There is a very of-the-moment essay over at Matter that’s incredibly persuasive and enjoyable, called “Against Chill.” In it, Alana Massey cold-cocks the concept, stripping this clamored-for laid-back state of its glassy-eyed pose and exposing it for the zombified, emotionally bankrupt act it often is. But as much as I love the spirit of the piece, I can’t fully agree with it.
Because I am not against chill. I’m for chill—sometimes. And you should be, too—sometimes. Everyone needs some chill in their lives—sometimes. The trick is figuring out when.
But let’s start with Massey’s argument. She begins with the Great Chill Massacre of 2014, an unspecified day last year when she realized that’d she written herself into a corner of chill with the six men she was casually seeing. She was playing it way too cool, when in fact she wanted something serious. Massey writes:
My willingness to call dates “hanging out” in perpetuity sometimes gives the impression that I am in possession of the amorphous and increasingly desirable characteristic of Chill. And so in a fit of shamelessness and glory, I sent some variation of the text, “I’m actually looking for something serious so I’m not planning to see you anymore” to all six of them. Incredulity and attempts to lure me back into my Chill with more empty promises that we could “see where it goes” were ignored or actively mocked. I killed what little Chill I actually had and I shed no tears for it.
Smart move! Nothing questionable (or even particularly unchill, really) about taking this stance. Knowing what you want is a good thing. If you’re on the chill train with some dudes and it’s getting stagnant, bail. Definitely bail. Fuck that sort of chill if what you want is a label, a grand gesture, Lloyd Dobler with a boombox—the cinematic antithesis of chill. And of course, here, Massey is talking less about chill than about game—the art of pretending nonchalance about something that you’re actually invested in.
Then, she goes on to define chill as something well beyond game—as a permanent state of being, and one that’s not so admirable either. Chill, to her, is a state of utter abandonment; a life without passion and purpose.
To the uninitiated, having Chill and being cool are synonyms. They describe a person with a laid-back attitude, an absence of neurosis, and reasonably interesting tastes and passions. But the person with Chill is crucially missing these last ingredients because they are too far removed from anything that looks like intensity to have passions. They have discernible tastes and beliefs but they are unlikely to materialize as passionate. Passion is polarizing; being enthusiastic or worked up is downright obsessive. Excessive Chill is “You do you” taken to its most extreme conclusion, giving everyone’s opinions and interests equal value so long as they’re authentically ours.
First, we can all agree on one thing: anyone who’s so averse to intensity that they’ve become passionless is a shell of a person. They should get instantly discarded from our lives. Sometimes you have to hang out for a hot minute in order to discern that someone is empty—but then, after that, you’ve got to cut that shit loose and move on.
Second, Massey is right that cool and chill are not the same thing, nor do they go hand in hand. Chill is less a synonym of cool than it is cool’s laid-back cousin. You can be cool but not chill: magnetic, fascinating, fun without being easygoing. Conversely, you can be laid-back without being interesting or confident—chill without being cool. And crucially, both states can be pretended to; both states can also be genuine. Ideally, a state of being both cool and chill is a state of maximum self-possession, an ease about navigating life. And that state comes with a huge caveat: you have to know when to be vulnerable, when to turn it off. When to be bothered.
Though I’m tempted to list a number of situations where being chill is absolutely essential to living—group hangs, bachelorette parties, large dinner parties, traveling, shopping for a car—this essay was focused exclusively on romance, so that’s where I’ll stay. And this place leads me to Sense and Sensibility, the Jane Austen tale of sisters and their distinctly different approaches to love. Elinor has mad chill. Marianne has no chill. She has so little chill when it comes to the game of love that she’s always saying stuff like this:
It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;—it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.
Who do you think fell in love too fast, wrote too many letters and never once disguised her emotions, and as a result practically died from heartbreak? Exactly. Most of us are Marianne wishing desperately we were Elinor. We all want chill. We need chill. It’s exquisite armor, often intended not to protect us not from others but ourselves. Without it, love is all risk and bee stings. The point, ultimately, is reaching a balance between vulnerability and self-possession: even Elinor is smart enough to lose a little bit of her chill when it counts.
