21 May 2011

The End of the World Makes Me Anxious

Harold Camping wasn't content to just turn 90 this year.  No, he felt compelled to go the whole hog and advertise that today, 21 May 2011, will be Judgment Day.  Dude put up billboards and everything.  For those reading this blog post through the humor of hindsight, allow me to tell you that this entire week, online discourse has been dominated by mockery, from lighthearted zombie humor to some unfriendly critiques of those with faith.  It's been a fun week, all in all.

The Library of Congress is supposed to have archived everyone's public Twitter feed, and I'd suggest you spend some time looking at hash tags like #zombieapocalypse #endoftheworldconfessions and #iftheworldendsonsaturday.  I'm not a prophet, but verily I say unto you that one day a nerd with nothing else to do will mine these publicly recorded comments and jokes and find intellectual and comedy gold.  Just make sure to properly attribute my words to me.

The first time I read a book in a single setting was during my adolescence, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.  That novel changed my life.  I found Guy Montag infuriating; I was ahead of him intellectually, even as a youth and it bothered me that the protagonist of a story would be so slow to grasp his world.  Of course, Bradbury was brilliant to craft Montag that way.  His slow awakening is as agonizing to witness as it is captivating.  Montag's future is a bleak, senseless place devoid of curiosity and feeling; it is entirely contrary to everything I had ever considered for the future.  Even as a child of the 80s who expected the Soviets to initiate a nuclear holocaust every afternoon, I always believed that we would only ever improve the world.  That Montag's future would be so many steps backward from even my own youth was morally reprehensible to me.

I actually freaked out that night.  I had what may actually have been a modest nervous breakdown.  I remember screaming in the kitchen about how pointless life was, that this kind of society would be what awaits us.  Of course, I was too rabid to even articulate what the nature of the novel was, so I'm sure my family thought I'd been exposed to L.S.D. or something because no one had the faintest idea what the hell I was talking about in the first place.  Eventually, I had ranted and raved myself into exhaustion.  I don't recall anyone ever saying another word to me about that night since.  I've never forgotten that visceral reaction, but I've tried to quiet the voices asking questions like, "Well, what is the point of it all?"  It turns out that asking such questions leads not to answers, but anxiety.  Like, clinical, debilitating anxiety.

It was years before I was mentally and emotionally overwhelmed like that again.  I had gone to work at Cracker Barrel one day in April 1999, having spent much of the previous days like everyone else in the nation: reading and hearing about the tragic shootings at Columbine High School.  It was my understanding that a pair of social outcasts dressed in trench coats, armed themselves to the teeth and then spread violence and destruction amongst their classmates and teachers.  The truth is more complicated than that, of course, but that's the Reader's Digest version.  I was pretty much a social outcast in school, and in high school I had even discovered a fondness for trench coats and old school hats.  Everything I heard about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left me wondering one question: "What made them different from me?"  I couldn't answer it.

I have no idea to this day why they did what they did.  More specifically, I have no idea why I didn't do what they did.  By nature, I am not violent.  I don't even enjoy watching football; I much prefer the more cerebral nature of baseball.  It would never cross my mind to respond to a situation by harming someone else, and that should be the answer to my question.  But then the question becomes, "Why don't I have that response?"  I saw so much of myself in Harris and Klebold that it genuinely frightened me, and it frightens me more not knowing what's different.  It bothers me, because of course it may be that whatever the distinguishing element of my nature is may only be temporary.  Maybe it's inevitable that I'll one day snap and I just haven't done it yet.  The average person doesn't even think about these things, but when you hear about a real life villain and they sound an awful lot like you, it can be rattling.  Take my word on it.

It's no secret that I've been depressed for the last several months.  Each night seems to bring with it a temptation to quit fighting altogether, and I keep finding a reason to distract myself, to postpone giving in.  This week, though, for reasons I don't wish to discuss here, has been particularly trying.  What matters isn't what has been going on, but rather its effect on me.  I've asked the same questions that Bradbury led me to demand in my youth.  Is this all there is to life?

When I contrast today with the society of, say, 60 years ago, I can see obvious signs of improvement.  We have gone from "whites only" water fountains to an America that was willing to elect Barack Obama as its president.  And while it's tumultuous (to say the least), we've seen lots of strides toward LGBT equality in my lifetime.  Prejudice is immortal, but at least acceptance for it may finally be threatened as an entire generation takes its place in the world declaring that we no longer accept race, religion, gender, etc. as valid reasons for ranking human beings.  Yet, when I contrast the world as it is today with the world as it was a century or two ago, I wonder: just what have we accomplished as a species?

We're still mired in territorial disputes and men and women die every day because other men and women want to hold a larger share of some scarce resource or to prove fidelity to a philosophical ideal.  Our grandparents's generation might marvel at what has become of us, but their grandparents would not.  They might be taken aback at our technological developments, but I doubt they would be surprised what we have done with our innovations.  I wonder, though, what they had envisioned we would actually do with ourselves once we no longer had to spend so much time in the fields each day to make sure we didn't starve.  Did they imagine a world populated by philosophers and artists, exploring the grand themes of life?  Or did they accurately predict that we would instead waste our time competing with one another for the opportunity to appease other people in exchange for wage labor?

Lorenzo de' Medici, patron of the arts
Painted by Girolamo Macchietti
I know as well as anyone the danger of romanticizing the past.  Yet, I think of the Italian Renaissance when Dante, Raphael, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, da Vinci, et al were widely admired for dedicating themselves to exploring the human condition.  Think what those minds could have accomplished with the resources taken for granted by anyone with an iPad!  Outside of the sciences, though, what real advances have there been for our entire species since their works emerged in the 14th Century?  Or, put another way, what do we have to show for ourselves after centuries of time?

And no fair citing the abolition of slavery and thwarting Hitler.  The artistic Masters of the Renaissance never lived in a world darkened by the evil of either.  Slavery existed in their time, yes, but it scarcely resembled the brutal, totalitarian incarnation known to us.  If anything, those two "feathers in our cap" (slavery and Hitler) represent exactly my point: all we've done is escalate the senselessness of humanity in recent centuries.  How has the pendulum swung in the other direction?  What strides have we made to accomplish anything positive?

Every child knows that you keep your hands, feet and objects to yourself, respect others and take your place in line.  Yet every major issue that continues to dominate our world proves that as adults, we violate those policies.  We can't even promote common welfare amongst one another because there are always people who wish there to be disparity.  There is no practical reason for starvation in the world.  We can produce enough food and technology exists to transport it to every place on Earth.  But we have millions at risk of literally starving to death because one group of people assigns a dollar amount to the resources they need, and another group of people have drawn lines on a map saying that the rest of us have no business helping people there.

I'm sorry, Teenage Self Who Read Fahrenheit 451.  I cannot answer your question what the point of it is.  I don't even believe there is a point anymore.  I honestly believe at this point that life itself is nothing more than "busy work," like when substitute teachers hand out worksheets in class that have nothing to do with the unit being taught by the regular teacher.  For a time, I think some of our people were onto something.  Then came the Industrial Revolution.  Now?  Now we simply walk through existence paying homage to our abstract masters and wait for Apple's annual conference announcing the fall lineup.

But, hey; if Harold Camping turns out to be right, the wait won't be much longer.