5 Crucial Things To Remember About Our Wretched Hellscape
There's a parody Twitter account called Sweet Meteor O'Death, and the joke is exactly what you'd assume. This meteor is going to destroy the Earth, and we should all be openly rooting for it to put us out of our misery.
This "Hopefully we all die soon" bit is the most prominent running joke on every social media platform I use.
But there's this quirk in human language whereby we sometimes joke to signal we don't believe a thing, and other times to signal that we do. Sometimes we start with the former and wind up with the latter. Well, today I'm talking specifically to those who hear shit like this and actually kind of agree with it.
For the rest of you, feel free to go watch this video of a drunk guy diligently trying trying to put some pants on his head.
First, let's make it super clear that virtually no one making "Things can't possibly be worse!" jokes actually means it. The exaggeration is in fact the joke -- "I'm really tired of all the Trump scandals" gets translated to "What's waiting for us in this wretched hellscape today?" This is true even for people who've built their entire personality around it. The podcast hosts who just spent an hour talking about we'll soon take to the streets to battle the elites to the death will then put down their headphones, chill out with some Netflix until bedtime, and go laugh their way through a boozy brunch with their friends the next morning. They are living comfortable, safe lives, and pretend otherwise for the same reason Republicans in quiet suburban neighborhoods stockpile guns, the same reason suburban rappers pretend to be from the hood. Comfort and safety isn't cool. It offers no chance for courage or heroism. It brings no street cred. But let's at least get that part out of the way: If you offered any member of the "We're in the end times" crowd the chance to be reborn in a random time period in a random country, they'd fight you to the death to prevent it. They wouldn't trade this "hellscape" for a world without air conditioning or anesthetics. In the Trump Era, everyone seems to feel that pressure to perform nihilism, kind of the flipside of having to put on a smiling face at a party as not to ruin the mood. It's the pressure to pretend you think everything is shit, just to fit in. But I can tell you from experience that if you hear it enough, at some point you try to look into the future and ... there's just nothing there. That is, objectively and in all situations, a Bad Thing.
Most Apocalypse Talk Is Just A Performance
How Do You Plan When You Can't Imagine The Future?
First, let's make it super clear that virtually no one making "Things can't possibly be worse!" jokes actually means it. The exaggeration is in fact the joke -- "I'm really tired of all the Trump scandals" gets translated to "What's waiting for us in this wretched hellscape today?"
This is true even for people who've built their entire personality around it. The podcast hosts who just spent an hour talking about we'll soon take to the streets to battle the elites to the death will then put down their headphones, chill out with some Netflix until bedtime, and go laugh their way through a boozy brunch with their friends the next morning. They are living comfortable, safe lives, and pretend otherwise for the same reason Republicans in quiet suburban neighborhoods stockpile guns, the same reason suburban rappers pretend to be from the hood.
Comfort and safety isn't cool. It offers no chance for courage or heroism. It brings no street cred.
But let's at least get that part out of the way: If you offered any member of the "We're in the end times" crowd the chance to be reborn in a random time period in a random country, they'd fight you to the death to prevent it. They wouldn't trade this "hellscape" for a world without air conditioning or anesthetics. In the Trump Era, everyone seems to feel that pressure to perform nihilism, kind of the flipside of having to put on a smiling face at a party as not to ruin the mood. It's the pressure to pretend you think everything is shit, just to fit in.
But I can tell you from experience that if you hear it enough, at some point you try to look into the future and ... there's just nothing there.
That is, objectively and in all situations, a Bad Thing.
Ask someone to justify the "We're all screwed regardless" philosophy, and they'll correctly point out that catastrophic climate change may be unstoppable, that global war is never off the table, or that the world economy is a house of cards built in the middle of a crowded dog kennel. This, they'll point out, is because the previous generation or two were so impossibly selfish that they left nothing behind for their children or grandchildren. How could they have been so shortsighted?
It's almost like, I don't know, they didn't think the future would arrive? Like they, too, thought they were all screwed either way.
Hmm. I think we're getting somewhere here.
I grew up in the 80s doing nuclear war drills, practicing scurrying under our desks at school and putting our hands on our heads (you know, to protect us from the nuclear bombs). We were told that it could happen at any moment, that there'd be no warning. You're on the playground, or watching TV, and then there's a flash and everyone is dead. Or much worse: Everyone is dead except you, and you now have severe burns and radiation poisoning. On Sundays, I went to church and heard sermons about how the world would actually end when Jesus returned, tearing open the sky and turning the oceans to blood.
The trick is that I have no idea if we ever actually believed the apocalypse was coming. I know we coped by joking about the fallout shelters, watching cheesy post-apocalyptic action movies and playing video games with titles like Duke Nukem. I never had the conscious thought, "I don't need to worry about college, the Lord will crush us all in the wine press of his holy wrath long before then!" But what I did have was a thick smelly cloud in my brain that made it impossible to think about the future at all. Asking me about my goals or children was like asking me if I'd do a good job giving my clone a handjob. Just a weird, uncomfortable hypothetical.
Why bother conserving resources, in that situation? Why plant trees? We didn't all collectively agree to stop planning for the future. We all just kind of lost our motivation. When I look around at my social circle of young, extremely online creative types, I see the same thing. But ...
Your Future Is Coming, And There's Probably Going To Be A Lot Of It
Close your eyes and imagine yourself at age 80 (if you're already that age, I guess you can skip this part).
Did you immediately wonder whether the world would look more like Blade Runner or Fallout, a corporate dystopia or a gray sprawl of ruins? But I didn't tell you to imagine the world as it exists when you're 80 -- you can't control that part -- but to imagine yourself. What will you be like? Will you have gotten control over your anxiety? Gotten better at making friends? Improved your diet and health routine? Will you have built a proud career off an impressive skill?
