Early in the summer I read a series of articles on global climate change that frightened me more than anything else ever has. Basically, the author amassed a body of evidence to suggest that we are doomed as a species. It was remarkably convincing in its details and in the big picture too. Since then I've seen increasing evidence that confirms this dire view.
I find myself living in two realities at the same time. While on the one hand I have a lovely life, with a job I really enjoy, a great family, and in my middle age a basic sense of managing my own neuroses, on the other hand I am thinking obsessively about the fact that my children, and the entire human race, may well have no future.
The steps I take daily -- sending letters to Congress, recycling, not driving -- seem absolutely unconvincing in the face of the Antarctic melting, the peat bogs in Siberia releasing their methane as they melt, coal burning in China, etc., etc., etc. Frankly, I feel like we've been told that an asteroid will destroy our planet in the next 10 to 30 years. So how do I live the rest of my life and raise my children in the face of this?
Dear Despairing Mom,
Indeed, if the planet is doomed, how shall we live? It seems to me that we continue to live as well as we can, regardless of what we believe our fate to be. We do what we can; we do what is right. We just keep on living as we live.
What choice do we have, really?
You know, I was just having some trouble ordering my thoughts and so I was sitting in a chair over in a corner of the room with the dog at my feet, breathing slowly and steadily, trying to empty my mind of fears about the future and fears about money and fears about how my opinions will be received by the many careful readers who can be counted on to point out any errors of judgment or omissions of perspective, and as I slowly succeeded in quieting the mind, letting the fears recede, I came to see how unusual is my position, being able to write this column every day, and so I asked myself what I should be doing with this position. Rather than worrying about meeting deadlines and so forth, why not take this opportunity to ask, what can I do here today that is good and useful?
And my answer was that I can urge you to do as I was just doing, to sit in a chair someplace quiet and breathe slowly and steadily and try to empty your mind of the many worries that inevitably fill it and crowd it minute by minute. And then perhaps as you clear these things from your mind you will see your surroundings again, unclouded by thoughts of apocalypse, unclouded by idealism, pride, duty, etc. You will see the kitchen table, the floors, the walls, as simply a form of energy suspended as solid matter, for the time being, in this particular dimension of which physics tells us there are now many, and perhaps you will glimpse the splendor of the universe extending out from us in our little houses and apartments for unimaginable distances of space and time, and you will sense for a moment that we are nothing but tiny animals living on the bottom of an ocean of air, scurrying about, worrying about our fate and the fate of the planet and our species ...
And then as you contemplate these things perhaps you will be reminded that whatever mysteries lie outside our understanding, whatever fate awaits humankind and the planet, there will always be us with our little lives, our little torments and joys, our garbage cans and telephone bills, broken shoelaces and report cards, to-do lists and assignments. Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed I think back to ninth grade to the kid I was then, my mind ceaselessly wandering and restless, anxious, fretful, uncertain, wondering how I'd ever get out of ninth grade. And I notice with a kind of weary astonishment that I did get out of ninth grade, and then went on to 10th, and 11th, and 12th, and nuclear war did not happen and we did not all end up hurtling into the sun and an asteroid did not strike the earth, and here we are a long time later still worried about our assignments, how we'll be graded, what surprises and punishments await us, how we'll get through another day.
But the question remains: What if we not only are doomed to extinction but in fact are a kind of noxious bacteria mindlessly destroying our host? How then can we regard ourselves as beautiful, heroic, courageous, right-minded, rational? We must ask ourselves: How do the bacteria feel about themselves? How does the cancer feel about itself as it squeezes the life out of its host? How does the influenza feel as it fills the lungs? If we are in fact simply a kind of disease attacking the planet the way Dutch elm attacks a tree ... how can we regard ourselves as good?
Which raises the question: Why must we regard ourselves as good? Is it not enough to simply exist?
And so I just go sit quietly on the chair again and kind of look around the room and go, Huh? OK?
So if I can do anything good and useful with this column today, I would like to suggest that you do the same thing, just find a few minutes to sit quietly in a room or somewhere comfortable outdoors and just breathe regularly, quieting the mind. In addition to the letters to Congress and the recycling, this can be one more step that you take daily.
We have no control over asteroids or the eventual extinction of our species. But we do have control over our breathing.
Now, that was a nice place to end, and if I wanted to stay on schedule and meet my self-imposed deadline I might well end there. But my assertion that we have no control over the extinction of our species raises an obvious objection: Of course we have some control. We have a chance. We have an environmental movement. And it does seem to follow that if you are concerned about the extinction of our species, if you believe that the threat is real, and you want to counter that threat, then you could indeed devote the rest of your life to helping the environmental movement -- not just by donating money but by transforming your life.
There are no guarantees. But I can think of worse ways to spend your life.
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