I love stories.
As an aspiring author, I’m certainly not alone. Many of us use stories to get away from things that are troubling us, whether it’s struggling to find a job, the death of a loved one, or, you know, a global pandemic. Stories lift us up, they make us feel hopeful, like there might be a better tomorrow. They help us escape into worlds where the impossible becomes possible.
This post is not about those stories.
This post is about stories that make us feel sad. Stories that deal with complex emotions. Because sometimes, that’s what we need to deal with the world around us, not fanciful escapism.
A Story for What Ails You
Actually, the two stories I’m going to talk about are, in fact, pretty fanciful. They’re both a strange mix of sci-fi and fantasy, and actually both stories directed at kids ages eight to twelve. But they both also helped me out during some tough times, if only by giving me great fuel for “a good cry” … or several.
Adventure Time: Varmints
Adventure Time is about a post-apocalyptic world named Ooo, the last surviving human, named Finn, and his talking dog, Jake. But this episode isn’t about them. They’re not even in it, actually.
“Varmints” is about the recently-deposed princess of the Candy Kingdom, Princess Bonnibel Bubblegum and her friend, Marceline, the Vampire Queen. Marceline goes to visit Bubblegum in her castle in the Candy Kingdom only to find the new ruler has been living there in Bubblegum’s stead… for the last two months.
Marceline seeks out P-Bubs in a humble cottage on the shores of Lake Butterscotch. There, the pink princess has taken to staying up all night keeping guard over her the pumpkins in her garden, what she calls her new, “100% loyal garden citizens.” She sits on her porch in leather boots and a trucker hat, holding a rifle to ward off the biggest threat to her new garden kingdom, varmints.
While Marceline visits, some of these “ding-dang varmints” attack, and Marcy and Bubblegum head off in full pursuit. They chase these little varmints, large pill-bug like monsters with mouths full of very human-looking teeth, down into the old Rock Candy mines, where they come face to face with the “freaking Mother Varmint.”
At one point down in the caves, Bubblegum loses her hat and begins to cry. When pressed, she confesses a feeling of utter loss and desperation. She tells Marcy, “I lost my hat. I lost my home. I lost my people…. I can’t even keep darn varmints out of my pumpkin patch.”
When this episode first aired, I was in year five of a five-year PhD program. I was knee-deep in both writing my dissertation and applying for jobs in what was (and still is) a pretty bleak academic job market. I had been battling insomnia and generalized anxiety to boot. Princess Bubblegum’s feelings of helplessness and loss of control just hit me right in the gut, and I had myself a big, loud, snot-filled sob-fest.
It was great.
Steven Universe: Mindful Education
Steven Universe is another kid’s fantasy series, though we could probably debate whether it’s technically fantasy or sci-fi. It’s about a race of space aliens whose humanoid bodies are made of light and whose consciousnesses are housed inside their gems. Thousands of years ago, these aliens attempted to colonize earth, destroying its natural resources. A small band of gems allied with the humans and fought off the colonizers, with a high cost. Only a small number of gems survived to live as the human race grew and expanded. Now, three Crystal Gems (as the rebels dubbed themselves) and a half-human, half-gem hybrid named Steven live in a sleepy beach town along the East Coast and fight off gem-based monsters that were created as a result of the Gem War.
So, it’s very sci-fi-y. But also, it’s about a boy (Steven) learning he has magical powers and trying to find his place in the world. It leans hard into several fantasy tropes from popular anime series, both in terms of Steven’s powers and in terms of aesthetics. Steven’s friend Connie learns to swordfight. So, you know, fantasy.
Anyway, I digress.
The episode in question features Steven, Connie, and Stevonnie. Stevonnie is a fusion. In the Steven Unvierse… universe… and in many anime series as well, fusion is the process of two separate beings fusing into a single being with a somewhat shared consciousness. In this show and others, it’s often used as a metaphor for relationships of many kinds.
In “Mindful Education,” Steven and Connie are learning to swordfight together as the fusion Stevonnie. In the beginning, Stevonnie does quite well, learning about new powers they have in this form and adapting to them with ease. But in the middle of training, Stevonnie experiences a strange, sudden flashback, they fall, and Steven and Connie unfuse. Connie runs away, clearly upset, and Steven follows, trying to find out what happened.
Steven learns that Connie accidentally hurt someone at school, and is trying to push away the confused and difficult feelings she’s having about the incident. Together, they learn that not facing difficult emotions can cause problems when fusing. Another fusion, Garnet, who is also one of the kids’ mentors, teaches Stevonnie a technique for managing those difficult emotions.
And then the episode breaks into song. Steven Universe (like Adventure Time) is well-known for its extremely good music, but this song is one of my all-time favorites. The song essentially describes basic principles of mindfulness and what happens when we aren’t mindful. I can’t really do it justice by just describing it. You’ve got to watch it for yourself.
One remarkable thing about this song is its chorus. The chorus consists of several repeated lines whose melodies use repeated, descending notes. The effect this creates is kind of like an exhale. Long exhales and other breathing exercises are frequently used in mindfulness training to decrease panic and increase calm. They are one of the things I’ve learned in therapy to help me get through panic attacks.
When I first watched this episode, I was in my first semester living over two thousand miles from the person who would become my spouse. I was in a new town with a new job, both of which were great, but I was missing the friends I’d made in my PhD program and I hadn’t quite yet made strong new friendships. I was feeling lonely. Moreover, I was living in a beach town—and high bridges over water and roads near the bluffs consistently triggered my panic attacks. I was, shall we say, struggling.
To say that this episode’s song touched me deeply is a bit of an understatement. I bawled like a newborn baby. And it was barely halfway through the episode.
After Stevonnie learns some mindfulness, Connie applies the lessons of the song to her situation and is able to resolve her difficult feelings about what happened at school. Steven, on the other hand, who has recently been through a series of semi-traumatic events, is not. The next time they fuse, Stevonnie has flashbacks of Steven’s recent encounters with gems seeking to hurt him, and his questions about who his (long-dead) mom was and whether or not she was a good person literally loom large over Stevonnie.
It’s a completely heartbreaking moment.
And in that moment in my life, it was exactly what I needed. I needed to have that ugly cry that began, like, three minutes into the episode and came back with a vengeance by minute eight. It was great, it was terrible, it was cathartic. It was wonderful.
Stories to Come Back to Over and Over
Since these two episodes aired, they have become a regular part of my rotation of “comfort TV.” Episodes I watch when I feel so bad that all I want to do is cry. Overall, these episodes make me happy. Incredibly happy, as a matter of fact. I love that kids’ shows are dealing with complicated emotions like anger, loss, and guilt. But in the moments of watching them, I’m often feeling bad.
And, as these shows teach, that’s okay.
What about you?
What stories do you turn to when you’re feeling low? Let me know in the comments!