Nearly one million species are about to go extinct. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now higher than at any time in the past three million years. Duterte won a major victory in the Philippines, and lawmakers across the country are banning abortion while Steve Bannon, like an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, is helping far-right parties come to power in Europe.
The deep existential dread I feel this time of year might be well-reasoned. Maybe I am clinically depressed. Maybe the world really is going to hell in a hand-basket. Or maybe it’s wedding season.
About two million couples will march down the aisle this year in the U.S. Most of them will do so in the summer months, especially in June, and they or their families will spend a whopping $44,000 or more on the occasion.
Weddings are supposed to convince us that it is possible to privatize our futures—to ride off into our own personal fairy tale with “just married” on the back of our car and not think about impending collective disasters. That’s because weddings convince us to ignore reality.
A lot of the young people I interviewed for my recent book about romance had a fair amount of student debt and some serious doubts about the future of the world, but that didn’t stop them from slipping into the fairy-dust-infused promise of their own happy ending free from the evil of these collective concerns.
I’m not saying that people who get married are delusional. I’m saying we are all delusional. Religion may be the opiate of the masses, but romance is our heroin. It allows us to escape reality and imagine going off into our own castle on the hill or split-level in the suburbs or loft in the city where ecological disaster, political violence and the transfer of wealth to the one-tenth-of-one-percent of the population are meaningless noise.
Even if we cannot afford a wedding, or have already had one or two, or are in a marriage that is kind of fine but not a fairytale—you know, a real relationship—most of us still want to inject some of the hope of a wedding into our veins. Why not? As addictions go, our obsession with weddings and romance is fairly harmless. Sure, it costs a lot to throw a wedding, but most Americans who have weddings are pretty well off, and it doesn’t cost much to sigh over Pinterest images of the perfect day or watch yet another romantic comedy at the end of the work day.
But what if the fantasy of romance is creating my existential dread in the first place? What if imagining my future as a private affair, when I know that we need collective action (and fast), is exactly the cognitive dissonance that creates the dread?
What I need is another form of escape.
I’ll fantasize about the Green New Deal and the Climate Strike. I’ll follow Pinterest pages that focus on the aesthetics of protest, on political action, on voting. I’ll pass on the rom-coms and press play on the do-coms—movies in which characters learn that they must act to stop impending disaster. I’ll find an app that tells me what I’ve done and what I can do, not how many steps I’ve taken or who in my area is looking for a date tonight.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when our belief system—for example, that we will be happy if we just meet the one and have the perfect wedding—is in direct contrast to actual evidence—like the ascension of fascist leaders, growing income inequality and reports on the imminent environmental collapse.
This wedding season, I’ll stay focused on transforming our collective reality and swipe left on the temptation instead to fixate on a fantasy.