Anxious, but Not Alone
Humorist and scholar Jonny Sun invites others to resist the pressure of figuring out who they are.
By Matt Huston published July 6, 2021 - last reviewed on July 6, 2021
In Jonny Sun’s first book, a warm-hearted alien makes his way from creature to creature on an unfamiliar Earth, gradually learning about the planet and making friends. (When the alien asks a smiling egg, “Wat are u?” the egg is thrilled to reply that it doesn’t know yet.) The creator of that illustrated tale, Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too—based partly on his humorous Twitter feed—exudes a disarming congeniality. But Sun, whose eclectic résumé will soon include a Ph.D. from MIT’s urban studies and planning department, knows the anxiety and self-doubt that often get wrapped up with the drive to connect and create. With a light touch, he explores these darker matters in Goodbye, Again, a new book of drawings and essays with titles like “Everything turned out fine, all I needed to do was live under constant and overwhelming stress and pressure forever.”
You’ve used as a metaphor for work the video game Tetris, in which blocks are constantly falling on you.
There’s no end to that game, right? You keep going until you lose. I was trying to unpack the culture of productivity and the end goal of constantly producing. The other thing about Tetris is, it feels as if you’re supposed to be building a wall, but as soon as you complete anything, the progress disappears. I tend to constantly look forward in terms of what my work should be and also, I guess, who I’m trying to become. I tend to overlook the work that I’ve finished. There’s always this pressure: What’s next? That’s great that you did this thing a year ago or five years ago, but what about now?
Have too many of us come to think that guilt and worry are indispensable aspects of work?
That’s something I struggle with a lot. For many of my friends who have anxiety, there’s a question of “If I didn’t have anxiety, would I be where I am?” There’s no way to actually know how a parallel-reality version of you would be different if something were changed. We have only this one data point. And if my data point also incorporates all the anxiety and pressure and guilt, it’s really hard to picture how things would be different if it didn’t. I still use negative motivations like urgent deadlines and the guilt that I should be working as a way to push myself. But I’ve tried to find ways to work without summoning those feelings.
How do creations like your @tinycarebot—a Twitter bot that reminds followers to “drink some water please” or “rest your eyes”—reflect your mission?
For me, it’s always been about trying to identify what would help me function in my life. A lot of what I try to do is to externalize something from myself so I can look at it more objectively. That can help me give myself some empathy and kindness. The goal beyond that is to allow that kindness to be extended outward. My hope is that people who read my work can see the resonances between the things that they are dealing with and my own stuff.
A popular tweet of yours acknowledged that “we’re all gona die” before inviting everyone to a bouncy castle. How can humor help people combat isolation?
Humor is a great way to let someone know what’s going on inside your head. If you can find something funny that somebody else finds funny, that’s a very intimate connection. One thing that my anxiety does a lot is fool me into thinking that I’m the only person who thinks this way or feels this way. To be able to articulate my anxiety through humor in ways so that other people say, “I know how that feels,” is a great tool.
One of your projects at MIT, “The Laughing Room,” had an algorithm respond with a laugh track to visitors at a fake sitcom set. What inspired that?
Being a creative online, I have this question of how much I am writing for a human audience and how much of it is writing to please an algorithm in order to get me seen by humans. We were interested in how, in a space where you give up control to an algorithm, you start to rearrange your own ideas of what performance and humor are. The algorithm in “The Laughing Room” had its own logic for deciding what was funny, and sometimes it would laugh at random. Some people started to say, “Oh, I guess what I said was funny,” just because the laugh track laughed at it.
Your work spans architecture, drama, illustration, comedy, and more. What drives you to pursue so many different outlets?
I see it as almost an act of rebellion. Growing up, there’s a pressure to put yourself into a box or give people easy ways to define you—to have an elevator pitch for yourself. I often wonder where that pressure to be simply defined comes from. I think it ties to how you are supposed to define yourself as valuable to a system. There’s a part of me that thinks it’s fun to not be valuable or to be confusing about where your value is.
Your writing often grapples with a sense of not fully knowing who you are.
There is this child-of-immigrants feeling of growing up between multiple cultures that, perhaps, predisposes you to thinking about spaces and belonging. I learned very early on that I was one way at home and another way at school and another way with specific friends. I got a lot of practice at being able to code-switch and to read the room to know how to appropriately exist in each space. I think that there’s something about that experience of molding myself to different contexts that makes me wonder: When I don’t have something to react to, who am I? I’m still trying to figure that out.