Reader Request Week 2007 #4: The Inevitable Blackness That Will Engulf Us All
Posted on March 30, 2007 Posted by John Scalzi 28 Comments
Adam Ziegler, who I think really needs a hug, asks:
The world is a sad place. One can argue that some things have improved in recent centuries and decades, yet with every turn of the sun, parents lose their beloved children, innocents are maimed or forced in slavery, wars rage, and most people on this planet endure grinding poverty. We live atop a mountain of sorrows, made higher still by our ongoing misery.
But you are fortunate. By luck of birth and the skill of your hands, you have escaped the fate of most. You earn a generous wage as an entertainer. You have a beautiful family, your health, a comfortable home. But all of it could end tomorrow.
Even if you are one of those rare individuals who can live every moment in the present; even if you know in your bones that life is what you make of it, you are still an intelligent person who knows the state of the world and how fortunate you are to have your fragile place within it. You know that, in the end, most of what you say or do will matter very little. You know that you, your family, everyone you know and everything you have worked for must someday come to ruin and dust.
My question: Does it make you sad? How do you deal?
Well, I deal with it, first, by not thinking about it all a tremendous amount. I do that largely by keeping busy. It’s funny how just the simple act of answering a day’s worth of e-mail will keep the crushing inevitability of the entropic heat death of the universe at bay for a good half hour to an hour. There, I’ve tidied up my inbox. Take that, proton decay! Having an eight-year-old in the house — while certainly increasing entropy — does also help to keep me sufficiently distracted. I’m surely aware this sounds like a dodge — fiddling while Rome pops out of existence one sub-atomic particle at a time — but it really does work, and if you are the sort to obsess about everything eventually turning into dust, then keeping busy is a good make-work solution for being overwhelmed by the ennui that comes from recognizing that nothing you do will matter 500 years from now, anyway. And this way at least all your e-mail gets answered.
The second way I deal with it is to have a sense of perspective about the matter. Look, at the end of the day, trillions of years from now, everything in this universe is going to disappear. It’s right there on the label marked “quantum physics.” Long before this happens, just five billion years from now, the sun will turn into a red giant, likely swallowing the Earth and reducing it to a cinder. Long before that — billions of years before that — changes in the sun’s internal workings will render our planet uninhabitable. And long before that — in the relatively short period of time of a few million years — it’s very likely we’ll be extinct because unless you’re a shark or an alligator, the chance that your species will simply peter out after a few million years is really rather excellent. We’re likely with the majority there, even if we weren’t busily altering our environment so rapidly it’s like we’re daring future generations of humans to survive.
With the exception of the very last of these, there’s not that much to be done about it; the universe is not notably sympathetic to our cries that we should be special and eternal. It’s nice you feel that way, the universe is telling us, but one day I’m going to end and I’m going to take you with me. Once you wrap your brain around this simple and unalterable fact — the fact that not even the universe is getting out of here alive — the rest of it comes pretty easy. And you realize that to some extent worrying about enduring when your genome will dissolve, your planet will dry up, your sun will engulf your home and every single thing that ever was in the universe will randomly pop out of existence, a particle at a time, is a little silly. This frees you to stop freaking out about what will happen in the future and focus on what the hell’s going on now.
Yes, tomorrow I die in any number of ways; tomorrow anyone I know and love could do the same. 50 years from now I have a very good chance of being dead; 60 years from now it’ll be a near-certainty; 100 years from now it’s unlikely that anyone alive will be reading my work. Honestly, have you read a book from 1907? That year, the best selling book was The Lady of the Decoration, by Frances Little; prior to just now looking up this info, I’d not heard of either the book or the author. Nor, prior to just now, had I heard of The Port of Missing Men, Satan Sanderson, The Younger Set or Half a Rogue, best sellers all, or of Meredith Nicolson, Hallie Erminie Rives, Robert W. Chambers or Harold McGrath, their authors. These were the best sellers of the year. My books sell just fine today, thanks, but if I can’t be bothered with Half a Rogue, it seems doubtful the citizenry of 2107 will have much use for The Last Colony.
(Here’s the Project Gutenberg file for Half a Rogue, incidentally. I trust that you will find it as appallingly purple as I did, which will be roughly as appallingly purple as my books will be a century from now.)
