Musings

How to Cope with the End of the World

IdentityChrist by Joey Unlee

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver
Excerpted from her poem, The Summer Day

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have a good life. This topic might seem calming and contemplative but it actually stems from a deep sense of grief over the fact that I’ve started to think that we are, collectively, doomed.

Ha! Happy Monday, folks.

I don’t know quite how to write about this; it’s such a huge subject. Far bigger than one woman and her much-neglected blog.

I didn’t always feel this way. But it’s hard to not see the writing on the wall, the science, the mounting data sets, the alarming statistics – even simply the extremes of weather outside my window.

It is hard to come to any other conclusion other than this: Things are going downhill, fast.

I joke about it, how the world is ending, because I’m not sure how else to cope. I tease that I’m about six months away from becoming a prepper, frantically collecting canned goods and bottled water. I joke about how contributing to Olive’s RESP is pointless because by the time she’s university-aged we won’t need money, we’ll need food supplies and a cabin by a freshwater source instead.

But even as I’m laughing at myself, I am also legitimately thinking about these things. It’s hard to be as invested as I am in environmental writing and reporting without coming to this conclusion. Without thinking occasionally about what life in a very different world would look like, what Olive and I would need, or even how I would survive without the medication I need to take twice a day to stay alive.

And I mean, I know. I understand that this sounds crazy. I feel crazy when I talk about it, which is another reason I joke, because by laughing I’m trying to convey that I completely understand how absolutely fucking nuts I sound.

I would like to take this opportunity to reassure you that I haven’t turned into a nihilist, or descended into some sort of fatalistic depression spiral.

I don’t feel depressed. I’ve been depressed. This isn’t that.

Instead, it feels a lot like grief.

What a waste.

We had so much. We had everything. We could have done anything. But we just took. And took and took and took and took without thinking about what would remain when the taking stopped.

Soon, there will be nothing left. It’s hard not to feel grief about that.

Beneath that grief, however, is a solid foundation of acceptance. I’m not sure if that reassures you. It reassures me, sometimes. I’ve been reflecting a lot upon that book I always recommend to those going through tough times, When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron.

This book has a title almost as ominous as a blog post talking about the end of the world, but it’s actually one of the most peaceful books I’ve ever read. I credit it for almost single-handedly allowing me the space and wisdom to see the end of my marriage for the gift it truly was. That was an ending quite large in my life, but infinitesimally small in the scope of this larger ending.

Pema’s words forever shifted the way I think about relationships, permanence, change, and loss.

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again.
It’s just like that.
The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
-Pema Chodron

Of course, it’s possible that I’m overreacting. But, it’s also possible that essentially every environmental scientist out there is right about the thing they’ve spent their entire lives studying. So as I consider that possibility, I’m allowing room for grief.

Things might fall apart.

We might not, as a species, be capable of putting them back together again before it’s too late. And so, if we are beyond the point of no return, as many say we are, it becomes vitally important to decide how I will choose to live the remainder of this one wild and precious life.

Really, this is no different than acknowledging that we’re going to die someday. We all live with that knowledge. This is just another side of that coin, albeit on a much grander and more dramatic scale.

I’ve found it’s become kind of freeing to think like this. By doing so it’s as though a door opens and we are afforded a glimpse of life beyond the things we find ourselves worrying about day-to-day. Our homes and the stuff in them. Our cars and the cleanliness of those cars, kid-mess and gravel and markers scattering the floor of the backseat. The endless stream of social media waiting to be scrolled through on our phones. The grueling process of clawing our way to the top of a career that may not matter a few decades from now because life as we know it might not exist a few decades from now.

Even if you’re reading this post with raised eyebrows while thinking that I’ve finally lost it, it might be an interesting thought exercise: What does your life look like if the things you think matter – status, money, the neighbourhood you live in, the brand of your purse, the number on the scale – simply…don’t?

Consider the basics, the things no one can take away from you: Are you healthy? Do you have strong relationships and romantic partnerships? Are you kind to people, even when they can do nothing for you? Are you generous with your time and your privilege? Do you spend your life building longer tables or taller fences? Have you spent your days creating something solid that you can be proud of even if everything else is swept away? Do you have real, useful knowledge about how to exist in this world? How will you be remembered by the people around you?

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
– Maya Angelou

If you have been waiting for something – to do something or end something or begin something or become something – it’s time to stop waiting. It’s time to take care of what matters.

In a mildly depressing post like this one, it’s important to underscore the difference between acceptance and nihilism. Nihilism is someone saying, “Nothing matters. The world is going to end anyway”. Acceptance says instead, “The world is ending. Things matter now more than ever.”

It’s like the musicians who continued to play as the Titanic sank. If we are entering The End Times (lol), it becomes even more important to extend kindness and generosity to those in our world, to improve it while we can, to fill our lives and the lives of others with joy and beauty and love.

We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.
-Pema Chodron

So, throw wild jungle parties for your children. Read the stack of books beside your bed. Draw people in close to you and make sure they know how loved they are. Create. Create in the face of destruction.

And recognize that if you are feeling this grief too, you are far from alone. Dozens of you messaged me after I posted on Instagram last week. The notes were brief and stark.

“We’re hurtling toward a cliff edge”

“Thinking we are doomed seems to be the only logical conclusion lately. I wish I didn’t think that.”

“We are slowly killing the earth. Killing ourselves. My poor kids… I worry about the world they will be left with.”

We’re all feeling it. Grief about today’s shameful politics and immense suffering and incredible environmental loss.

It’s normal to feel that grief. Allow room for that grief. Be gentle with yourself. Talk to each other. Slow down and connect and try to sort through your life and pick out the pieces that matter.

They matter more now than ever.

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3 Comments

  • Reply Sara October 9, 2018 at 1:33 PM

    I have been vacillating between despair/grief and acceptance/resignation on this very topic as of late. I worry about Auguste and what will happen to him (I have major existential anxiety about death and whatnot in general) in the coming years. I worry that everything I’m doing is contributing to this madness. I worry that when the beginning of the end comes, I will be frozen in place, not knowing whether to run, to fight or to even know which is right. I want to move to the country and live off the land, but I also know that isn’t exactly possible in the world we’ve set up for ourselves; and I know that we’re just spiraling into a hell of our own creation.

    When I get too down about it and need a little injection of comedy, I like to listen to/watch this video from Father John Misty, called ‘Things it would have been nice to know before the revolution’:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIsT3dJ60Uk

    It’s bleak and sad and full of irony and hope, somehow all at the same time.

    Cheers from my tribe to yours – may the end of the world be a little gentler than the forecast predicts.

  • Reply ericast1 October 9, 2018 at 9:59 PM

    Yes it very much appears we are collectively in serious trouble. And there is some hope – check out ecosystem restoration camps – check out Green Gold by John Liu. There are movements afoot. I can’t imagine it will save most however perhaps some remnants can survive, for people and the planet, for a little while longer at least. Hopefully long enough for my child to grow to adulthood and enjoy some time.

  • Reply Nicola October 15, 2018 at 9:19 AM

    This is how I feel all the time! Thank you for writing this! I am hoping with all my fingers crossed that we can look back at this post and that you were wrong but unless we make a really rapid u-turn it’s so unlikely. The big people who make the decisions need to start taking it seriously asap and I don’t know how we make them!

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