Illustration: Angelica Alzona (G/O Media)
Advice for the End of the WorldAdvice for the End of the WorldFor Ellie Shechet, it is nearly always time to freak out. Advice for the End of the World is a limited-edition advice column for catastrophic thinkers, by a catastrophic thinker, in a time of looming catastrophe.
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Ellie! Help!

I always want to talk shit, and I’ve always made friends with other people who talk shit. Is this just how humans connect, or do I have a character flaw? Are other people judging me for it? And even if other people do it, are they indulging more moderately or something? Am I capable of human connection that doesn’t hinge on negativity??

For this question, I would like to use Love Island as a textual reference. Love Island, if you somehow do not know, is a British reality television show about a group of gleaming 20-somethings who are competitively trying to couple up with each other while confined to a blindingly white and neon villa on an island we never see. The islanders’ daily directive, primarily, is to A) flirt, have sex in front of the cameras, and engage in romantic drama; and B) stomp around in bathing suits and talk about each other. In Season 3 of Love Island, of which I have watched 45 episodes (at one hour apiece), the shit-talking eventually comes to a head when, during a competition, Gabby and Marcel are revealed to have talked shit about Montana and Alex—over text. A heretofore invisible line was abruptly crossed.

“I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t just say it out loud. Why would it be done over text?” Amber asks Gabby.

“It just looks so much more calculating, rather than just actually debating it,” Montana adds.

Gabby starts to cry. (This show is brutal and I am sorry to... God?... for watching it.)

I think everyone does talk shit, to a certain extent. We are social animals, and we get on each other’s nerves. It can be so fun to “have a cheeky goss,” as they might say in ye olde merry England, and so tiring to discuss actual “topics.” But the thing about shit-talking is that the line between reasonable bitching and unacceptable meanness is very porous and ever-changing and difficult to spot and highly dependent on the situation. It’s a risk, in other words. So if shit-talking is something you’ve adopted as a kind of personality trait, like you’re describing, it’s completely understandable that you might feel a little bit vulnerable.

“You know,” my friend Clio says, when you have gone too far. You feel sort of itchy and bad in your gut, either right then or maybe slowly, over the next few days—or perhaps, in your case, that feeling has begun to express itself retrospectively. I think the fact that you’re asking me this question means that you have located a line, and feel uncomfortably close to it, and are ready to reconsider some old habits.

I am—I like to think?! Sometimes?!—more cautious about talking shit than I used to be. I have always been, and probably will always be, extravagantly unaware of the consequences or even full meaning of my statements until a hard five seconds post-delivery, but I had an awful formative experience in my late teens where mean, thoughtless things I said got back to people and really hurt them and torched my own life a little bit, and that caused me to permanently feel a little paranoid.

So I have a pretty specific, and somewhat self-protective, perspective on this. For me—and maybe for some of the people you’re hanging out with—shit-talking can also trigger some insecurities. When I hear someone speaking really negatively or judgmentally, even in a fun way, about their friends and acquaintances, I don’t necessarily judge them for it—we all occasionally do this!—so much as feel a bit selfishly nervous that when I’m not around, they’re also judging me, and talking about me, or that someday I, too, will inevitably do something to invite their disdain and dismissal. It makes it harder for me to let my guard down, and I am sometimes afraid to join in, endlessly aware that I, like whoever’s up for discussion (and everyone in the world), am flawed and weird and questionable. When we judge other people, we get to feel momentarily superior, and for me, that can feel like a transparent lie, and a target on my own back.

A little negativity is highly normal, I think. Most people are not, let’s say, Love Island star Camilla Thurlow, whose remarkably successful reality television brand was “kindness,” and who insipidly declared that she missed the fake plastic baby she shared with her partner during a challenge on the show. But everyone, including you, is capable of human connection that does not hinge on negativity. We often define ourselves by our habits, but they’re just habits.

“Be the shit-talking you want to see in the world,” suggested my friend Joanna. I really agree.

Ellie! Help!

I’m a normal woman without much attendant anxiety, except for one small issue: I am constantly paranoid that I have left my front door unlocked OR that I have left a candle burning in my apartment almost every time I leave my home. For clarity, the former has never happened and the latter, only once. Is this anxiety normal, or does it mean that I’m anxious about other things in my life? What, if anything, on a practical level, can I do to make it so that I don’t feel this way?

Okay. Listen, sometimes, I think it is all right to embrace our paranoias. What, exactly, is the huge downside of this one—that you will double-check that you locked your door more often than necessary? That you will never accidentally burn down your apartment building? It’s never a great thing to be driven towards specific actions by feelings of fear or anxiety, but in this very low-stakes case, “normal woman without much attendant anxiety” (Who are you? No offense!), I don’t see an enormous problem.

That said, if you’re still looking for a practical fix, Jezebel culture editor Clover Hope suggests speaking out loud as you perform your dreaded task in order to anchor your memory—like, “I’m locking my door,” or “I’m blowing out this candle.” Incredible? I am actually going to try this.

Ellie! Help!

Should I let my cats be outdoor cats, possibly dooming them and our local bird population, or do I keep them inside, possibly killing their souls slowly? 

This question is impossible! From an ecological standpoint, everyone should keep their cats indoors. Outdoor cats (who we do not need) kill an estimated billions of birds (who we do need) per year in the U.S. Cats are essentially an invasive species, and have an outsized effect on the local ecosystem. And as you’ve noted, depending on where you live, your cat’s own physical safety can be compromised by letting them out. Morally, in the long run, I’m afraid the answer might fall on the side of protecting birds.

It’s also obviously true that keeping animals penned up is not ideal or particularly humane. In a previous column, I wrote about the #health #journey of my cat Bunny, who was once a sickly and irritable indoor cat and is now a self-actualized and joyous outdoor boy in Kentucky. I don’t think he’s killed any birds, because he is very slow and fat (my brother has observed that instead of running, Bunny “hurries”), but I do really worry about this.

Basically—and it pains me to say it, because I have clearly not lived by these rules—if you live in a tiny apartment, don’t get a cat. They’ll be miserable. If you have some space, and are willing to invest time and money in keeping your cat(s) reasonably occupied and entertained, consider keeping them indoors, or allowing them outside on supervised visits only. We’re running out of birds!

This has been the final Advice for the End of the World.

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About the author

Ellie Shechet

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.