How Steven Universe solved my problems in 11 minutes
“Take a moment to think of just
Flexibility, love, and trust.”
It’s a Thursday night, Steven Universe night in my household, and my sister and I are sitting on our overstuffed couch, spring-loaded with anticipation. This week, even after the credits roll, I find myself sitting in a stunned silence because a song from Steven Universe took every discomfort I’ve ever had, any adversity I’ve ever faced, and unraveled it for me, laying it back at my feet, resolved, in a perfect bow.
There is rarely a time when Steven isn’t brilliant. I could talk all day about how loving and inclusive this show is. Rebecca Sugar—angel, queen, genius—created the show with the hopes that it could make everyone feel seen and heard and loved. In my mind, she is absolutely succeeding. Every week, with each new episode, I think: This is it, the peak, the pinnacle. This is as good as this show can get. There’s no topping this. And every week I’m wrong.
Recently, an episode of Steven called “Mindful Education” completely destroyed my preconceived notions of perfection. In one episode, the central characters learn to use mindfulness to cope with intrusive, anxious thoughts and how to let those thoughts go without ruminating on them. But before I get into it, a little background: Steven Universe centers around a rebel group of aliens known as the Crystal Gems who have fought for thousands of years to protect Earth from invading forces. The show chronicles their exploits as they raise 14-year-old Steven, a half-human, half-gem hybrid who is slowly discovering his powers.
Gems have the ability to fuse, a process in which two gems’ bodies merge to form an entirely new being, one whose personality is a literal manifestation of the relationship between the two fusers. Fusions tend to be unstable, and if one member of the fusion falls out of balance, the two will separate. Steven and his friend Connie fuse into the genderfluid Stevonnie, and Garnet, a gem in a perpetual state of fusion, explains in “Mindful Education” how Stevonnie can maintain balance as a fusion.
In the song “Here Comes a Thought,” Garnet coaches Stevonnie as they deal with intrusive thoughts:
“Here comes a thought that might alarm me
What someone said and how it harmed me
Something I did that failed to be charming
Things that I said are suddenly swarming.”
What first struck me about these lyrics was just how seen they made me feel. It cuts straight to the core of a problem that I’ve never had articulated for me before. We’ve all been raised with the idea that words can hurt, indoctrinated with the expectation that we should treat others the way we want to be treated. But the notion that our thoughts can hurt is rarely, if ever, acknowledged.
As students at a high-achieving institution, I think a lot of us tend to be ruminators, perfectionists. We let thoughts of our inadequacies pile and swarm, and as a result, we end up paralyzed in a stew of our own overwhelming fears. Or at least, that’s what happens to me. I first saw this episode a few weeks ago. The summer before my senior year was just about to end, and there were so many things I wanted to do. I wanted to produce out of the fear of being unproductive. I wanted to draw, write, and make music. I wanted to start my last year off caught in the throes of prolific inspiration because if I didn’t, what guarantee was there that my voice wouldn’t be lost in the real world?
I had just come back from an internship in the entertainment industry, where I was discouraged not only by the incredibly narrow, manufactured paths that exist to break into such a career, but also by everyone’s seemingly endless flow of creative energy. It was expected that people work 10-hour days, then go home and work on their screenplays, their novels, their passion projects. I just couldn’t do it all. There was one day where I sat down with the intent to write a sitcom pilot. I wrote outside a Peet’s Coffee with the wrought-iron chair pressing pink diamonds into my thighs. But the most productive I felt that day was when I taught an old French woman how to close the apps on her iPhone. I wrote about 10 pages, got discouraged, and haven’t looked at it since. I spent the rest of the summer going to work during the day and watching Netflix at night, all while feeling like I should be doing more, telling myself that the amount I could reasonably handle just wasn’t enough.
The more I thought like this, the more my thoughts stacked around me in an impending avalanche. When I saw Ruby and Sapphire, the fused components of Garnet, dealing with the same thing on Steven Universe, I suddenly felt an immense cathartic release. Part of me that never felt visible or even tangible before was now perfectly articulated onscreen. I felt as if something inside me, an ancient artifact, had been discovered. I was no longer scared now that I could see what this something was, unearthed and held up to the light, and put a name and a feeling to it instead of a vague sense of unease. Sapphire experiences intrusive thoughts, visually represented as a swirling, enveloping vortex of butterflies. Ruby, conversely, zooms in on one butterfly, and fixates on it: “All these little things seem to matter so much.”
It’s hard to separate yourself from the details. The small things loom large in a college student’s eye, especially at this point in the semester. You don’t get into a class you wanted, or there’s a schedule conflict, and suddenly your future disintegrates. Now you won’t have time for that extracurricular, you won’t meet that requirement, and (gasp!) you won’t graduate. Every grad school will stamp your application with a big, red, “REJECTED,” and potential employers will be specifically instructed to laugh you out of the building.
This is where Garnet’s advice comes in…
“Take a moment, remind yourself
To take a moment and find yourself
Take a moment and ask yourself
If this is how we fall apart.
But it’s not, but it’s not, but it’s not, but it’s not, but it’s not.
It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
You’ve got nothing, got nothing, got nothing, got nothing to fear.
I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”
It’s okay to feel bad. It’s okay to have thoughts that make you uncomfortable. You don’t have to let those thoughts make you scared.
It was such a relief for me to hear those words because really: what a concept! To a large extent, your thoughts are your reality. It doesn’t always feel like you have a lot of choice in how they affect you, but that mantra, “It’s okay,” did a lot of work for my sense of control. You can cuddle up to that feeling of discomfort, like calluses on your fingertips, acknowledge it, and let it go. Because, after all, it’s just a thought, and “we can watch, we can watch, we can watch them go by / from here, from here, from here.”