Chill matters in love because there has to be a period of consideration—a look before the leap. There are seasons in love, and chill is one of them. There’s a time to laugh, a time to weep, a time to tell someone you are so into them that you would catch their vomit in your bare hands. There’s also a time to act like it’s no bigs if they don’t call you back for a second. Life is long and chill is important. Get some.
Chill, at any rate, is not the same thing as the emotional paralysis Massey makes it out to be. It’s temporary. It’s situational. No one is truly chill all the time unless they are on sedatives. Everybody cares about something somewhere sometime. The entire process of getting to know someone is figuring out exactly what that shit is. And real love, the state of being truly compelled, makes it nearly impossible to be chill. Even for the chillest among us, the jig is always up eventually—when the time’s right.
It’s true that the casual approach to romance these days creates, if nothing else, this illusion that endless options exist. But low-key, no-obligation hangs are a mirage in the desert. Like Massey figures out, they create an illusion of beating the system while ultimately just lowering the bar. There’s still only gonna be a couple of hosebeasts you could ever really get with in the end. That’s life. No matter how chill you are.
And I’ll give it to Massey, who keeps sizzling her case in the court of chill:
Chill has now slithered into our romantic lives and forced those among us who would like to exchange feelings and accountability to compete in the Blasé Olympics with whomever we are dating. Oh, I’m sorry, I mean whomever we are “hanging out with.” Whomever we are “talking to.” Chill asks us to remove the language of courtship and desire lest we appear invested somehow in other human beings. To even acknowledge that there might be an emotional dimension to talking or dating or hanging out or coming over or fucking or whatever the kids are calling it all these days feels forbidden. It is a game of chicken where the first person to confess their frustration or confusion loses.
But Chill is not the opposite of uptight. It is the opposite of demanding accountability. Chill is a sinister refashioning of “Calm down!” from an enraging and highly gendered command into an admirable attitude. Chill suggests that young love is best expressed as competitive ambivalence. Chill demands that you see a Read receipt followed by a “Hey, was asleep” text three hours later and not proceed to throw your phone into the nearest volcano. Chill asks you to be like, “LOL, what volcano?” Chill presides over the funeral of reasonable expectations. Chill takes and never gives. Chill is pathologically unfeeling but not even interesting enough to kill anyone. Chill is a garbage virtue that will destroy the species. Fuck Chill.
Well, for one, everyone just turn off those read receipts right now! For two, yeah, I get this. Man, do I get these vibes. But I have to say, this seems like a problem of being too close to the issue to have the proper perspective. Again, none of those six bro-hams of chill were even that likely to be secretly harboring stun-guns of love under that veneer. They were just taking advantage of the no-declaration status—just as they assumed Massey was doing. No one was all that compelled yet, including her.
This far precedes millennials, anyway. Ever since courtship moved out of supervised living rooms and into backseats, gone was the ritual of a clear purpose, a stated agenda when it comes to love. Some people still prefer as a matter of course to state up front that they are looking for something serious right from the get-go, which is a very good move, all things considered; it eliminates most of the contenders right off the bat. It takes a long time to realize this, but things not working out with people quickly is a beautiful gift. Whittle the six dudes you’re dating down to the two you actually really could’ve liked and then let the chill fall as it will.
It’s important to remember that the real thing still cuts through. And no, I don’t mean there’s only one perfect soulmate. There are plenty; what there isn’t enough of is time. Don’t ever misread hanging out with rad chill buds you could fuck if you wanted as an embarrassment of riches in the game of real human connection. But let the chill be chill. If you’re looking for the opposite, consider it a blessing. Think of chill not as a degradation of the process of romance, but rather, a very efficient tool for separating the wheat from the chaff. Because if you play this right, they will actually just eventually eliminate themselves. How fucking chill is that?
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.