It’s highly rare that 24 hours in Ann Arbor will roll by without a person coming in contact with “Is this real life?” If not that phrase exactly, slight adaptations of it are expressed — but always familial ones, like a jaguar to a lion: unreal, not real, real life. A lot of times, I may not even be receiving the information through my ears, but through the visual world of social media — particularly in the form of hashtags on Twitter.
Why do we do this? I’m fairly positive it isn’t our generation harkening back to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We are not Queen discussing remorse, but it’s unclear what we are doing. Unlike the trend of “Keep Calm and (fill-in-the-blank-here),” which originates from the World War II morale-boosting posters produced by the British government, the trend of #isthisreal has no home.
But no home doesn’t mean no parent. I think there is a very distanced parent of this trend — a young boy named David who experienced a terrifying but hilarious reaction to pain medication, made public when his father scored footage of it and uploaded it to YouTube. “David After Dentist” went viral in 2009, featuring the boy asking his dad the questions, “Why is this happening to me? Is this going to be forever?” and most importantly, “Is this real life?”
More than 100 million people watched David’s wise question, leading me to believe that this is not an orphaned trend, but rather one that started with the child’s sincere moment and has since been unleashed on Generation Y. #Isthisreal appears to have reached its current state as its own sensation, running wild on social media.
The phrase is first and foremost used to question and comment on the minor absurdities in our lives. Many times when I read or hear the variations of this “real life?,” it is referencing an excruciatingly long day, an excessively difficult exam or anything overwhelming going on in a person’s life. It’s noting something negative, perhaps a certain level of stress or exhaustion because of the specific situation, and maybe expressing it to the public makes one feel better about his or her life, which is so busy that it can’t be real.
It’s comedic, though, because when asking, “Is this real?,” there is a great possibility that the person inquiring thinks that the subject in question is not real or normal-seeming, but rather ridiculous and #unreal.
When the phrases aren’t in reference to an impressive amount of work, they are likely referencing an impressive amount of partying. Whether it’s that fifth tequila shot or the trippy light show at the Deadmau5 concert, it’s typically something enough to deem the evening far from reality. But things seem to be “not real” so often for late teens and early 20-somethings in present day that the phrase might be losing meaning before owning anything definitive to begin with.
Anytime I hear the hypothetical question fall out my mouth or anyone else’s, I want to say, “Yes, of course it’s real. We are alive and tangible.” But the idea is valid in a big way. Life can get fairly crazy and be worthy of taking a step back and asking about its nature: How are you, yourself, interacting with the crazy world?
Little kids ask the essential question numerous times a day in their own simplified ways. They wonder about almost everything they see, hear, touch, smell and experience. Something that is full of realness to them one day — possibly the amazing heart-shaped PB&J that materialized in their lunch box — could be missing the next. We are them, but with a slightly different version of reality to compare what we experience.
Is this real life? I think so. What’s real is that this phrase is one of our generation’s mechanisms of coping with the world spitting out prettiness and ugliness all around us. We like the multiple layers of reality in “Inception” and the out-of-touch, ridiculous nature of “reality” TV. We are surely fascinated by the concept on the scale of our own lives, too.