny's childhood, and so despite Faraway Town being a familiar, bright, apparently happy place one might recognize from Earthbound-type games, it's still haunted by this feeling of loss--the loss of what Headspace retains.

I think this feeling resonated a lot with my friend and I because it felt like we were in a similar place in life. It was a transitional stage, where we were focused on applying to university, moving away from home, and ostensibly starting our lives as adults. In a way, Omori reminds you of what it was like to be a child. Unlike other stories in its tradition, it presents a world alongside the fantastical Headspace that's extremely normal, where people get into fights that involve physically hitting each other with objects, rather than magical weapons, where people have normal human responsibilities, where going on a quest means doing very human things for human people. There is no hero's journey, just being a good friend.

For a number of reasons, the life Sunny lives in Faraway Town is unlike the one he imagines from his early childhood, and as you play Omori you get the sense that in progressing through the story, Sunny is being given a second chance to relive what he lost. That's a very beautiful idea. Facing trauma as a child forces you to "grow up" a lot quicker than you may want, and many who do would do quite a bit to reclaim and relive the comforts of youth that were torn away from them prematurely.

What kills me, then, is that such a thing could never truly happen. It's not realistic.

I don't really want this piece to be about me, but it may be worth talking a bit about myself just to provide context for the larger idea I'm trying to get at. I have talked a little bit on gemspace about what I was like in high school:

Growing out of your sigma-grindset

And perhaps a little more concretely on the web:

A leap of faith versus the willingness to Know

But more tersely, I spent a lot of time in high school prioritizing things like "getting better" over "being okay," and because of that, I get the sense that I missed out on a lot of "being a kid." You never really notice how important something is until it's gone, and as such, it had never occurred to me that this was even a problem until I was about to leave for university.

Of course, when I tried to use what time I had left to enjoy the comforts of being a teenager, I was running up against the problem that while I may still literally have been a teenager, that was simply not the way my life was organized anymore. My friends were all working full time jobs. I got to see them maybe once every other week for a few hours. I had responsibilities. For most purposes, it was over.

Was it ever really "not over"?

Sure, maybe when I was like 8 I didn't have any substantial responsibilities besides going to school every day, but when you're that young it's not like you have the bodily autonomy to do much with it.

The images we're shown of childhood are just that: images. They're idealized representations of something that no longer exists. They never existed.

Eventually, you've got to leave Headspace.

The reason why one was the way they were, as opposed to some other way, is never as clean-cut as we want to believe. We like to imagine that if we had just twisted one dial, or flicked a few other switches, then maybe things would have been different. But there's a reason why we flicked the switches we did. We ought to trust that we were acting on the information we had--that we were doing the best we could.

"Hauntology" is one of my favourite words. It's the sense that we are haunted by images of our past. It invokes ideas of how things were, and reminds us of a time when the way things are today was not a given--that things could be different. This sense of loss regarding missed opportunities and how things could have been hurts quite a bit, but ultimately these ideas are just ghosts. The present is real; the way things could have been is not.

I feel like this persistent idea that things could have been different is poisonous, because it suggests that things can never change. Adults tend to have more responsibilities than children, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can't still enjoy the things that made you happy as a child. That's maybe a bit easy for me to say--I spend most of my life surrounded by people who play the Pokemon trading card game, and travel to Renfairs in ornate medieval garb. Ultimately, the thing keeping us from going on silly, jovial adventure with our friends is our own shared insecurity that having become adults, we now need to spend the rest of our lives being unhappy.

Of course, if suffering under the boot of late capitalism is a factor then that's a whole other problem. But nonetheless, I feel like this framing of growing up is unnecessarily limiting. Often enough, it's more than just responsibility that's holding us back from doing the things that make us happy.

I think this is where the stereotype of transgender people being a teenager in their twenties comes from. I think it's extremely healthy. I don't think you should ever need to stop being a teenager if that's what makes you happy.

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