Will you be happy?
If you're in the "We're all screwed regardless" brigade, you're thinking that's all petty bullshit. What does that matter when the world is falling apart? But your future happiness isn't going to be based on what's happening in "the world." If we wind up with a Star Trek utopia, you personally could still wind up drinking yourself to death in an alley. I know this, because people still drink themselves to death in alleys today, even though we're living in what would have looked like a Star Trek utopia to someone 200 years ago.
"But the world is ending!" What do you think that means? That the credits will roll and you'll be free from worry? When they say "The end of the world" they just mean society will be disrupted -- the institutions you depend on may become unreliable, goods that are plentiful and cheap now may become rare and expensive. But even in the worst-case scenario for climate collapse, there will still be such a thing as jobs and bills and marriage in 2060. You'll still have to manage your time and health, you'll still be attending birthday parties and weddings. People will still be making friends, falling in love and having babies. There will still be artists and writers.
In fact, even if you are part of a smattering of scrappy humans who've survived an actual goddamned Meteor O'Death, you'll still be fighting your internal battles over depression, addiction, lack of motivation, or whatever else is tripping you up now. Whatever happens to the world, you're going to experience it through the very body and personality you're building today. The only difference is, there will be far, far less margin for error for people who can't get up and do productive work.
That's why the Meteor O'Death (and all that it wrongly implies) is a coping mechanism, in the sense that just staying in bed all day is also a coping mechanism. "Nothing I do matters" is a liberating thought.
It's also what got us into this situation.
This Kind Of Thinking Will Sap Your Energy (And You Can't Afford It)
In 2011, there was a poll in Afghanistan that found 92 percent of the people there had no idea what the 9/11 attacks were. This was a vast landmass of villages that, in most cases, had no internet connections or televisions. It's almost impossible for us to comprehend being that severed from international affairs, but it's also how the vast majority of humans in history have lived their lives. Tribes that got invaded by the Mongols died having no idea who'd killed them or why.
In a normal human life as it played out for most of our history, your concerns were about yourself, your family, and the few dozen people immediately around you. If news came that this huge wave of dudes who are really good at shooting arrows on horseback were crossing the mountains, you'd switch your plans to involve more fleeing and hiding. But you'd never occupy your brain space trying to understand the geopolitical context of the invasion, and you sure as hell wouldn't become so bogged down by it that you forgot to store food for the winter.
Someone who did that would be considered ill, to have succumbed to madness. But today I see it all around me, an unspoken "What's the point?" when we're talking about decisions that will literally determine your quality of life. Your human brain is just not capable of processing the situation in "the world" in a way that's actually beneficial to you. Instead of distilling all of the noise down to "How should this specifically impact my actions today?" the unending avalanche of crises induces a kind of paralysis.
And I'm not talking about the paralysis of nations which refuse to cut emissions or regulate corporations. I'm talking about your personal gridlock, the swampy morass that kills your motivation to push forward because you can't see any destination on the horizon. Then you will arrive in a tomorrow that sucks because Past You didn't carve a path to something better. Your own life will wind up playing out exactly like society as a whole, your past self playing the role of the greedy baby boomers, running up a bill they thought they'd never have to pay.
"We're All Screwed" Is A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
As I mentioned, I'm speaking from experience, raised in the hellscape that was the Cold War Reagan era. I was an anxious kid who didn't put out a ton of effort in school, and if no one had invented the internet, I'd be working in medical billing and seething about how no one would buy my novel. If you'd asked me at 16 to picture the year 2019, I'd have imagined rats crawling over rubble, my own corpse in a mass grave. If I could talk to my past self now, where would I even start?
"Well, you'll be very anxious because in your 40s, it will become very hard to monetize internet content."
"It'll be hard to do what with what?"
"And also you'll get very angry trying to figure out how to get this podcast onto your iPhone."
"Podcast? Is that, like, a nutrient supplement supplied by the local warlords?"
"No, it's kind of a long radio show."
"And an iPhone, is that a device that the omnipotent government uses to monitor the citizens?"
I now know that it's very easy to accidentally create a future version of yourself who's going to make life harder for everyone around you. It's only then that you'll realize that there was never anything admirable about "Who cares, we're all screwed anyway," that it never represented how much you care, but rather how little you want to care about the things you can actually change.
No, you can't singlehandedly save the globe from catastrophe. You can only take responsibility for the small patch of it that you're standing on, a task that is actually so monumentally difficult that you may not manage it even with total devotion of all of your time, attention, and energy. Either way, "We're screwed no matter what" isn't a plan, and if we are in fact doomed to a future of scarce food and fuel and constant social unrest, well, that actually requires a shitload of planning on your part. You'd better have your fucking act together. That's a world that needs goddamned heroes. Or at least self-sufficient citizens in control of their own impulses.
But one way or the other, you're going to find out that "Nothing matters anyway" was always a ridiculous lie, that if your life sucks in the future, it will largely be because the choices you make do matter, they matter a lot, and the tired, overheated brain of your past self just punted on them. You'll look around at a world full of professionals with their kids and cars and vacations and wonder by what magic they made it happen. "They probably got help from their parents!" You mean their parents made hard decisions to plan for their kids' future? And it paid off? Crazy how that works.
No matter what the headlines say, the only logical response is to plan as if the world is going to need you to be a healthy, functioning, heroic adult 50 years from now. And if in between here and there you get crushed under a meteor of death, well, you'll have died the way all people should die: interrupted on the way to doing something great. Here's that pants guy again.
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