A few months ago, a friend of mine, Janet, asked me if I thought the world would really end on December 21st. I asked her why she would be more concerned with a supposed “Mayan apocalypse” than with the much more down-to-earth reality that we’ve entered a time of growing ecological disaster.
“It’s easier to imagine the Mayan apocalypse,” Janet said. “After all, you know it’s imaginary, like zombie apocalypses and all that good stuff, so it takes your mind off the real thing.”
The real thing, by comparison, is truly depressing. It’s hard to wrap your head around the demise of the elephants, the tigers, the great apes, the corals and literally thousands of other species that are disappearing from the Earth right now. And even if Janet doesn’t follow all the details, she knows that for her four-year-old daughter and her future grandchildren and their grandchildren, the world will be a very different place from anything she or any of us have known.
The real prophets of doom, it turns out, aren’t astrologers or numerologists; they’re climate scientists and biologists. And it’s hard even for them to stomach what’s happening.
Janet sent me a text this morning saying she was in a restaurant yesterday where a group of raucous people were drinking a toast to the Mayan apocalypse. She added that no one was drinking a toast to climate change or the demise of the elephants, though.
The real prophets of doom, it turns out, aren’t astrologers or numerologists; they’re climate scientists and biologists.So, what’s the difference?
Maybe it’s that the people in the restaurant were confident that they’ll be waking up on Saturday morning after all, safe and happy in the knowledge that it didn’t happen and that, in a sense, they’ve triumphed over death.
And isn’t that what we all spend our lives trying to do?
We humans are blessed and cursed with an advanced level of self-awareness that enables us to dwell on our past and think about our future. It’s the one thing that makes us different (as far as we know) from the other animals. But when we look into our future, there’s one thing that each of us sees with absolute certainty: our own death.
This awareness of our mortality is terrifying, crushing and crippling. And however much we try to suppress it, we find ourselves in a constant state of anxiety, struggling to give our lives “meaning” and trying to deny that our individual existence is so temporary. Much of our culture can be seen as an attempt to transcend our mortal animal nature and to reach for some elusive form of immortality.
In his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, Stephen Cave describes four basic ways we humans attempt to deny our mortality. The four ways are:
a) life extension through medical and scientific developments;
b) bodily resurrection as promised by many religions;
c) survival of the soul, a non-physical aspect of ourselves; and
d) leaving a legacy, like gathering fame or fortune to ensure that our name will live on, or raising children so we can live on through them.
Whether or not any of these approaches or belief systems may actually work, none of them has successfully relieved our existential anxiety.
Another book, The Denial of Death, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ernest Becker, lays out the fundamental paradox of human nature:
[Man] is a symbolic self … a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity … This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature.
Yet, at the same time … man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it … He has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.
… The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and [the other] animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams … that’s something else.
Becker’s theories have been validated in studies by psychologists in the field of Terror Management Theory – terror management being all the ways we try to cope with our fear of death. One of the key understandings they’ve developed is outlined in a paper called I Am Not an Animal: Mortality Salience, Disgust and the Denial of Human Creatureliness. The psychologists explain that the other animals remind us of our own animal nature, and that we try to deny this creatureliness by distancing ourselves from them and telling ourselves that “I am not an animal.” We protest that we are superior, different, better, exceptional. And if we can become exceptional enough, maybe we’ll turn out to be immortal after all.
Much of the history of religion and philosophy is steeped in the attempt to separate ourselves altogether from our fellow animals. Our religions place us “higher” than they are. We say that human life is “sacred” but that the lives of other animals are not. In our legal systems, we treat humans as “persons” with certain innate, inalienable rights, but recognize no basic rights as applying to any other life forms. Whatever we do to the other animals, on this small, blue-green planet, we are doing to ourselves.
More and more, in our attempts to distance ourselves from our fellow animals, we treat them all as little more than resources, whose only purpose is to serve our needs.
And paradoxically, we ignore the one basic law that’s fundamental to all true culture, religion, philosophy, law and basic morality: that we should treat others as we would want to be treated in their place, and that since all life is connected, whatever we’re doing to others we are ultimately doing to ourselves.
And so it is that in our ever more frantic attempts to create a human world that’s walled off from nature, we now find ourselves actively destroying the web of life that we depend on for our own well-being.
The world itself will not end on Friday December 21st when the Earth and the Sun line up with the center of our Milky Way galaxy. But it would be a good day to reflect upon the immensity of nature and on the fact that we humans – a prodigal but deeply insecure species – are but grains of sand upon a vast beach that leads to a perhaps infinite ocean.
And all we have for company in this incomprehensible universe are our fellow animals. We are bound together with them – inextricably. Whatever we do to them, on this small, blue-green planet, we are doing to ourselves. The only way we can make ourselves special is to make them special.
Rather than trying to separate ourselves from nature, we would do well to cling to it, support it, and allow ourselves to be in awe of it. Only when we stop fighting nature (and therefore our own nature) can we begin to find true peace of mind.
That’s because while none of us individually is immortal, life itself most surely is. And when we nurture life and protect life in all its forms, we start to become identified with life in the very fullest way.