the worst may happen, but you can’t count on it

4/10/11

A couple of weeks back, I asked about everyone’s biggest environmental or societal fear, and I’ve found myself in a lot of related conversations since then. I started to do a little research on the most common modes of preparation for the worst, and realized two things: first, I had done most of this research already; and two, I was beginning to feel old feelings that made me tremendously uncomfortable.

People can often be put into binary equations – either you’re a cat person or dog person, you’re a narcissist or a neurotic, you’re an alcoholic or you just don’t get addicted. I’d add another such equation to the picture: some of you are inexorably drawn toward apocalyptic thinking, and the rest of you don’t see the point. I speak as someone who had been the former, but made great pains to become the latter.

When I say this, I’m drawing a distinction between those who want to be somewhat prepared for any eventuality, and those who have low-level, chronic End of Society scenarios playing out in their heads. It may sound like a rare condition, but believe me, there are way more people walking around with the weight of world-wide worry on their heads than you think.

For today, I’m going to keep this pretty general, but I’d like to say something about modern Apocalysm: it’s not worth it. No good can come of it. You may think you’re getting yourself prepared, but all you’re really doing is feeding an addiction. Something about the world falling apart resonates with something deep and broken in yourself, and I should know, because I’m guilty of it all.

Sure enough, I’ll write a blog with all the disaster preparedness and scenario management work we’ve done, but for now, this is what I’ve learned over the last decade:

• Researching your greatest fear only feeds the beast. I used to believe that as long as I scoured the internet for more information on my darkest inklings, I would gain power over them. I read every report on my subject (my bête noir was loose nukes, but yours could be superviruses, tsunamis, phthalates, Big Oil, the Mayan calendar, Republicans, or god knows what) and with each discovery, no matter how consoling or worrying, I would go deeper down the rabbit hole.

One of the smartest things any therapist has ever told me is this: “erase your bookmarks.” And I did. I stopped reading all that shit, and within days much of the black hue of hopelessness lifted. I took a vacation from it, and never went back. Guess what happened while I stopped obsessing about it… nothing.

• Besides, you’re getting shitty information anyway. There is no such thing as a disinterested, impartial source. For anything. The only place on earth that has no agenda is The Weather Channel. Every other source for your information has a vested interest in either keeping you scared, or keeping you sedated. The kicker? By your very nature, you have a vested interest in keeping yourself scared (or sedated).

• Casual apocalysm is a luxury for the childless. My brother Steve and I were talking on a long car trip last weekend, and his personal worry is of a global-currency-failure-thus-capitalism-disintegrates variety. I don’t mean to trivialize his theories, and mock his anxiety, but I do occasionally need to tell him that I just can’t worry about some things anymore.

He said, “I don’t have any children, but some of you do, and if I was raising a young child in this world, I’d be very, very concerned.” What I tried to say in return was this: once you have a child, you can no longer live in a world where they have no future. It’s not fathomable, really, to conjure a place where they don’t have the same right to a delightful, mindless childhood full of innocence, wonder and love.

Of course I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure Lucy’s safety and happiness, but nightmare scenarios absolutely must take a back seat. I’m not saying people with kids have a better perspective on the world than those who don’t (in fact, most of them will cop to being completely goddamn insufferable) but parents certainly have a different perspective, and in my and Tessa’s world, apocalysm has no place.

• Prepare what you can, then forget about it. As I said, I may be mostly cured of my paralyzing OCD-laced general anxiety disorder about the world getting pretty fucked up, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t prepared for some likely scenarios. Especially living on the San Andreas fault, if you don’t have a meeting place or a good emergency kit, you’re not learning the right lessons. More on that tomorrow.

• As always, William Faulkner said it best. Two things really stuck with me as I clawed my way back to feeling good enough about the world again: some passages by Pema Chödrön, and the speech that William Faulkner gave in 1950 when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The whole thing is heartbreakingly brilliant, especially for a man who rarely spoke in public, but these lines resonate perfectly across the years:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man…

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0 thoughts on “the worst may happen, but you can’t count on it

  1. Steve Williams

    Our long talk helped me realize that Ian and I are different: I can ponder tragic possibilities without getting too depressed about it all. Ian believes to do so actually diminishes happiness in the world we have today.
    Fair enough. I’ll try to remember that it doesn’t help Ian to bring this stuff up.
    I will defend myself a little: I don’t think this is just apocalypse porn for me. I actually want to understand the risks and try to prepare realistically. Or, if there’s a scenario that’s impossible to prepare for, I want to know that up front.
    Maybe being a computer programmer has done this to me: All programs fail. A good programmer knows that and uses techniques that allow recovery or, worst case, try to gather as much information as possible as the program crashes. We’re not bothered by the failure, as long as we can use the experience to make the next version better.
    Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been spending so much time with my nieces and nephews.

    Reply
  2. GFWD

    You get slack from me if you’re a little neurotic about apocalyptic scenarios, since you lived within blocks of Ground Zero.
    I try to back up my computer, i.e. digital photos, pretty regularly. I try to make sure we always have gas for the mower and toilet paper and paper towels. And I have phone chargers in the car and jumper cables. Beyond that, I don’t worry too much. Part of the reason you can’t worry is that you never know what the doomsday scenario will be. For example, if you prepare for an anthrax attack, your vast store of Cipro is useless against zombies–a distinct apocalyptic possibility if you ever saw The Omega Man. So, I just try to prepare for the mundane every day “pain-in-the-neck-day” scenarios and leave the big stuff to chance.
    But I do have silver bullets. I won’t get taken down by a werewolf.

    Reply
  3. Lara

    “once you have a child, you can no longer live in a world where they have no future. It’s not fathomable, really, to conjure a place where they don’t have the same right to a delightful, mindless childhood full of innocence, wonder and love.”
    Once again, you completely captured how I felt about this topic but could not put into words myself, which is one of the many reasons I love this blog. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Bud

    When I was about 10, I had a talk with my mom about the cold war. Was she afraid of nuclear annihilation? She said she wasn’t too afraid as long as she didn’t think about it too much. Her job, she said, was raising me. She said there were very smart people whose job it was to make sure nuclear war didn’t happen and she had no choice but to put her faith in them to do a good job.
    I think we have very little choice but to do the same. To me this was the best thing in today’s post: “Prepare what you can, then forget about it.”
    Just remember to do the preparing before the forgetting.

    Reply
  5. Ehren

    Just my late two cents:
    You can’t prepare for an apocalypse. There are a lot of ways that the world could potentially be rent asunder. If you knew exactly which one would happen, you could maybe prepare for it, but in the unlikely event that something like this happens, odds are it happens in a way that makes the prepared look as unprepared as those who never gave it a moment’s thought. Especially those who seek to create a bunker. Mobility is probably the first and best defense against a major societal upheaval.
    Also, I don’t believe in apocalypse. The human race is 6 billion (and counting) little vectors. If they all lined up in one way, much could happen. But in our current chaotic world, the vectors usually add up to something not too far from balanced.

    Reply
  6. monheric

    The secret weapon for all possible scenarios is COMMUNITY :-) Take as needed every day. I’ve got a recurring though not acute case of apocalyptitis and building community is the only medicine that works.
    Props to Faulkner.

    Reply

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