Posts Tagged ‘apocalypse’

I was attending my husband’s company holiday party a few weeks ago when one of his co-workers came up to me and said, “Hey, I read your blog!”  This was, as you might imagine, a small moment of joy for me.  She went on to say something to the effect of, “Wow, you’re really optimistic.”

She was right, of course.  I am definitely of the optimistic persuasion, as I trust you may have noticed.  I hadn’t realized that optimism was such a distinguishing trait for me, though, until hearing about it from the outside.  So I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering the nature of optimism.

Part of it may well be disposition.  Optimism comes naturally to me.  I’ve said before that my neutral state, if nothing much good or bad is going on, tends to be set on the positive side.  Little things make me inordinately happy.  I get an e-mail from a friend and I’m already smiling.  My dog does something cute and I’m happy.  I think about the gingerbread cookie I’m going to have for lunch and I’m filled with anticipation all morning long.

Then comes the filtering.  We all do it, although some of us are better at it than others.  Filtering is the reason there can be horrible catastrophes somewhere else and we can continue through our day as if we don’t know that somewhere else people are dying in misery.  Filtering is forgetting or distracting yourself or not really listening.  Filtering is auto-pilot and prioritizing.  It can be enormously helpful or greatly hurtful.  I’m not always so talented at the filtering, which is why I sometimes have to take breaks and go months at a time without looking at a newspaper.

Once we’re done filtering, then we’re left to deal with whatever is left.  And Wesley wasn’t lying in The Princess Bride when he told Buttercup that life is pain.   At certain points all of us are called upon to deal with illness, with injury, with disappointment, with grinding monotony.  We experience setbacks, we make mistakes, and people don’t always treat us as well as they should.  We worry about our loved ones, our finances, current affairs.  When I was a kid we all worried about nuclear apocalypse.  Now we’re terrified of an environmental apocalypse instead.  If we look for something wrong or painful or scary, we’re sure to find it.

At this point, at least for those of us who don’t filter so well, we have two choices.  We can let the negativity pull us down and learn to expect the worst.  Pessimism is a coping mechanism, nothing more.  If we routinely expect the worst, we can protect ourselves from disappointment because we didn’t think anything good was likely to happen anyway.  It’s a thought process meant to cushion the blows of life.  The problem with it is that it also tends to keep us confined into a little box in which nothing much is possible.  It encourages us to be resigned instead of to strive.

Our other choice is optimism – to take what we find and make the best of it.  Just like pessimism, this is a coping mechanism.  It is the choice, in the face of the dark, to strive for better, which illustrates the inherent belief that things can be better.  Someone treats us badly, and we try to understand why so we can learn from their mistakes and become better people ourselves.  We get a rejection and we double our efforts to improve.  We see problems in the world and we start from the assumption that maybe something can be done to alleviate them, that maybe there’s even something we can do personally that might help a little bit.  It’s believing that the little things, like telling someone to have a nice day and meaning it, or complimenting someone on a job well done, will add up to make a difference in the world around us.

Sometimes when I am faced with a particularly daunting truth, I am a pessimist.  Sometimes I get tired and wonder if I’m making any progress.  I worry that I’m not making even a small difference.  I don’t know how I can possibly surmount what I see in front of me.  For those of us who either can’t or won’t filter, it is easy to become daunted and overwhelmed.  But as much as I can, I try to choose optimism because when I do, I’m happier.  I’d rather live a life infused with meaning.  I’d rather have the bittersweet comfort of hope.  I’d rather make the gamble that the little things sometimes matter after all.

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Photo by Paul Bica

I have a family history of cancer.  My mom died of breast cancer, and her dad died of prostate cancer.  I was convinced that I would inevitably get cancer as well, and that I would probably die of it.  I knew that I must have one of those cancer genes I’d heard about that skyrocket the chances.  My doctor suggested a DNA test and I was horrified at the very idea.  More bad news?  No thanks.

Fast forward to earlier this year, when 23andme was having an incredible sale on their DNA test.  I decided to purchase one in spite of the fact that the very idea filled me with dread.  I figured the test would either tell me what I already thought I knew (aka I had some horrible cancer gene) or it would tell me I didn’t and it would be good news.  I had prepared myself so thoroughly for the worst that I could take the risk of having the test done.

I got the results a few months ago.  I don’t have any of those cancer genes.  Not only that, based on my genetics alone, I actually have a lower than average chance of ever getting breast cancer.  That’s right, lower than average.  While it’s true that there are other risk factors to account for here, my little story of doom collapsed in on itself at this news.

My story is not uncommon.  The facts we think we know are not always what is true, and the stronger the fear surrounding an issue, the more likely we are to fail to see clearly.  I’m scared of death and especially of dying young, and so it takes very little effort for me to create an entire repertoire of stories to support this possibility.  Unfortunately, these fears create visions of the world that can hold us back and cause great unhappiness.  They keep us living in some imaginary wasteland instead of enjoying the present.

