The Strange, Surreal Feeling Of Going About Your Day While The World Crumbles

Writer Merryana Salem reflects on the unreality of living in a time of global crisis while remembering to make dinner and do the laundry. Words by Merryana Salem

By Merryana Salem, 19/4/2023

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It’s a surreal feeling to bear witness to the world’s horrors while remembering to buy milk on your way home.  

For many, this feeling is becoming a constant companion, and while it is certainly a feeling unique to those blessed by the privilege of distance — who aren’t experiencing these events in a direct way — it remains a growing sentiment.  

Recently, TikToker Marielle Greguski uploaded a video in which she quotes a viral tweet about how surreal it is to have to continue with ordinary life no matter how crazy the world feels. The tweet, originally tweeted by twitter user @muchnerve, is below: 

Relating the sentiment to her current feelings, Greguski asks, “how am I meant to care about my trivial little problems…when more children were gunned down when they were trying to just go to school?” Greguski offers no resolution to the feeling but judging from the near-million views on the TikTok and the million original tweet, neither is alone in feeling this way.  

Of course, watching a catastrophe from afar is not equivalent to the trauma of experiencing it. As confusing and upsetting as it is to know of and witness the worst of the world, there is a level of privilege that defines the distance between observation and experience.  

Yet there is a growing distress caused by the dissonance between the day-to-day minutiae of many peoples’ lives and the catastrophic information on the wider world. War in Ukraine, ethnic cleansing in Palestine, a continuing  pandemic, a housing crisis, police brutality, increased climate destabilisation and rising anti-LGBTQ+ movements are just some of the events people cite as major contributors to this feeling. 

Many TikTok users expressed a similar kind of existential anxiety using Bo Burnham’s award-winning song ‘Funny Feeling.’ The track, from Burnham’s acclaimed Netflix special Inside, describes cognitive dissonance created by having privilege in an increasingly dystopic-feeling world. Contrasting lyrics like, “the whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door,” unfold to a stripped-down folksy acoustic guitar, a musical choice that creates its own kind on incongruence.  

Burnham’s song, which was also covered by Phoebe Bridges, is far from the only one of its kind. R.E.M’s ‘It’s The End Of The world As We Know It’, ‘The Final Countdown’ by Europe, ‘1999’ by Prince and Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ are all iconic ballads — tales of powering through the inescapable dread that the world as we know it is crumbling. A feeling, which if the songs are anything to go by, has spent at least 50 years inspiring pop culture thanks to the Cold War, Y2K, and many other world-ending events. So, what is it called? 

Derealisation and Hypernormalisation 

Feeling helplessly disconnected from our immediate reality? There are words for that!  

At the more extreme end of the spectrum for such a feeling, derealisation (sometimes also referred to as depersonalisation or desensitisation) is characterised by a feeling of foggy and veiled detachment from one’s surroundings and own body. It is a form of disassociation, and can be a disorder caused by being exposed to trauma and stress that’s often associated with depression, anxiety and PTSD.   

But being aware of these feelings does not always help. In fact, its awareness and helplessness over feeling this way that seems to lie at the core of Greguski’s TikTok, as well as the viral tweet she shared. But to say that some form of individual disassociation is all that is at play here fails to acknowledge the institutional influences on people’s lives and well-being.  

In 2005, Russian-born University of California professor Alexei Yurchak coined the term, Hypernormalisation. In his book, Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation, Yurchak created the concept to describe the paradoxical discontent many Soviet citizens felt as they lived on as normal, despite knowing the Soviet Union was in collapse, because they saw no alternative form of action.  

The term lurched back into public consciousness after controversial British filmmaker Adam Curtis’ made a BBC documentary by the same name. The 2016 film is made up of archival footage of war, famine and the general world strife of the past five decades. Curtis uses the footage to assert that a similar feeling, a resigned normalisation of untenable reality, is occurring now under late capitalism in the West in a deliberate attempt by the powerful to maintain control. 

Curtis’ perspective on hypernormalisation has been criticised for leaning into antisemitic conspiracy theories – as well as being heavily critiqued for lack of fact checking and overwhelming generalisations. Nevertheless, Alexei Yurchak’s original concept of hypernormalisation helps give a name to a feeling that can otherwise be hard to articulate.  

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The obligation of performing normality despite an acute awareness of just how not normal things are is enough to make anyone feel disconnected from “real” life. Especially, when such performance is motivated by a habitual lack of hope that anything can change. Since the spread of COVID-19, the phrase, “the new normal,” has become a post-pandemic slogan designed to insist on “normality”, despite COVID-19 has continuing to irrevocably change our lives in almost every way. The hypernormalising of our lives during the pandemic has made many people aware of how this performance of normality is an unrealistic expectation.

This state is compounded by the constant stream of information that inundates our daily lives. While it is good to be informed, constantly subjecting yourself to the world’s struggles can also leave us feeling disconnected and hopeless. Terms like “infoxication” and “doomscrolling” were coined to name how overdosing on information can leave us feeling disoriented.  

Dr Marlee Bower from the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health previously explained to Junkee that, “as humans we are evolutionarily programmed to pay attention to threatening or negative events in our environment to keep ourselves safe. However, we are not designed to be constantly engaging with negative information; doing so can leave us feeling anxious, stressed, hyper-vigilant, and fatigued.” 

Of course, if we’re struggling from reading about events taking place elsewhere, or to other parts of the population, then we can count ourselves lucky. However, it can still feel disruptive and disconcerting and, yes, hypernormal to open your phone and read of mass scale injustices one minute and feel the dissonance of, as Greguski says, performing the minutiae of life in the next.  

So, What Can We Do? 

There is no mental health techniques that will make you immune to the psychological strain of living in a world full of injustices, catastrophes, and the dark side of late capitalism. (Annoying.) The most obvious fix is a better world, which is going to take some time. But we can all take small actions to help ourselves and those around us carry the weight.  

Limiting the amount of time that you check news and information, disabling news notifications or taking “no news breaks” is one method Dr Bower suggests. What is most crucial is doing something that breaks the cycle of checking, scrolling, and reinforcing that discomforting surreal feeling. Talking and connecting with others either with a phone call or in person helps to ground us in our more immediate context, even if you are talking about how weird everything seems.  

But the biggest antidote to that big surreal hypernormal feeling is radical hope for a better future. Hypernormalisation replies on an acceptance that things cannot get better and that they will not change and, so, you may as well just keep going as you always have. Yes, the world is strange and terrible, and things feel hopeless, but we should refuse to normalise that out of impotence.  

Radical hope is not just a catchphrase or a belief but something you work at and practice and that practice looks different for everyone. Maybe it means making plans to check on your loved ones more often, or finally attending that rally you always say you are going to go to, or deliberately seeking out and sharing good news, or donating what you can where you can, getting to know your community more, getting the help you need with your mental and physical health, or even just putting your phone away for a few minutes so you don’t completely lose it. It is important to remind yourself that you’re a part of this world, not just trapped inside it. 

As Junot Diaz wrote in The New Yorker, “Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future.” 


Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry. 

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