Running Up That Hill

There are moments in everyone’s life when it becomes abundantly clear to them that they aren’t as good of a person as they thought they were. Dark thoughts begin to creep in during these moments, and we find ourselves at our weakest. We learn the hard truth that much of the control and strength we think we have is a mere illusion. Most people learn how to move past these moments, whether through the help of faith, friends and family, or tools like therapy and music. However, these dark thoughts and hard truths can be exacerbated all the more by mental illness.

The rising generations are known to be more afflicted by mental health problems than any generation before, so it isn’t a surprise that the plot lines of the newest season of the wildly popular Stranger Things all touch on the connection between the mind and reality. In its first week alone, season four amassed 7.2 billion minutes of watch time on Netflix. The plot shows how things that happen in your mind can have very real effects in daily life—even to the point of death. One of the reasons for the show’s popularity is its relatability. As the characters and their stories unfold, viewers are able to empathize as they struggle with their own mental illness.

At the end of the previous season, Eleven (or El), the young protagonist with telekinetic powers, defeats a deadly monster from the Upside Down, a parallel dimension that is a shadowy reflection of ours. The strain of the fight leaves El powerless and her friends traumatized—especially Max, who watched her brother get horrifically killed by the monster. They all believed that the Upside Down had been closed forever, but they quickly realize this isn’t the case, as two students are found dead, their bodies mutilated. They discover that Vecna, a new and more powerful monster in the Upside Down, was able to break into the student’s minds and memories to make them experience the worst moments of their lives and their worst fears. Then, at their weakest, he kills them. Max, struggling with dark and complex thoughts after her brother’s death, is his next target.

A Darkening World
As our world becomes a darker, more dangerous place, it is becoming increasingly difficult to look around and not feel the kind of dread and mental trauma that Vecna’s victims experience. This is especially the case for younger generations. Many have grown up in a world where acts of terrorism and hatred are the norm—where they need to be on a constant lookout for people who want to hurt them. In their home lives, they have grown up with almost 50% of adults in their lives getting divorced. In light of these things and the historic COVID-19 pandemic, many get the feeling that they are living through events that will be recorded in the history books. The world seems to them a much more frightening place than it ever has been before. Add to that their personal struggles and it makes living feel like a nearly impossible choice to make.

The effects of these real world problems on the mind can feel overwhelming, and living with them for an extended period of time begins to weigh down even the most mentally strong. They affect a person’s ability to function in daily life in a variety of ways like conversing, eating, accomplishing tasks, and more. Some even feel a general disinterest in everything. But all of these things point to the same thing—a person who is becoming weaker and losing a fight to the world’s darkness as illness sinks deeper into his or her mind.

Struggling to Hear Hope
In Stranger Things, when Max is put under Vecna’s ‘spell’ and he is preparing to kill her, her friends realize that if they play her favorite song, it can offer her a way to escape Vecna’s clutches. There is something to this, as studies show that music can improve mental health and many in Gen Z find listening to music helps them feel less anxious. Somehow, music is able to communicate on a deeper level than mere words can. But it can only take them so far. It is still Max who is the one who has to choose to take the way out. What makes this increasingly difficult is Vecna whispering all her darkest, most painful thoughts and memories to her as she struggles to make her choice between death and life. When all you can hear is hopelessness, it feels foolish to take a step towards hope. And it feels even more foolish to take your eyes off that hopelessness for one second because you don’t know what will happen if you do.

The song offers Max a way out of the darkness, but it can’t save her. It is Max who has to tear her eyes away from the darkness and, in doing so, take a step towards hope. She has to remember the moments filled with joy and light that she has experienced—only this can give her the strength to escape Vecna. That is why when she faces Vecna again, she says that she will “run to the light,” in the opposite direction of the darkness that he shows her, and hide there. In this beautiful moment, Stranger Things and the Bible have the same message for their audience: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The God of Light
As Christians, we are not defenseless to the darkness of the world. God can and does protect our minds. He promises us that if we tell him all our fears and anxieties, then “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). In light of this, it can often be confusing when, in spite of praying, our problems and the feelings of pain, anxiety, and sadness don’t go away. Where is this unfailing peace God speaks of in the face of this? Why doesn’t God take away difficulty and the emotions that come with it?

It is a hard lesson to learn that when God promises to give us peace, he doesn’t tell us that he will end the difficulty or give us the answers we are looking for. That is why his peace surpasses all understanding—it feels foolish to be at peace in the midst of the darkness of the world, but God gives us the ability to do just that. Our circumstances may not change, but God can change our minds so that we don’t experience the pain, anxiety, and sadness of the darkness in the same hopeless way. However, if we are convinced that only our own solutions to our problems can save us, we will not experience the peace that we long for and God wants to give us. He tells us “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm. 46:10). Our circumstances may not change, but through knowing God himself we are changed, encouraged, and given hope.

God wants us to trust in him alone and to set our minds on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). These are things of the light. In a very real way we can “hide in the light,” like Max says, by finding our “refuge and strength” in God (Psalm 46:1). When the lies of this world whisper in our minds, telling us that we are nothing more than our darkest thoughts and memories, we can remember that God hasn’t forgotten who he created us to be and that he made us in his image. He sees all the ways that we can shine his light and hope to a broken and dark world. All we need to do is take our eyes off the troubles before us and in our own minds and choose to look towards God (Hebrews 12:2, NKJV).

By Rebecca Sachaj

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Rebecca Sachaj

Rebecca Sachaj is enthusiastic about helping fellow believers deepen their relationship with God. After finishing her Bachelor of Arts in Rhetoric and Writing, she pursued further study in Apologetics through The Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics. She plans to obtain her Masters in Apologetics, focusing on the connection between the Christian Imagination and Apologetics. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado with her two dogs, Strider and Samwise.