Like you, I can watch anything I want to on television right now. Between cable, streaming and YouTube, I can experience any adventure, get involved in any romance or inhabit any world I feel like inhabiting, anytime I want.
That’s because I watch only what I call comfort shows. In the evening, as I sit on the couch searching for something to watch, I already know where I’ll wind up: I’ll be at “Bob’s Burgers” or in Miami with “The Golden Girls.” Or in D.C. with the cast of “227.” Or maybe I’ll choose to visit Canada by way of “Kim’s Convenience.”
The shows I watch are low-stakes. Shows where no one gets murdered or harmed in any way.
You most likely have a comfort show, too, though you might not admit it. Because admitting it would be admitting that you, like me, live with anxiety. I believe the comfort shows help, in small ways, to mitigate that anxiety. After you come home from a hard day of contending with this off-its-rocker country of ours, the last thing you want from your evening entertainment is more conflict.
We seek comfort shows because we live in a 24-hour news cycle that reminds us of how awful human beings can be to one another. So, even as you flip through the endless options on your remote or your streaming apps, I’m betting more often than not you settle on a show you’ve seen before. A show where the characters wrap up their problems at the end of each episode. A show where you know that nothing bad is going to happen. Maybe there’ll be a misunderstanding or a hilarious miscommunication or a joke at someone else’s expense. But that’s all.
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You might even engage in this soothing ritual alone because you don’t want anyone else to think there’s something wrong with you for watching the same show 25 times. You do this because of the silent shame that comes with being an American who isn’t resilient, who sometimes just can’t deal with the outside world. I suppose this is a good time to note that, in America, we’re not supposed to have mental health problems. Mental health problems are considered a form of weakness. Only “bootstrapping” is applauded. We are supposed to ignore those nagging feelings of worry, angst and helplessness and just get on with it. It’s one of the things we pride ourselves on.
But there you sit, watching an episode of “The Brady Bunch” that you’ve seen countless times before.
When I was a child, older people often told me that they learned how to swim by having a parent or someone else throw them into a body of water.
“My father took me down to the lake and just threw me in,” they say. “I had to either sink or swim.”
These stories always horrified me when I was younger. And while many of the people who tell them puff their chests out about how they’re such good swimmers because of it, I’m sure most were more likely scarred by the experience. I could never work out why the person who supposedly did the throwing couldn’t just take the time to teach a kid how to swim. Because teaching a child to swim should be done carefully: You walk a child into the water slowly, then up to the knees. Then up to the chest; then very slowly, helping the child put his head underwater.
Today, I realize these tales were never about swimming. They are instead about a trial-by-fire philosophy about which some people are inexplicably proud. It stems from the idea that life is hard and you might as well learn that early. People tell this story to explain how resilient they are. How self-reliant. How strong.
But it’s mostly for show; most of us are not that tough. Some people escape the harsh realities by arming themselves to the teeth and joining forces with other scared people who want to tear the country apart. Others, including me, prefer to occasionally and sometimes frequently escape into a world where no such problems exist. Where the people are always funny and likable. Doing this doesn’t make you weak; it just makes you human.
So go ahead and watch your comfort shows. Watch them again and again if they help you maintain. Because it’s a crazy world and we all have a front-row seat to how relentlessly cruel it can be.
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