Does this make me sad? Not really. Sure, it’d be nice to be remembered eternally, or, at least as long as people read, but that’s not really up to me, and I just think it’s dumb to spend much time worrying about it — and indeed, for as much as I like like my writing, I think I’d be a little worried for the future if 200 years from now I was hailed as one of the great literary lights of our age. It would make me wonder what really interesting selective apocalypse occurred that only my work and work inferior to it survived.
My work is meant to be read now. If it survives and is enjoyable 20 or 40 years in the future, excellent; I’ll be happy to enjoy the royalties and the low-to-moderate notability it provides. But I don’t worry about writing for the ages; the ages will decide what they want to read by themselves, and I won’t be around to care either way. I think intentionally writing for the ages is a fine way to psyche yourself out and assure whatever it is you’re writing is stiff and pretentious, and frankly there are very few writers who are so preternaturally good at this gig that they should flatter themselves that the contemporaries of their great-great-great grandchildren will give a crap. Ask Frances Little or Harold McGrath about this one. I want to give people a good read that doesn’t insult their intelligence and also pays my mortgage. If eternal art comes out of these desires, groovy. If not, then I still get to eat.
Moving away from my work to more ineffable aspects of my personal life, yes, I’m aware of the fragility of life and the suddenness with which circumstances can change. Today my life is good; there are any number of ways it could go crushingly wrong. Aside from basic and laudable prophylaxis, however (i.e., pay bills on time, live within means, buckle seatbelts, teach child basic moral standards, etc) I’m not sure that there’s much benefit in thinking too much about all the ways things could get horrible, fast. So I don’t. Being capable of understanding the downside — to anything — does not suggest that one is obliged to model it in one’s head more than is absolutely necessary. Short of actually experiencing horrible wrenching change, I believe I am as prepared as a person can be for its possibility. Worrying about it beyond that point is useless overthinking; I’ve got enough stuff to do already.
Finally, in the larger sense — the one in which I am a citizen of the world, that I like no man am an island, blah blah blah blah blah, it becomes a matter of asking one’s self first whether one wants to be engaged in the world, and then if so, how best to be of utility. I do enough things that I feel engaged in my world and I feel like I’m trying to do beneficial things (or at least I’m doing as little harm as possible). I think it’s my responsibility to try to make the world a better place than it was before I got here; I don’t feel obliged to be heart-rent at every thing that’s wrong with the planet. One person can make a difference in the world, so long as that one person realizes that one person can not do every thing or be actively concerned with every damn thing. I pick and choose; everyone does. I focus on what I think I do well, and where I think I can do good.
Now, I understand that these answers would suggest a certain and elemental shallowness to my nature — a willingness not to think about topics or issues that are weighty in themselves and worth thinking about. What I’m leaving out here, for the space of relative brevity, is a detailed examination of processes by which I came to this intellectual methodology, generated through years of self-examination and self-realization via intentional and unintentional experiential phenomena, to produce the robust heuristic structure through which I filter data. As regards that, let me just say that I’ve had a life, and I’ve paid attention, and this is what works for me.
I don’t discount that in the end, everything I do, say, write and am will amount to a whole lot of not much; I just don’t think it’s a relevant metric. The relevant metric is: Have I constructed a life that gives me happiness, allows me to give happiness, and allows for this life to have meaning within its admittedly limited context? If I am succeeding in this particular metric, I think I’m doing pretty well. Yes, one day my species will be replaced by hyper-intelligent squids, the earth will turn into a charcoal briquette and the universe will end in an increasingly thin proton soup. But that’s all waaaaaay in the future. Right now, things are good.
Ummm… Robert W. Chambers wrote THE KING IN YELLOW (Wikipedia entry here, which, at least in sf/fantasy circles, is pretty famous, and still in print.
Me, I like Dumas and Victor Hugo and Mark Twain and even the occasional Bulwer-Lytton, and others, so yeah, I read stuff written before 1907. (And not necessarily the famous stuff the above writers wrote; TOM SAWYER ABROAD includes a propulsive device that sounds much like a nuclear reactor.)
The second way I deal with it is to have a sense of perspective about the matter
A sense of perspective is precisely what you DON’T want to have, I think. Or at least, not a truly accurate one.
I’m not aware of suggesting that everything prior to a century ago is entirely neglected; I’m suggesting the vast majority of stuff, including stuff that is very popular at the time, will eventually be ignored. Pointing out that you read Hugo or Dumas doesn’t change the fact that neither you nor anyone else reads the vast majority of their contemporaries, particularly the ones who were not huge best sellers in their day.
