What Do You Live For?

The Search for Fulfillment in the Limitless Possibilities of Young Adulthood, as Told by Search Party

CJ Green / 2.2.21

Late in the fourth season of Search Party, the main characters reunite at a little café. Dory, the show’s lead, has survived a major trauma. She has bruises on her face. Her head’s shaven. Having no clothes of her own, she’s wearing a sweatshirt picked up from a small-town shop. By contrast, her three friends (Drew, Portia, and Elliott) are finely dressed, eager to resume normal life together. They’re visibly upset by Dory’s disheveled appearance, disturbed by her vulnerability. They sip coffee and try not to stare. Suddenly she asks them, “What do you live for? Like, what gets you up in the morning?”

The question unsettles her friends, as it might anyone asked point-blank. There’s a quiet condemnation beneath it, especially if an answer doesn’t come readily to mind. Watching Drew, Portia, and Elliott ramble in response, I wondered what I might say. I can hear an acquaintance arguing that pleasurable experiences are what make life meaningful (no). I hear someone else pontificating about having a positive impact (better), someone else preaching about love (yes).

But Search Party doesn’t let us off so easily. If these absurd characters are good at anything, it’s preaching a good word. They’re prone to wildly un-self-aware sermonettes that almost always implicate the mixed motives of the speaker. How often love and charity arrive in the passenger’s seat of some ulterior motive: advancing self-image, career, social standing. Whenever authenticity is the prescription, artificiality seems to be the pill. (Later, one character realizes, dismayed, “I’m a person playing a person playing a person!”)

Dory’s question spotlights all the ways her friends have tried to make meaning out of what is specifically devoid of it. It’s like a cellphone-light illuminating the empty rituals of young adulthood, the bad parties, bad jobs, corrupt charities. To some degree, you could classify Search Party as a satire about dumb millennials in a city you’ll probably never live in. But it sings with a judgment worth hearing.

We may not be as helpless as Dory, Drew, Portia, and Elliott, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any adult under, maybe, fifty, whose most serious #goals were not so dissimilar from an insecure teenager’s. Look good, feel good, garner praise, acclaim, and affirmation, be popular (followers = money). In the words of author Hanya Yanagihara, we live in the “days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seem[s] weak-willed and ignoble.”

Yanagihara’s own characters, in her novel A Little Life, are not as absurd as Search Party’s, but they have much in common. They’re young, driven. Ambition and atheism are what they all have in common. “There were times,” Yanagihara continues, “when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your own fault.”

It’s tempting to believe that happiness is within our control, but more often than not, the more we pursue it, the more elusive it seems. Similarly, in Search Party, Portia exclaims, “I’m doing all this self-help” — and then, raising her voice furiously — “I’m so exhausted trying to find my f***ing power!”

I love that line. (I love this whole show.) Not because it’s a joke on my generation, but because I so deeply relate, and I don’t think that says anything special about me. How relieving, then, to recall this line from the Book of Common Prayer: “We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

Why do you get up in the morning? “You just do,” Drew says, exasperated. “You just get up, because you have to. … Generally we have it very easy. Do you think starving people in other countries ask themselves these questions? Do you think that our ancestors did? No, they just got up. They got up, and then they painted their little caves or made tools out of a saber tooth tiger tooth or whatever, okay? They just did. They just got up.”

Sounds convincing, but is it true? That “generally we have it very easy”? When you really investigate it, the foundation for this so-called ease is at best suspicious, at worst frighteningly hollow. It might be the trap door of meritocracy, or the wishful thinking of wealth as wellness. In any case, Dory, at least, hasn’t found “it very easy.” Still, Drew is not entirely wrong: her question is a peculiarly modern one. And maybe her aimlessness is a consequence of that question’s very existence — that life’s meaning is not a given. It’s a question.

In pursuit of an answer, Dory has driven herself deeper into a grave of her own making. Scarred physically and emotionally, she has become the very picture of powerlessness. “I think there’s something wrong with me,” she confesses. “I’m just terrified that there’s this person deep down inside of me that I don’t fully understand.” Considering the unfortunate twists of her life, she realizes, “I made all this happen.” But her friends don’t have time to hear it. They’re too busy trying to escape their own troubles. They must get back to their careers, homes, to “normalcy.” (When Dory leaves, Elliott says, “This is mean, but she sounds like an idiot. That was like a conversation you have with someone in college.”)

But it doesn’t take long for Drew, Portia, and Elliott to spiral into their own collegiate confessions. Later in the episode, on some roadside, once again stranded both geographically and existentially, they admit that, like Dory, they don’t know who they are. They take turns sharing how terrible they feel, how misguided, how “despicable.” And it’s true. They’re bad friends. They’re rarely around when they’re needed. And if they’re around, they’ll probably say the wrong thing. Their way of offering comfort is a way of comforting themselves.

I think of the famous friends from the biblical story of Job, how horribly they consoled him, how they almost compulsively said the things he didn’t need to hear. I think of the friends of Jesus, scattered by his sudden arrest, denying their association with him when it was most crucial. And I think of his famous words, booming through the ages: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” It is not because anyone is good at friendship that this language is powerful.

In Search Party, the main characters are friends from college. But they are also more than that. They don’t have anyone else. Like many of today’s young adults, they’re estranged from family, and their selfish pursuits have alienated other friends and partners. They are each others’ horrible, dysfunctional family. And in other ways, they are also perfect strangers. So poorly do they understand one another that it is a mystery they remain involved in each other’s lives at all. It is almost as if they are just people who keep showing up for seemingly no reason.

Picture again Dory at that café. Exhausted, bewildered — a metaphor for all of us, maybe today — sitting among a group of misunderstanding people in some random town, wondering what it is we wake up for. As the writer David Samuels put it recently, “the most important events of my life, and your life, will always take place more or less within a 25-foot radius of wherever we are standing.”

For her reason to live, Dory could search the world. But no matter how unpalatable it may seem, the answer is already looking her in the face.