I’ve seen dark before
But not like this
This is cold
This is empty
This is numb
The life I knew is over
The lights are out
I’m ready to succumb…
This moment in Frozen 2—as Anna finds herself trapped in a cave and totally alone after watching Olaf disintegrate and realizing that meant something horrible had happened to Elsa—isn’t for kids. In fact, when I saw Frozen 2 in theaters on its opening night back in 2019, I remember hearing lots of tiny sniffles as Olaf turned to snowflakes and thinking that this was going to traumatize a heck of a lot of children for years to come.
Luckily, the trauma is short-lived—this is a Disney movie, after all (and not Bambi). But as with all emotionally compelling media, the point isn’t that we know Elsa and Olaf are most likely going to be fine because we know how these movies work. The point is that Anna doesn’t know this. And she’s written so well—and her moment of grief is written so well—that we’re able to suspend our disbelief as if we’re right in that cave with her, trying to figure out how to survive in a world that’s suddenly changed beyond recognition.
Trying to figure out if we want to survive in a world that’s suddenly changed beyond recognition.
It doesn’t seem like a moment Anna should have. She’s the perky princess who sees the good in everyone. She’s the ray of sunshine to her sister’s ice and snow. She always has a smile, always tries to find the bright side, and always seems to make the best of a bad situation (see her entire childhood and adolescence kept locked away in a castle without even her sister to talk to). She’s a woman of action, never giving up—even in the craziest of circumstances.
But that’s exactly why it matters.
Because grief and depression are things that can affect anyone. And the idea that “happy” people can’t be depressed, extroverted people can’t be lonely, and take-charge people can’t be immobilized by grief does so much damage to people who are suffering but feel they have to do so in silence because struggling doesn’t fit their personality—that no one would believe them if they said they feel like they can’t keep going because they’ve always kept going through whatever else life has thrown at them.
Anna—one of the most popular Disney princesses in the most popular Disney animated franchise—is so consumed by her grief that she can’t see a reason to keep going. If she stays in that dark and isolated cave—the physical representation of depression—she’s going to die in there. And for a moment, things seem so bad and she feels so hopeless that she seriously considers it.
It’s an important moment for kids to witness—even if they’re hopefully too young to understand what she’s describing. Because they’re going to internalize the message that sometimes even the brightest people feel the darkness pressing in, that there’s no shame in struggling with loss or sadness—no matter who you are or what your life looks like on the outside—and that they’re not alone if they ever start to feel that way as they grow up. Because even Princess Anna felt hopeless and lost once too.
And they’re also going to internalize the message that there’s a way out of that darkness if they ever feel stuck in it.
Do the next right thing.
They may be 5 small words, but they’ve left a big impact on so many people.
People like me.
Do the next right thing.
Late at night last week, I had a panic attack in the shower. It was exhausting and awful, and one of the few things I remember from those moments of shaking and crying and feeling like I was drowning was saying out loud in between sobs, “I just don’t know what to do.”
I have a tendency to spiral when I’m left alone with my own thoughts for too long. That’s always been true. My thoughts race ahead faster than an Olympic track star, and they tend to go in circles like one too. I’m someone who likes to always have the right answer, but lately I’ve been grappling with some big questions that don’t seem to have one. I’m someone who believes in listening to her gut, but lately I’ve been having a hard time hearing it—or maybe it’s more that I’ve been having a hard time accepting and acting on what it’s been telling me.
But in that moment—when I was at my lowest—I could hear it loud and clear:
Do the next right thing.
There it was—the answer to maybe the biggest question.
What do I do?
Do the next right thing.
When Kristen Bell (whose performance of this song is one of the greatest moments of voice acting in any Disney film) talks about “The Next Right Thing,” she talks about her own battles with anxiety and depression and how for her, doing the next right thing is sometimes as basic as getting out of bed, making coffee, and brushing her teeth.
For me, the next right thing that night was to take a few deep breaths, wash my hair, and go to sleep.
Some days, the next right thing is to drink some water or eat a snack if I’m hungry. Other times, it’s doing something small for someone else—texting someone to let them know I’m thinking of them or telling someone I love them or helping in whatever other little ways I can. And sometimes it’s doing something small for me—watching something that makes me smile or reading something that helps me relax or talking to someone when I need to feel loved or seen.
Baby steps. They’re what this song is all about—and they’re the safest way to make it from the depths of darkness back into the light.
The pandemic gave us all a lot of time to sit with uncomfortable truths—about the world at large, about people we know, and about ourselves. And part of the process of rebuilding our lives after a year of doing very little with our free time (whatever small amounts of that we have) besides diving deep into the dark waters of introspection is figuring out how to take the truths we’ve accepted or the things we now believe or the losses we’ve experienced and carry them into the next chapter of our lives.
It can feel incredibly overwhelming.
But it starts to feel a little easier if we make it seem a little smaller. Or, in the words of Princess Anna:
Take a step, step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing…
“The Next Right Thing” is primarily a song about grief. It’s a song about a young woman mourning the loss of her favorite person—and it’s also a song about someone who defined herself by how well she protected and cared for her sister grappling with “How to rise from the floor / When it’s not you I’m rising for.” How does she redefine herself and find a new purpose if her sister is gone?
