The feeling of helplessness is among the worst experiences in life. The complete, utter lack of control. The despair that leads to resignation. It’s an awful emotion. But it’s also a learned one. It arises when we are faced with the perceived inability to make a choice, and it’s this perception that Hitori “Bocchi” Gotoh, in a heroic act of courage, decides to take on in Bocchi the Rock. In short, Bocchi discovers that she has free will and she uses it well.
In case you’ve been on a field trip to the moon for the past few months and missed the best anime series of the year, Bocchi the Rock follows the misadventures of a teenaged wannabe rocker who is so painfully introverted that she’s been named for this defining trait twice over: once by her parents (Hitori means “alone”) and again by her peers, who call her Bocchi, slang for “one who is always alone or isolated.” Everything about her, from her social anxiety to her trippy flights of catastrophic fancy, doubles down on the notion of a girl trapped in a world that is just too much for her, and that must be retreated from with haste to the safety of a closet, mandarin box, or wastepaper basket. Until one day, she makes a choice.
But before we get into Bocchi’s heroic journey, we need to check in with some German Shepherds. Trust me, it’ll all make sense!
Back in the 1960s, psychologists Martin Seligman and Steve Maier ran an experiment where they exposed a group of German Shepherds to mildly painful shocks they could not escape, while providing another group with a means to stop the shocks. Then they put the two groups of canines in a new environment where the floor on one side of the room would deliver a shock, while the other side was free from the sting of electricity. All the dogs had to do was step over a low divider to freedom from discomfort. The result was that the first group remained passive when they were shocked, staying where they were, while the second group problem-solved their way out beyond the bite of the shocks. Five decades of neuroscientific and psychological research later, and the connection between perceived lack of control on the one hand, and passivity and depression on the other, has been confirmed repeatedly, particularly among humans. Often, we even carry the helplessness we learn from one experience over into other parts of our lives. It’s a tragic pattern and one that probably resonates with all of us to some degree. Once burned, twice shy, as the saying goes.
The worst thing is that it is not just shocks and burns and traumatic situations that teach us helplessness. We also have a spiritual enemy who flings a constant stream of accusations against us, whispering doubt and deception into our thoughts, convincing us that we are helpless: “You’ll never succeed at that! Why try? What, do you think you’re special? Talented? Pfffft! No one likes you. You’ll embarrass yourself! They’ll mock you. You’re stupid for even trying!” You know what I mean. We call it negative self-talk, but it doesn’t actually begin with ourselves. It’s learned: from others around us—what they say about us, how they treat us, and what they model for us—and from the accuser, the ‘father of lies’ (as Jesus calls him), our spiritual enemy. We see both of these dynamics at play for Bocchi, with the mockery she receives from her family which, even though it may not be intentionally mean-spirited, nevertheless reinforces her sense of inadequacy, and her propensity to slip into paralyzing fear fuelled by vivid imaginings of worst-case scenarios.
But there’s good news! Regardless of the source, whether learned through past experience or internalized from the enemy into the voice of an inner critic, we can overcome even the bleakest of perceptions. When we’re faced with the emotional and spiritual death of all these accusations, God exhorts us to choose life instead, assuring us that he has given us the ability to make that choice. The key is to see it, though. To see the shining light of hope and life amid all the gloom. We need vision!
For Bocchi, that moment of vision—of seeing bright, colorful life amid the gray of her current existence—comes in the first year of middle school, when she sees a tv interview with a popular young musician. He was once like her, a shy loner, but music and joining a band gave him a whole new life. “A band is a place where even introverts can shine,” he explains. In a flash, Bocchi receives a vision of her life inverted, and it fires her up! She etches it on her heart and pursues it with reckless abandon. Later, when she hits another rough patch, her vision is renewed when her senpai Hiroi shares a similar story with her, reviving the dream and injecting Bocchi with a fresh sense of possibility and purpose.
So where do we find vision? Do we just watch a lot of pop star interviews? Not at all! Vision is actually something that Jesus promises we’ll find when we pursue him. Here’s what he says:
If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.John 8:31-32
You see, at its core, vision consists of truth that is not obvious to the world. It’s a promise of what is possible with God, despite all the evidence to the contrary. In that sense, it may even look like an impossibility in the natural—in fact, it probably will! Because it hasn’t been done yet; it’s not the norm. It’s up ahead and down the road, and we need to look to find it. And once we do, we need to write it in all caps and run with it. (Or wallpaper our bedroom walls with it, like Bocchi!) That’s the first step.
The second step is to figure out what we can do right away, in the here and now, to move toward the vision. It needs to be a choice that is within reach today and not something that will hopefully present itself one day if we’re patient. It needs to be a choice that doesn’t depend on ifs and whens. Bocchi knows straightaway what this first step is: get Dad’s guitar and start learning! (Even if it does involve English!)