Fear of failure is another one I see all the time.  “Oh, I can’t possibly write a novel.  I can’t possibly travel to a foreign country.  I can’t possibly have a happy romantic relationship with a partner who respects me.  I can’t open my own business or find a job I like.  I can’t change.”  I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

I’m here, not dying young of cancer, to tell you that you can.  The scope of human potential is infinite.  Yes, you may fail.  Yes, I may die young.  I’m not willing to let that chance keep me from living now.  Are you?

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E-books and the Apocalypse

I am the semi-satisfied owner of a Kindle (semi-satisfied because the DRM still creeps me out) and in general, I’m a fan of electronic books.  I’m also a fan of hardbacks, mass paperbacks, trade paperbacks, super deluxe special editions… basically I’m an all-around kind of book fan.

But I do have one worry about electronic books that no one ever seems to talk about: what possible disastrous effect will electronic books have on the store of human knowledge, art, and entertainment in the event of an apocalypse?

I know this is illogical.  I know that books printed on paper are vulnerable to all kinds of destruction: fire, flood, crumbling to pieces due to old age, complete inaccessibility due to building collapse, toxic waste, control of written material by a tyrannical minority, etc.  So electronic books don’t have the monopoly on tragic loss.  But still, think of the possibilities.

First, on a personal level.  If you were living through a Lost scenario (plane crash onto isolated island, no rescue in sight), your e-reader would die within … a couple weeks, maybe?  If you were lucky and it didn’t suffer unfixable damage.  Wouldn’t you rather have a few paperbacks that would last your entire exile?  Not only could you read those books again and again (and out loud to your fellow strandees as well), if you had a pen, you could write *new* stories in the margins and end pages, thereby giving you more reading material.

Or what if the power was off in your house for a week or more?  (This actually happens in real life even without an apocalypse.)  And let’s say you’ve been lazy about keeping your e-reader up to full power (this also actually happens in real life).  So once it gets dark, you decide to read with your flashlight, since you can’t watch movies or TV, you can’t play piano because it’s too hard to read the sheet music in the dark, you can’t call anyone because your cell phone is running out of charge and you’re preserving it for an emergency.  But then you can’t read either because your Kindle is dead!  Meaning you’ll have to find a coffee shop that allows you to mooch off power (or hope the power isn’t off at your office as well, if you are fortunate enough to have one of those).  Or you’ll be stuck whispering ghost stories in the dark.

Or what if, twenty years from now, Amazon goes out of business?  And what if there are problems, possibly due to the stupid DRM, with porting your library, now possibly numbering in the thousands of titles (definitely at least hundreds), over to whatever alternate e-reader is dominant at the time?  (If there is an alternate and Amazon doesn’t go under in a general economic collapse.)  You may scoff and say how unlikely this is, but having just read Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects (which I highly recommend even if I think it should have been a novel instead of a novella), you never know.  (Note: this is especially true if you are the kind of person who daydreams about apocalypses.)  After all, what good do all those old 5.25 floppy disk backups do me today?  I can’t look at any of my old papers or stories for reference anymore unless I happen to locate a hard copy.

Now, expand out to a societal level.  My favorite apocalypses to ponder these days are generally related to global warming and/or running out of oil and/or some political excitement.


A retreating glacier

(Sorry, I don’t do zombies.)  Now, if I’m feeling optimistic about these scenarios, I can hope that by the time trouble strikes, solar power has become more widespread (or wind, or water) or some other practical energy source has been developed.  But will the infrastructure be in place so there isn’t even a blip when switching over the electricity grid?  Will there be enough electricity all the time so people can spare the amount it takes to charge an e-reader instead of, say, run lab or farming equipment or a water heater or power a hospital?  Now if you owned physical books, on the other hand, your only problem would be lack of time in daylight to read them, and if you could figure out how to make candles, well then, problem solved.  (Now an e-book with built in solar energy panels could be cool, but what if the panels break?  Would spare parts be available?  Would I have or be able to purchase the expertise to use said spare parts?)

Whenever I plan my ideal supplies for surviving post-apocalypse, I always include as many reference books as possible (unless, of course, I have to be mobile in said apocalypse world, which severely limits the books you can carry).  There are so many basic things that modern life has left me unprepared to face: making candles is a great example.  Making soap, medical and first aid techniques, mechanical crash courses for as many devices as possible, farming and gardening, how to gut a fish or deal with a live chicken if I want to eat it.  The knowledge I don’t have that would be necessary for survival goes on and on.  Maybe I’ll be lucky and live in a community with experts on various of these topics, but what if I don’t?  I’ll have to rely on the reference books.

And I’m not even getting into the dream of preserving human knowledge and art (Shakespeare, anyone?) for future generations.

What this all boils down to is that I’m unlikely to give up my physical library any time soon.  Call me old-fashioned in ten years or twenty, and I’ll probably cheerfully agree with you.  But if the apocalypse comes, I’ll have the last laugh.

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