[Editor’s note: Every Wednesday New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions, and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose or — no surprise here — a party.]
Thanks for writing your column. It’s really helped me lately, which is why I’m writing to ask you about this: It feels like the world is ending. Every time I turn on the TV, there’s a new crisis: War, riots, environmental catastrophes, disease, financial collapse, cyber crime, religious rage, not to mention the boring little problems of my own regular life.
In one week, I literally saw the top stories in the newspaper all describing various versions of Armageddon, one after another — just a big list of apocalyptic events. And it seems like every recent Hollywood movie focuses on some apocalyptic disaster or dystopian vision of the not-too-distant future. If someone would’ve told me 15 years ago that things would get this bad, I would’ve found it hard to believe. And now I’m wondering, in 15 more years will they be even worse? What the hell is going on? How can things keep going this way? Is the world ending?
Afraid and Paranoid
Dear Afraid and Paranoid,
The world isn’t ending, it’s changing. And it’s up to us to make it change for the better. When a baby is born and turns into a teenager, we don’t say the baby “ended” and the teenager “began,” we realize it’s a fluid, if uncoordinated, transformation from one version of a young person into another. Both the baby and the teenager are unique beings with their own qualities, but they are also both part of one ultimate ongoing person.
When a young man or woman first physically becomes an adult with the ability to reproduce, it can be a traumatic and extremely distressing experience. As much as it’s exciting to realize one’s body is becoming more powerful and mature, it’s also extremely frightening to realize that one is forever leaving behind childhood and the associated innocence, and moving into a new version of life with new endowments and responsibilities that come with them. Whether we like it or not, every fundamental aspect of life is tied to change, transformation, and revolution — things turning into other things.
It’s possible that human civilization itself is in some version of adolescence right now, learning how to manage and apply newly acquired powers and abilities — testing the limits of our surroundings and enjoying, yet fearing, what we’re capable of. As a civilization, we’re constantly crossing new thresholds, encountering unforeseen and terrifying situations, and having to struggle with the painful realization that we can never return to the way things were, no matter how badly we may want to. At the same time, and in a less obvious way, we’re realizing there’s something perpetual, universal, and inevitable about our own development and the ceaseless change we encounter on scales both large and small. It’s a drama that plays itself out on every level, globally as well as individually. It’s the experience of being part of a living world.
We also must keep perspective. To those of us who feel like the world is ending now, has it perhaps always been that way? A quick glance back through history shows us that at nearly every era in modern civilization, humanity has been in the throes of a seemingly endless string of unconquerable impasses. Just as we have now, back then there were also those who were ready to throw in the towel and say, “See? This is the end of the world! I always knew it would happen!” And in a way, it was the end of the world — but only the end of one version of the world, and, in turn, the beginning of another.
This is not to say that the ordeals we face now are any less serious or grave than those of the past. Our situations now may be more critical than any we’ve faced before. But our abilities and experience are also greater than any we’ve had before. It is up to us to tackle all of our problems with confidence and not become overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the task.
We want so badly to feel safe and enjoy a sense of stability in what we work so hard to construct. But deep down inside we know that true permanence is impossible. And we can pretend that we’re safe, and go to great lengths to counteract every conceivable threat to our way of life, but we realize there will then be literally millions of new ways our daily lives could be harmed or upended. We want to think that what we’ve worked so hard to create can weather the merciless and unsparing threats of movement and change. Our houses and buildings, our cities and countries, our careers and plans and goals and dreams are all tenuous and delicate. Even our own bodies, which we identify with so deeply and work so hard to protect and fortify, are hanging by an ever-diminishing thread, dangling over the inescapable and unimaginably vast vacuum of space.
So what can we do?
We can defend ourselves from those who wish to use our fear of change against us, and show them that we can harness the power of transformation for our own greater good. We can strive to keep our own mortality and the temporary nature of all things in the forefront of our minds, not so that we become morbidly depressed or frightened, but so that we become fully motivated and energized to live our life right now. We can imagine what it would be like if all the non-essential material elements of our day-to-day life were torn away all of a sudden. What would we be left with? We would be left with ourselves. Our spirit. Our souls. Our friends and family and the simplest pleasures of life. Perhaps it’s good to remind ourselves that the most enjoyable parts of being alive are the parts we often overlook, and the parts that would still stand, should everything else fall.
In a way, the world ends every night, and we build a new one every morning. It’s not a question of whether or not very intense things will occur. They will. So it’s then a question of how we carry ourselves through the transforming events that alter out world. We mustn’t allow terror, bitterness, or exhaustion to corrode our desire to push forward, or allow the barrage of doomsayers to erode our belief in the ability for the human race to persevere through our most difficult challenges, even those that seem insurmountable. Nothing is as sustainable as our spirit and desire to survive. Let us never lose that spark — that fire — that flame of life. We must keep it burning and held high, with faith that its light will illuminate the path and guide us through darkness.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 27, 2014
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