Likewise, i’s nice for you that you read The King in Yellow; I don’t suspect you read Half a Rogue, however, which is my point. It was one of the top ten most popular books of its year; today, it’s moldering in Project Gutenberg, largely unread.
I think most of us tend to worry about things to much and miss the point that what we have right now is probably pretty good.. Sherrol crow said it pretty well, ” its not having what you want, its wanting what you have”
Tune out all the materialism that is shoved down our throats, likewise the guilt and envy and enjoy life as its probably going to be a pretty short ride on the cosmic scale of things!!!
Well, all of the things the poster mentioned are generally either the fault of man, or a consequence of living in a real world. The second you can’t do much about, so why worry about it? Yes, people die in horrible accidents – can you change that? If not, spend your time worrying about something you can change. The fault of man, you really can’t do much about either. You can simply make yourself a better person. Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but thats a full-time job for me. And as you make yourself a better person, you’ll find that the people around you will become better as well.
Its better to spend your time worrying about how to substantially help those who are poor, sick, or dying than it is worrying about why they are that way (unless that is part of helping them).
Having said that, its hard to have that attitude. Just something you have to work on, day by day.
“Dust and ruin”? No, no. That would be his brother, Job Scalzi.
Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I needed to hear that today.
I was very disappointed to discover that the 1907 bestseller is actually titled HALF A ROGUE, not HALF A ROUGE. I was hoping for a melodrama about a woman who dies halfway through applying her makeup.
John, thanks for taking my question.
I hadn’t considered obtaining a hug. That might just do the trick.
I second Jordan: thank you for that. It was something I needed to read this morning.
John, I was just surprised that you didn’t recognize Chambers’ name as someone who’s still remembered and in print.
Of course, I’m coming from the perspective of someone who went into the sf/fantasy genre at full ramming speed, back in my teens forty years ago. I read, like, EVERYTHING I could find related to sf or fantasy. (You could actually do that back then.) Including the old works important to the genre, like THE KING IN YELLOW. (Which, stylistically, is a pretty tough read these days. Still, a lot easier than M.P. Shiel’s THE PURPLE CLOUD.)
Whereas you seem to be someone who reads and enjoys the genre, but it’s not the end-all and be-all to you like it was for me. So it’s the difference between oranges/obsessives and apples/appreciators.
Yes. The world is a sad place and everyone and everything dies tomorrow. Nothing in life is permanent. Suffering is commonplace.
I deal with it by trying to fill the time I with as many good memories as I can for those I know and love. I help with the problems I can and trust that others will step up to help with the problems I can’t. No one of us is responsible for curing all the ills of the world, but we should all do what we can to take the world in that direction. I can’t change lives a half a world away. But I can work on my neighborhood, City, State, and sometimes Country.
A man gets chased by thugs, and while fleeing, accidentally goes over a cliff. He manages to grab the root of a strawberry bush growing on the edge. Dangling there, he looks down, and sees below him lots of jagged rocks, and quite a few hungry looking wolves. Looking up, he sees that the thugs have almost reached the edge of the cliff, and to make matters worse, his weight is starting to pull the bush free from the cliff.
So the man reaches up and eats a strawberry.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is life.
If we don’t keep a positive attitude, we are contributing to the problem and not the solution.
I, for one, am happy to be the first to welcome our new squid overlords, and take pains to point out that I don’t eat calimari, I consider it an abomination.
Can I have North America? Or at least the South Pacific?
Wait, you don’t write deathless prose? The why the heck did I pay so much for your books and put them up like fine wine? I mean, I had to move out some of the beanie babies to make room. Damn, another fine investment down the toilet. :)
Oh, JonathanMoeller, nice story, but strawberries grow on vines, not bushes. What I heard is a man is in similar circumstances, and he prays for help. Suddenly he hears a voice saying, “This is God. Let go and I will catch you.” Where upon the man hanging from the vine says, “Is anybody else up there?”
Hmm – I kinda see it all as a nice play for my amusement. When I move on to the next play I think I’ll make it so that coffee doesn’t taste like ass.
As for the rest of you – you are excited pixels on a screen and will disapear when I cleck metaphorical “next” button…
Bush, vine, strawberry, whatever…they all fall into the “not a bacon cheeseburger” food group.
Though it is rather alarming that all the best metaphors for life seem to involve dangling from a root over a pit full of carnivorous local fauna.
