Reader Request Week 2007 #4: The Inevitable Blackness That Will Engulf Us All
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.