Finding Hope in Dystopian Literature
Katelynn Carlson, Middle School Faculty

I recently heard the phrase "You should learn how to feel sad without actually being sad" spoken by Laurie Anderson in an interview with Anderson Cooper on his podcast, All There Is.

It struck me at a time when the gloominess of the long winter days, loss of a friend and the news of three mass shootings before Thanksgiving clouds my capability to see optimism in the world.

It also came to me at a time when we are just beginning our new unit for 7th grade: dystopian literature. When we read dystopias, we examine the dark characteristics that create a harmful, unjust, and often horrifying world that, when written well, seem just out of reach from our own reality. There's something addicting about watching The Handmaid's Tale to see how close we can feel to losing democracy, bodily autonomy and religious freedom. It's almost spooky at how genius Ray Bradbury was at predicting the pervasiveness of screens and media in our society and the dissemination of fake news. Dystopias are meant to warn us of what could be and how humans are flawed creatures that will ultimately bring upon our own demise.

But, the dystopian story also almost exclusively focuses on the protagonist that questions the society in which they live. When we read The Giver in 7th grade, students will see the Community through Jonas' eyes and begin to understand the beauty of the spectrum of human experience. Without despair, how can we experience hope? Without heartbreak, what is love? What is joy without anguish? So, Jonas himself begins to change and, with the help of his mentor, revolutionizes his Community.

It is through the protagonist that we readers ultimately find hope. Because, yes, the world can be a dark and scary place devoid of hope that any significant positive change will happen. But, we also know that the world can and does get better with people coming together to enact change.

It doesn't mean we neglect the trauma in the world. We need to feel the pain of others deeply to empathize with their experiences--to feel sad. Because when we ignore the pain of others, we lose our humanity. But, we cannot let it consume us. We cannot always be sad. By experiencing life together, sharing our times of grief as well as our joy, we are able to move forward in this wild, often overwhelming world.

Let's feel sad, but let's not stay sad. Let's challenge our society, but let's not give up on each other. Let's read dystopian literature and find the protagonist that dares us to think, "What if we were different?"

Let's find hope.