The morning of Friday, July 8th, was like a punch in the gut. I’m an early riser—three in the morning is usually prime writing time for me. Most nights, I go to bed before nine, so if something important happens in the evening, I often don’t hear about it until I pick up my phone the next day. I’m sure you’re familiar with the drill—your alarm goes off, you grab your phone, you see you have 128 Facebook notifications.
And some days, you’re met with something horrific.
That Friday, as I’m sure you’re aware, was one of those days. There it was, all over my feed: Dallas shooting. Five dead. Worst terrorist attack since 9/11. Peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protest interrupted by sniper cop-killer.
Obviously, the killings by cops that had preceded this latest tragedy—one in Minneapolis and one in Baton Rouge—were no less horrifying. But this one felt different: a peaceful protest deliberately foiled. A cold and calculated assassination, apparently performed by someone looking to ensure that anger and hatred would continue to burn white-hot. This was one of the fabled Men Who Want to Watch the World Burn.
It’s difficult to encapsulate the anger and fear I felt in the moment, though I’m sure many shared in both. Truth be told, I just wanted to stay in bed that day.
But life goes on. I run social media for CaPC, and I had to post something. So I posted this:
Walk out your front door. Meet your neighbor. Build a real community. Do it now, before it’s too late.
Maybe the words were feeble, but it was all I could conjure at the moment. As Jake Meador recently put it over at Mere Orthodoxy, we’re currently “experiencing a crisis of neighborliness in America today.” While we are obviously dealing with systemic problems regarding race and policing, in a sense both the failure to obey the law and the failure to police with restraint are rooted in the same cause: the failure of community. Many of us don’t share our lives with those who live around us. We’re not invested in each other. We don’t know each other, we don’t care about each other, and we don’t trust each other. And lately, our estrangement has been leading us to suspicion, fear, and hatred. In extreme cases, it’s led us to murder.It’s not for nothing, I suspect, that one in ten Americans is on antidepressants.
It’s not for nothing, I suspect, that one in ten Americans is on antidepressants—our dominant cultural scripts constitute the world’s most efficient depression factory. The American norm is to avoid interacting with other people (witness the proliferation of online shopping and automated kiosks) and even to avoid basic physical activity (see: automobiles, online culture, home entertainment systems, etc.). We actively discourage the things that research has shown make people feel fulfilled—community, family, religious experience—in favor of largely sedentary entertainment. Plenty of us have active online social lives, but no investment whatsoever in our physical communities.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. I said earlier that Friday’s social media feed was full of the Dallas shooting; but as the day went on, it became clear that there were actually two kinds of posts filling my online purview. On the one hand, there was the anger, sorrow and hatred stemming from the events in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas—and they were all palpable. But there was another type of post as well, breaking through like a green shoot of life pushing aside the concrete: posts inspired by Pokémon Go.
You might think that’s a joke. I promise you, it isn’t.
If you don’t know the new game, you probably at least know the Pokémon franchise, which has been a staple on Nintendo’s handheld systems for almost 20 years, and which challenges players to capture, train, and battle the titular monsters. While each Pokémon iteration has always had a social aspect to it (you could trade and battle pokémon via local console networking, for instance), the latest release—a mobile phone game—takes this to the next level, using the player’s hometown as the game’s playing field. Pokémon Go unfolds as a GPS-driven augmented reality game in which pokémon appear on screen as if in the real world through the magic of cell phone cameras, with landmarks like Pokémon gyms and hospitals located at real-life community hubs like churches, schools, and businesses.
The game was released on Wednesday the 6th, right in the middle of the spate of shootings. By Friday, it seemed like everyone was playing it. My social media feeds were quickly filling up with posts like this:
At union square collecting Pokemon, a guy turns to me and asks, “What team are you?”
— pokemon only account (@sarahjeong) July 9, 2016
@sarahjeong I have spoken to more strangers in the last 48 hrs than I usually do in a week, thanks to Pokemon
— Big Fat Iguana (@fossilfriendly) July 9, 2016
I wonder how many people are meeting their future significant others while playing pokemon go right now
— Jen Bartel (@heyjenbartel) July 14, 2016
It was kind of amazing. People were going outside. Meeting each other. Playing together. Engaging with their communities. Visiting important places they might never have given a second thought to, even if they lived just down the street from them. And—maybe just as important—they were getting some fresh air and exercise in the process.
In light of the murder and mayhem that was taking place in the streets, Pokémon Go’s popularity might seem like a small and frivolous thing. But to dismiss it on those grounds would be to miss the point. Pokémon Go is important entirely because it’s a small and frivolous thing. What holds communities together, after all, isn’t lofty ideals or strict law enforcement—it’s their shared stories, their rituals, their songs. You may doubt this, but in the case of Pokémon Go, the results are hard to argue with: neighbors who previously had no reason to interact are now greeting each other and working together to turn up nests of Squirtles and Charizards across the nation.
Trends like this, by the way, are why we care so much about pop culture here at CaPC. Lofty ideals are important, but people can’t strive after them 24/7. We get tired—and when we do, the culture we fall back on matters. Like liturgy, our art and entertainment shape our lives and our communities from the outside in, and the best of it teaches us to love our neighbors, serve God, and pursue whatever is good and true and beautiful.
It’s taken me a while to realize this. When I was in high school, I thought I was too cool to participate in “school spirit” activities. I knew our school wasn’t really the best—if it ever became great, I thought, then I would celebrate it. (Imagine if people took the same approach to, say, their marriages.) Later in life, though, when I found myself teaching at yet another not-the-best-in-the-world high school, I realized something: the students working to build “school spirit” weren’t deluded. They didn’t think their school was the best, either. Rather, they were simply determined to make the school environment as pleasant and beneficial as possible. They understood—perhaps not even consciously—that the sort of trust and camaraderie necessary for a thriving community is built on sharing experiences and traditions together.
Of course, it remains to be seen what sort of lasting impact Pokémon Go will have on our culture. (I myself have barely gotten to play it, due to software bugs and servers that are perpetually down.) For the moment, though, it appears to be exactly the sort 0f balm America needs—a bit of common grace sprinkled on the horror blazing around us; a small reminder to love our neighbors as ourselves.
In a summer like this one, that’s a welcome reminder indeed.