There’s no easy way to respond to this letter. The anonymous author’s been paralyzed by fear for as long as they can remember. It’s not a fear of anything with a face or a name, more that nebulous idea of what’s to come. Whenever they think about the future, they’re terrified by sheer indecision. They can’t confront all those possibilities, those choices, the gaping maw of the unknown.
I have no idea what to write. I have a degree in doing words good, and I can’t think of a single one.
It’s one of the many requests I receive in Popcannibal’s Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to), a game about being vulnerable to random strangers on the internet. As much as that sounds like a recipe for disaster, my experience with the game was disarmingly genuine.
All players know about each other is their words and the single initial that forms their signature. A friendly mail deer (Yes, you read that right.) handles all the other particulars of our correspondence, ferrying players’ naked truths into cyberspace and returning with whatever advice or encouragement others have to offer. Occasionally he also brings me stickers, a little thank you from someone who appreciates a particularly thoughtful response. These populate my avatar’s room with coffee mugs, knick-knacks, and a fish in trousers. All the usual office supplies you’d expect. Meanwhile, I sit at my desk and write, both in-game and in real life, while relaxing to the kind of lo-fi tunes that got me through countless late nights in college.
I’m caught in a combination of nostalgia, the game’s cutesy aesthetic, and the rhythmic thrum pulsing in my ears. It reminds me of childhood sleepovers after lights out, of hushed candor let loose in the night air, or the feeling of reading a Sharpie transcription of discussions spelled out on bathroom walls. It’s just detached enough that we feel comfortable letting our intimate thoughts run rampant.
“I do what I can to keep this a safe, caring place. But I’m only a deer,” my guide says before prompting me to write my first request. I figure, hey, what the hell, and detail one of the conflicts I carry closest to my heart.
As I wait for my first few responses with admittedly low expectations, I scan the requests others have already posted. Some are relatively straightforward. One person’s been really struggling with studying lately and would love some tips to help them concentrate. Another wants to bridge the subject of divorce with their partner but has no idea how to start that difficult conversation.
Others fall into a kind of existential dead zone where even the most positive among us sink like quicksand after lingering long enough. These requests usually don’t ask for advice or answers; they simply want to know if anyone else is drowning too.
Then there are the kinds of requests that punch the breath from my chest. They’re letters I could have written nearly word for word at age 19, or 22, or earlier this week.
“I feel like I’m coasting through life with no real purpose.”
“What if my anxiety comes back and I’m not strong enough?”
“I’ve suffered from depression for so long, I’m not sure who I really am anymore.”
Any potential words of advice fail me because I’m either still wrestling with those struggles myself or honestly have no idea how I managed to get past that shit in the first place. Hearing that someone else is going through something similar stirs up so much empathy that it’s almost painful. I have to say something — I need to say something. But if there is an answer to give, I sure as hell don’t have it.
With these requests slowly searing a hole in the back of my brain, I check my inbox hoping to find inspiration in others’ responses to my own struggles, and I’m pleasantly surprised by what I find. You’d think the same platitudes friends and family have told you a million times before would ring just as hollow from strangers, but it’s weirdly touching when someone you don’t know offers something as simple as, “You can do this.” The sentiment takes on a new power entirely its own, one that seems to lift some curtain, if only for a moment. Suddenly we can see the demons others clash with as clearly as our own.
While I appreciate the solid advice a few responses provide, what strikes me most is realizing how happy it makes me when a perfect stranger tells me, “I’ve been there.” It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one wandering around cluelessly, or behaving less than healthily, or struggling with what everyone around me seems to do with no problem.
I keep this in mind as I come across more messages that could practically be from my past self. While I’m barely more equipped to handle these problems now, what I can do is offer a few kind words. The most important ones being that they’re not alone.