Sometimes, like Bocchi, we also know immediately what to do to start moving toward that vision. Other times, it is less obvious, or the vision seems too overwhelming and we don’t know where to start. So in those cases, we ask God: what is the choice that I can make today towards this life-giving vision? We mustn’t despise the day of small beginnings and delay until we can make some grand gesture. Bocchi chooses every single day throughout middle school to play her guitar. At some point along the way, it’s not a decision anymore, it’s natural, and so she makes the next choice: she chooses to record herself playing, and then to set up a YouTube account, and then to upload something. Before we see Bocchi taking the really life-changing decisions—to join Kessoku Band, play before a live audience (even if it is only from inside a cardboard box or with one eye open!), and fill out that form for the cultural festival performance—she first took many baby steps, choices that were within reach of where she already was.
Choosing life also means saying no to ‘death,’ or the things that keep us trapped in a way of being that is far from the fullness of joy and the fulfillment of dreams that we were made to experience. But saying no to ‘death’ in this way can be harder than it sounds if we’ve learned to believe that it is more realistic or safer, due to its predictability. Bocchi not only needs to choose the vision of a life where she’s socially adept, she also must learn to say no to the haunting fears that she’s deluding herself, setting herself up for failure and embarrassment, or that she’s destined never to change. She has to say no to these lies, despite how comforting they may be in their familiarity and the false sense of security they offer.
And she does! By the end of the series, Bocchi has learned to replace a lot of the negative things she used to dwell on about herself and the disasters that would surely befall her, with positive self-talk instead. She’s taken to heart the encouraging words that Nijika and Ryo and Kita have said about her, and she reminds herself to have faith in herself. She even indulges in a fantasy of wild, outrageous success for once! Bocchi grabs hold of the truths that her friends have spoken over her and displaces the lies of fear with them. She chooses to listen to a different narrative and to own it for herself.
Then there’s step three: go to sleep, get up the next day, and do it again! We make that small choice toward the grand vision over and over again, like Bocchi as she practiced guitar every day for three years, or every time she shows up at a job that terrifies her (until it strangely doesn’t anymore), or the practice room with her bandmates. We make that choice even when it seems like we’re not getting anywhere, or when failure rears its ugly head. Even when the vision becomes clouded through our tears of pain and discouragement. “Abide in me,” said Jesus, “continue in my ways.” Perseverance isn’t glamorous, but it is transformative.
Here’s the thing though: we’re not going to get this part perfect. Bocchi certainly doesn’t! There will be days when we slip back into old patterns, and times when that small choice that was starting to come so much more easily suddenly becomes really difficult again. It happens to Bocchi after seeing her senpai Hiroi’s performance, and after filling out the form for the culture festival. She balks and wavers and melts into a puddle and turns into a Picasso painting and Edvard Munch’s The Scream and maybe even Nosferatu at one point. She struggles so much that it takes a virtual cornucopia of multimedia to fully express the depth and range of her battles with fear and anxiety along the way. So no, it won’t be perfect. And it won’t be easy. But it will still be possible, and that’s what Bocchi never loses sight of. And she is able to remember this because of a little help from her friends.
Which brings us to the final factor: we need community. We will all reach a point where we can’t continue on our own, not even knowing that God is by our side, breathing his life and love into us. Sometimes we can make it a certain distance independently, like Bocchi as she initially honed her shredding skills. But at some point, we need those bandmates! This is a hard reality for us introverts especially. But there always comes a time when we must invite others in on our journey. Maybe not in so many words—though Nijika pulls it off pretty well, basically ordering Bocchi to “Come join my band and help make my dream happen!”—but at least in practice, committing to a group effort like Bocchi, or sharing our struggle with a wise senpai (though hopefully a sober one!). Every vision requires at some point that we step out and form new relationships. And not just for the support, but also for the opportunities that community brings. The mentorship, partnership, and exponential multiplication of the power to do impossible things. This is why God himself exists in community, in the three-in-one, as the triune God.
Maybe you’ve been living life on the shocked side of the room, bracing yourself for the next stinging moment, waiting for the hurt to rise up again, feeling powerless in the face of the pain. Maybe you’ve believed that this is just what life is, and the best you can do is get better at coping. And it’s true that life does contain pain and that it is unavoidable. But it is not true that you are helpless before it, a victim of circumstances or others, whose only hope lies in the release of withdrawal. No. We have a choice set before us. We have been gifted with free will. And though we also have an enemy (and often a culture too) that seeks to deny us that free will and convince us that it’s an illusion or we don’t qualify, these are lies that we have the God-given authority to cut through.
So let’s be like Bocchi and pursue a vision of life, and life abundant! Let’s be like this courageous pink tracksuited hero and start with that one small choice that is within reach today. Let’s be like the rock that she is and be faithful in persistence, following up that small choice every day with the same exact choice over and over until it isn’t a decision any longer and we’re able to add on the next, bigger life-giving choice after it. And let’s embed ourselves in community as we pursue life.
But most of all, let’s lean on the One who gifts us life and teaches us how to reclaim it, granting us the authority to pursue life and the dreams he’s placed in our hearts.
So, who needs a guitar?
Bocchi the Rock! is streaming on Crunchyroll. Drop everything and go watch it!