One step at a time.
That focus on putting one foot in front of the other is an important part of navigating not just the loss of a loved one, but also so many other kinds of losses—the loss of a relationship for any number of reasons, the loss of a dream or possibility that you know will never come true, the loss of certainty that comes with growing up and asking hard questions, the loss of yourself in times of self-doubt and struggle…
Like Anna in this moment, sometimes in the midst of darkness, we can see a light—but it can seem too far away to reach. However, if we stop thinking about how far away it seems and instead focus on taking each step as it comes, the journey gets easier.
For me, when I start getting lost in problems that seem to have no solution that can make everyone happy or forks in the road on my journey that I never imagined having to consider, I take comfort in these lines:
I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath
This next step
This next choice is one that I can make…
This is the ultimate “spiral survival kit.” Trying to see too far ahead, to plan all the possible consequences of every possible action, to analyze every path—it can paralyze you and leave you trapped in the darkness. However, if you think about life as a series of small actions that add up, you can keep going. Because we all have the power to make the next choice and take the next step—even if the big decisions and leaps of faith seem too hard to think about right now.
Another way we get trapped in the darkness is by thinking we have to make it out perfectly. We often think that we’re supposed to find our way without making a mistake or struggling or showing the world we’re having a hard time. We often think that there’s a “good” way to work through grief or depression or anxiety—and that we’re not doing it correctly when we’re taking longer than we’d like to heal or struggle more than we think we should or do it in a way that’s not quiet or easy for the people around us to deal with.
But there’s no “perfect” way to go through a hard time. Which brings me to my favorite part of “The Next Right Thing”—the part that has made me cry every single time I listen to it for the last 18+ months:
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing…
That’s all we can do. That’s what it means to be human. We’re all just stumbling blindly toward the light. We’re doing the best we can, and that’s enough.
It’s what I tell myself on bad days: You don’t have to do it perfectly. You just have to stumble blindly toward the light.
And maybe that’s what this is.
Maybe this is me stumbling blindly toward the light.
It’s not perfect. It may not even be good.
It’s not going to answer all my big questions or make all the hard choices go away. It’s not going to solve all the world’s problems—or even all of mine.
But it’s a start. Sharing my story has always been how I start to find the light when it’s hard. And today, the little voice that pulled me out of my panic a week ago told me it was time to share this part of my story.
I’ll make the choice
To hear that voice
And do the next right thing.
“We often think that we’re supposed to find our way without making a mistake or struggling or showing the world we’re having a hard time.”
Oh look, it’s my whole approach to everything 😉 And the next sentence too but wow is the urge to not show anyone when I’m struggling a strong one, even when I can logically recognize that I have reasons to not be doing great. But as you have reminded me so many times, I get to struggle and feel however it is that I’m feeling at the moment and don’t always have to keep those feelings locked up and away from everyone else.
But I love the of focusing on the next thing you can do because sometimes the big picture is too overwhelming and unknown but I can get some more water and turn on something that makes me feel good or text you and give myself some comfort that way even if it doesn’t fix the problem.
I’m so proud of you for getting this out and sharing it and being honest that being a person is sometimes an overwhelming nightmare. I’ll be there to take all those next steps with you ❤
Sometimes I write things for you and want you to figure them out along the way, and I am very happy when you’re actually not a Hobi and let yourself believe it’s for you. Those sentences were for you. And so is the advice that comes after—there’s no right way to do any of this, and you get to struggle and say it and show it. And I know that’s hard, so even if it’s just me you say it and show it too, that’s OK for now (and forever if that’s what you need because I’m here for the long haul). And even if the next right thing isn’t an immediate fix for the problem, I will always remind you that it’s a step on the way to making it feel better—and it’s a step you deserve to take no matter what it looks like on any given day.
Thanks for taking all those next steps with me. Like I told you earlier, I’m shockingly bad at letting people help me or take care of me in one-on-one situations and I’m much more comfortable sharing my struggles in ways that allow for some distance, but you’ve always been warm and gentle enough that you made me want to get closer instead of staying a “safe” distance away because you showed me that the closer I get to you, the safer I feel. Writing like this only happens when I feel like I can run back to that safety when I need it, so thanks for giving it to me so freely.
Sweetie! I love the fact that you’ve used Frozen 2 for this. We forget the didactic purpose of Fairy Tales. They teach children that the world could be both wondrous and dangerous. That appearances can be — and quite often are — deceiving. That virtues such as kindness take work, but are rewarded. We forget the deep and hard truths that “children’s stories” can communicate. (Look at how well Tangled pictured toxic family relationships with Gothel.) So, yeah, good stuff there. Plus, a truth you can sing to yourself? That’s just double goodness.
Lovely job on unpacking the importance of doing the next RIGHT thing. Just one step at a time. Because the next step leads to the next step. Sometimes the wins are small things — hey! I got out of bed and fixed breakfast! Or even the normal things — hey! I went to work and did my job and everyone lived! Ok, that’s probably a big thing. Also, I just watched the first episode of Leverage: Redemption and there’s a chance I identify with Parker and her stabbiness.
Once again, Katie, I love how you share your struggle, so we can all take a breath, hold hands, and move toward the light together.