If there’s one cliché line I’ve heard far too many times, it’s “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” This saying has always seemed too optimistic in my case. In fact, life didn’t even have the decency to give me lemons but rather gifted me something thoroughly detestable that no one could truly appreciate. Like sardines, for example. So, during my time in high school, I ended up with some of the saltiest, chum-flavored lemonade a teenager could possibly make. But this isn’t just another story of angst or loss or drama. In fact, it’s far worse than that. This is the story of how a dead gorilla taught me that life really is worth living after all.
It was my sophomore year of high school and, as usual, things weren’t going so great for me. After I’d made the decision to go to a school for the arts rather than the traditional high school I was slated to attend, the majority of my friends stopped bothering to contact me, and my relationship went up in flames as well. And so, while everyone else seemed to have an active social life, most of my free time was spent trying to create ice cream sundae-flavored popcorn or binge-watching the same series on Netflix over and over again for hours on end. Usually, it was both at the same time.
As everything in my life seemed to worsen, my emotional state crumbled to the point where I had a hard time even making it into school, missing it entirely on occasion due to my anxiety. This meant my days were dominated by two things: getting stomach aches from eating excessive quantities of vanilla-infused popcorn, and re-watching Supernatural to the point where I could identify which of the nine seasons an episode took place in based on the characters’ haircuts alone. With the same repetitive cycle of both binge eating and binge-watching, I started to feel like something was missing from my daily “self-care” routine, but I couldn’t seem to pinpoint exactly what it was.
But one day, all of that changed. On May 28, 2016, a frantic hostage situation at the Cincinnati Zoo resulted in the death of a national hero. Harambe, a seventeen-year-old Western Lowland gorilla, had been shot down during his attempt to save (or devour) a three-year-old boy in his enclosure. With the internet divided on whether or not Harambe deserved to die, the tragedy left a mark on many people throughout the country, but no one was more deeply affected by his death than I was.
When I first heard the news about Harambe, I was just as confused as everyone else. As far as I understood, a kid had somehow managed to climb over a barrier, jump down into a rocky enclosure, and wrestle the most vicious gorilla to ever be held in captivity. It was definitely some of the most bizarre news I’d ever heard from anywhere outside of the state of Florida, but I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. At least, not until my school’s mock elections rolled around when I discovered about fifteen percent of the class had opted to vote for Harambe instead of deciding between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. From then on, Harambe became a big joke in our school, and before long I realized he was a joke online as well. I started to see Harambe in an entirely new light–as a meme.
In the past, I wasn’t really on top of things when it came to memes. Since I discovered them in late elementary school, I assumed they were pronounced me-mes, and I thought LOLcats were considered quality content. I’d basically forgotten what memes even were until the incident with Harambe. In a world where life gives lemons and I can’t seem to make lemonade, I saw how the internet managed to find a silver lining in a negative situation, allowing Harambe to live in infamy as one of the most viral memes of all time. In the most depressing way possible, it was inspiring. In the end, Harambe was what brought me back into the world of memes.
Harambe’s impact was unlike anything the internet had ever seen before. He was portrayed as a Christ-like figure, with “He died for our memes” proclaimed by internet users everywhere. There were candlelit vigils held in his memory. King Kong and Planet of the Apes jokes and parodies took the internet by storm. Tribute songs were written, shared, and performed in public venues. For a while, it seemed like everything online was dedicated to Harambe.
From then on, I started to pay more attention to the current memes. I browsed subreddits multiple times a day for the freshest dank memes on the market. I learned about meme trends and formats and templates, and before long I figured out how to make my own memes, coming up with so many that they took up more than half of the storage space on my computer.
As I began to delve deeper into the hell-like chasm of memes, people began to notice a shift in my personality. Most notably, instead of keeping my feelings bottled up inside, I found a new outlet to express them. I knew it was still a strange hobby, but I was just glad I finally had something to add to my popcorn and binge-watching rituals. Over time, quality memes became more and more important to me because they allowed me to replace my own inner turmoil with the dark sense of humor I had inside me all along.
Memes were my distraction on a constant basis. I discovered that memes are, by nature, therapeutic. When you’re looking at memes, nothing else matters. You no longer care about any major inconvenience weighing you down, as you can simply drown out your sorrows by staring at captioned cat pictures online for hours on end until you’re incapable of feeling anything at all. There’s no need to worry anymore. Whether you’ve failed another math test, been rejected by your crush, or realize you’re dying of malnutrition because all you’re eating is flavored popcorn, there’s always an easy answer–memes. Memes are a substitute for genuine happiness; with that being said, there’s no need for genuine happiness when you have memes.
Despite the desperate pleas of my family to turn the computer off and go outside, I wouldn’t give up on memes. I never found the obsession unhealthy–memes drastically improved my life. I made new friends, both in school and online, who were also interested in memes. During my senior year of high school, I submitted (with completely ironic intentions) three memes I’d made to a prestigious regional art competition, and all of them somehow ended up winning awards. Soon after, I stumbled across a magazine devoted to memes, applied for a job, and ended up getting hired and later promoted to an executive writer. I was meeting new people and racking up new things to add to my resume all because I wasted my free time looking at memes.
Even now, after surviving high school and finally making it to a point in my life where I don’t have to cry into a bowl of vanilla popcorn every Friday night, memes are still a huge part of my life. I like to think my quality of life has improved just from the temporary distraction they’ve brought. It turns out something that seems so trivial can be incredibly influential in the long run. And so, dear reader, I leave you with the following parting quote; by this same logic, it might just be the most important piece of advice I’ll ever give:
“Born too late to explore the Earth. Born too soon to explore the galaxy. Born just in time to browse dank memes.”
— ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)
Rebecca Rhodes is an author from Baltimore, Maryland. She is a graduate of George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology's literary arts program, and attends college in California for a degree in writing. She writes everything from narrative poetry to sci-fi novels, and is publishing several books and collections in 2019.