The world is a wonderful place. Life has certainly improved in recent centuries and decades. With every turn of the sun, parents find joy in their beloved children, innocents are offered assistance by loving strangers, and people from all nations pray for world peace and an end to poverty. We live atop a mountaintop of joy, if only we choose to acknowledge it.
My question: How can you be unhappy? How do you fail to see the miracles that surround you?
Sometimes I wonder if despair and depression are inevitable results of having intelligence and awareness.
My tiny contribution is to second John’s idea of keeping busy, specifically at being productive.
Being productive seems to take one’s mind off the oppresive cares of the world and also give a fundamental foundation of worth. It has the added benefit that when the despair passes one finds a great deal has been accomplished.
I wonder if this is why depressed employees are more productive employees?
I’ve struggled with despair for years and this seems paradoxical to many because externally my life has many blessings. My struggle is to appreciate the blessings I have.
JonathanMoeller, “Though it is rather alarming that all the best metaphors for life seem to involve dangling from a root over a pit full of carnivorous local fauna.”
Just another day at work, Jonathan. Just another day in paradise.
I’m reminded of an old Family song (that’s the band from Leicester, England, no any other band by that name) Its a doleful little tune actually sung by Roger Chapman rather than screamed at his 10000 watt bleat.
‘Life,’ he sang, ‘it’s the only one we got.
That’s why we all larf and sing.’
My husband and I once looked up at the night sky and all the stars in it–I think we were taking a late night walk through a nearby memorial garden, which tends to incite these kinds of conversations–we compared our philosophies about being minute specks on “an insignificant dot out on the unfashionable edge of the Milky Way,” or however it was Douglas Adams put it. Or, a la The Animaniacs, “It’s a big universe, and we’re not.”
In any case, he said that it made him sad, and made him strive even harder to make a mark in the world before he dies, which if he has any say in the matter will be never. (I think that’s what he said. If I ask him today, he might say something different.)
And it occurred to me that I’m actually kind of glad that there’s a hell of a lot more to the universe than humans. If we’re so tiny, and our influence on the whole minute, it means that no matter how badly we mess things up here, the Universe will go on (at least until its own eventual heat death). And it sorta takes the pressure off of us. Whatever we do, the sun will rise tomorrow, and whatever we do, the sun will one day flip out and destroy life on earth. It limits the scope of consequences we have to worry about and gives us permission to concern ourselves only with that limited scope.
Which is a weird way to put it, and maybe makes me sound like a horrible misanthrope, but it comforts me. It’s a view in which total perspective is not such a bad thing.
HANK: Did I ever tell you the story about the man and the tiger? Well, there was this man, and he was being chased by a ferocious tiger. No, make that a lion. A Detroit Lion! Two of ’em. And the man was Cowboy Hall of Famer Roger Staubach.
BOBBY: I know him! He sells life insurance on TV.
HANK: Yeah, well, anyway, the Lions were blitzing and Roger rolled out of the pocket, running for his life. He headed for the sidelines, but these two Lions were closing in on him. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a strawberry…cup of Gatorade. Well, Roger took a sip of that Gatorade, but I tell you something, son, it was the sweetest sip of Gatorade Roger ever had.
Gotta keep moving lest the black dog catches up with you. It ain’t the dying–it’s the worrying about dying I can’t take. I am never idle. If I’m not working, I’m reading or watching tv or sitting with my buddies at the Bristol. I’m not good in the room alone with my head–cause that’s where the black dog lives.
Nicely said, John, and reflective of the philosophy I’ve arrived at as well. It took some hard work in the last couple of years to stay in that mindset, thanks to something I read here on the Whatever on April 13, 2005 (yes, the date has stuck with me). It was another Reader Request Week, and several people chimed in wondering about peak oil, a phrase with which I’d been unfamiliar. Well, I got all caught up on it, and then I got all worried to the point of paralyzing obsession over it (along with the tons of ancient methane being released from the melting Siberian bogs, and the albedo feedback loop in the Arctic Ocean, and the honeybee die-off, and the Yellowstone supervolcano, and, and, and). I ended up in therapy, which was very helpful, and I emerged from it a year ago in a much better frame of mind. I find it requires an optimism much akin to faith, since beyond enjoying our current halcyon era (which I very much do) I have to believe there will be some kind of livable world for my kids to grow up in even in the face of all these problems.
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