It would be in a place you’d recognize immediately: just another dark, clean, church basement, in an old church near a bus stop. With fluorescent lighting and folding chairs. Cool and quiet inside, with a reassuring, but somehow melancholy feel. Only the ones who’ve dropped out of the light, become invisible to the rest of the fast-paced, forward-racing world, would go there. The losers, the ones who’ve fallen in the race and sit on the sidelines as the others speed on out of sight, holding their sides and gasping, baffled and exhausted and sad.
Generally sparsely attended, with perhaps a few extra members showing up on those particularly difficult days of national obligation, like Super Bowl Sunday or the Oscars.
You’d come in out of the bright, generous sunshine (35 days straight with no rain this winter, the fourth year of a worsening drought the like of which has not been seen in over a thousand years – but on the upside, what great weather we’ve been having! It’s been like moving to Mexico without ever leaving town.)
The others sit quietly in the circle of chairs. You nod to the ones you know as you take your seat.
This week’s facilitator starts the meeting off. (All the names have been changed, of course, to preserve anonymity.)
Hi, he says, I’m Andy, and I’m a green anarchist. It’s been about seven years since I was active in any collective.
Hi, Andy, you all respond.
So I’ll just start by saying that I can’t stop obsessing over the fact that we no longer live in the climatic regime that gave birth to humankind. I mean, at a minimum that should be a topic of conversation, yes? And yet every time I bring it up at work (not in an apocalyptic way or anything – I’ve learned better, so I go out of my way to be like “hey, by the way, did you know this interesting fact?”) I get the same glazed look. Not fear, or excitement, or contempt, or any emotion at all – just this sort of “now where did I leave that folder?” look. I mean here’s all this data indicating that our species has never lived in the kind of climate that we are creating, and change on this scale by a single species is unprecedented in the history of Earth. That the lives of the next generation will be turned upside down by this, and it could be an existential threat. Not to mention all the other species already going extinct around us – at a hundred to a thousand times the background rate! But I get no sense that any of it registers in any profound way. It’s just boring, like reading actuarial tables or something.
But then Kim Kardashian gets a new haircut! I can’t – I can’t make these phenomena make sense together. I feel like I’m looking around and everybody looks human, and I’m trying to talk to people where I work and they all appear to be alive and somewhat rational, and actually they don’t give a shit about Kim Kardashian, they just sort of pretend to, but then they do seem concerned about unvaccinated immigrants massing at the border, whereas I kind of see both those things on the same plane of reality… Anyway I feel like the dude from Invasion of the Body Snatchers –I can’t fall asleep, and I want to run out onto the highway and start screaming at everybody about this danger that they can’t even see or maybe they can and just don’t care.
I’ve cut down on coffee. I’ve tried positive visualization. But every day I get up feeling like my world’s about to slide into a black hole.
I’m just glad to be here with you today: I’m not in a great place but – one day at a time!
All nod sympathetically. Thank you for sharing, Andy.
Does anybody have a reading to share? Andy asks.
George says, I’m trying to remember the line about the guy who takes the old man who believes that the end of the world has already come to the window of the asylum, to show him the world is still there and beautiful… “the gulls! The sails of the herring fleet!” and the other guy begs to be taken away again because “all he had seen was ashes.” Is it Beckett or Ionesco? I can’t remember.
Beckett, somebody mutters. Endgame.
I bring it up because what I’ve been feeling is that in the 20th century there was actually some kind of historical progression that made sense, as dark and bloody as it was, even with the insanity of a nuclear holocaust hanging over it all. Battles, revolutions, mass movements, all these attempts to shape human history, to move it purposefully in some direction – and then, it’s as if the engine shattered into bits sometime toward the end of the Cold War and the whole machine spun into chaos and all these people are still acting as if it’s going somewhere but it’s not.
Now I know people –a number of people in different countries, in fact, being a socialist internationalist – who are still struggling on in the old way, to get control of their own lives or in solidarity with some larger ideal, but overall there’s no traction. They’re like these phantom voices calling from a parallel world that has no ability to shape physical reality in this one.
Empire, late capitalism, globalization – I understand and try to use these terms to make sense of recent events, but what I actually feel inside is that the world has already ended and we are living in a kind of ghost world, where there is all this frenzied activity but most of it is engaged in a process of replacing life with death. It’s like the ghost world has gone viral, and is busy spreading itself everywhere, invisibly. You can’t really see any difference; you just feel it. Everything is less alive.
So I go to protests where the organizers are telling everybody how empowering it is to protest and I feel like, well, yes, it’s empowering in the same way that going to a great rock concert is empowering, and the empowerment, which is what I would call the sense of being alive, lasts just about as long. But they say if I don’t go to the protest, then I’m letting other people carry the weight for me and I’m perpetuating the problem and all that. And I think, well, their logic is unassailable. But then after that I think, but most of the people I know are paid to say that: they all work for non-profits whose job it is to organize protests. So then I think, well, yes, but they’re doing it on behalf of people who aren’t paid, who are really suffering. And I don’t work for a non-profit and I’m not really suffering like that so I have no daily connection to what’s going on. So maybe that’s what I should do, work for a non-profit instead of working at the Volvo garage. But then I don’t really think that’s the heart of the problem. And the end result is I still feel dead inside, whether I go to the protest or I don’t. I guess I just feel dead inside more and more.
And then I feel crappy because that’s probably some kind of privileged thing, feeling dead inside. But that doesn’t change how I feel. Dead and crappy. And confused. Like Gene Wilder in The Producers when he’s having hysterics and Zero Mostel throws water in his face and then slaps him: “I’m wet; I’m in pain – and I’m still hysterical!”
George falls silent. He seems to have run out of breath.
Thank you for sharing, George.
Then somebody else says, I’ve been meditating on this line from a Kafka story that haunts me: “I have never been able to feel from within myself that I am alive.”
Everyone nods: of course, Kafka always gets to the root of things. But wait – never? Wasn’t there ever a time when…?
I don’t like Stephen Hawking, Jim says, after a short silence. That’s what’s up for me right now. He keeps saying we have to become machines, that’s our destiny or else we’ll just go extinct like all the other species, and all the smart people nod and say ohhh Stephen Hawking, but I keep thinking – well, can’t everybody see that he loves machines because they keep him alive but that doesn’t mean it would be a great thing for anybody much less everybody to become one, that we already feel cut off from this incredibly complex and utterly unique living world and bizarrely isolated and alone, when there is life all around us, inside and out, and the way living systems work is actually both coherent and beautiful, and we’ve gotten to a place technologically where we could probably re-connect with it all and still feel physically safe, although it would mean totally redesigning the way we live, and I think well, why is that less attractive and exciting than becoming some kind of brain in a jar or whatever?
And then he projects our machine fantasies, our colonization fantasies onto other beings living out in space somewhere and says that they have either destroyed themselves through their own aggression or else they are coming to get us! So it’s as if the entire universe gets infected with our worst, most reductive understanding of any self-aware intelligence as this kind of mechanistic cancer… To me it’s indefensible but when anybody prestigious says the most insane thing – well, I just feel like, who cares what I think, anyway?
We care, Jim, you all say.
Amy speaks up next: I’m suppose I’ve been feeling depressed. Because I have this persistent idea that there was never any need for all this, this, what you all are saying – that at any or perhaps every point of evolutionary or historical chronology, things might have been different. They might have gone another way.
We might have been whales, able to create poetry inside our heads. Or colonies of super-intelligent mushrooms. Or even as primates we might socially have resembled bonobos more than chimps, and resolved our intraspecies conflicts with sex and food sharing. As humans we might all, on our respective continents, have lived like the Haudenosaunee or the Lakota or the Hopi, but indefinitely, our numbers self-limited as we continued to evolve in a real sense, growing deeper in humility and compassion and reverence and understanding of our place in the biosphere, getting wiser but not more powerful in a material way.
I can’t see any force in the universe or any logic within ourselves that has so to speak compelled this unending orgy of waste and destruction and bloodshed that people insist on calling the result of superior intelligence. So why then, why? Why should we live at all, given the incomprehensible amounts of entropy we are responsible for creating every day? I have not been able to stop asking this question, over and over. But frankly, the longer it goes on, the harder I find it is for me to get out of bed in the morning, much less to brush my hair and my teeth and whatnot…
There is a long silence after Amy speaks. Sometimes something somebody shares is just the crux of the matter and the group seems to feel it together.
Existence precedes essence? someone tries out, but it falls flat. No prescriptions.
We have time for one more share, says Andy.
My apartment is beautiful and welcoming, Joanie says, but nobody ever comes to visit. I always wanted it to be a place that was filled with friends sitting around and playing music and drinking coffee and talking for hours on end. But everyone I know is just crazy busy or in chaos. I have two friends with auto-immune disorders, one with breast cancer, one raising two teenage boys (one with ADHD) on her own after a bad divorce, one who’s the primary caregiver for both parents who are in their 80s and have dementia, one who’s the primary caregiver for a grandchild whose mom is in prison, one who’s been in and out of rehab for three years, one whose dad is on suicide watch since he lost the family house to foreclosure, one whose adult son is living with her because he’s incurably paranoid and subject to delusions after a morphine addiction, one whose landlord is harassing him because he wants to evict all the long-term tenants so my friend spends all his time on the phone with lawyers or at tenants’ meetings.
I know all this. I know no one will ever come and sit on my nice second-hand rugs and play guitar or lean against the bookshelves that cover the walls or hang out in the warm kitchen where I’ve hung all the posters I got at those old North Beach stores that are all gone now, but I can’t stop thinking that’s what ought to be. Was it ever really like that? Am I crazy?
You’re not crazy, Joanie, everybody says.
Just keep working the steps, says Andy. Let’s say them together.
It ends with the habitual collective recitation: Where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
And you climb the stairs back out into the harsh, bright, endless sunshine.