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Don’t Get Distracted: the Specter of Extinction Must Trump the Sideshow

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In this post-truth era, when the splashy surreal stands in for the real, it pays to be extremely vigilant about where our attention gets focused. It is understandable that we become snagged on the unfathomable. How can one fathom that which is beyond belief?  Our poor brains just cannot wrap themselves around the garbage that is being offered up as reality, as reasonable human conduct, or god forbid, as governance. And how can we avoid returning to look at the wreckage, to try again and again to grasp the insanity and the absurdity, to ask how this came to pass?  It is compelling—in the manner of a fiery highway crash– and with the help of the media, we can spend vast amounts of time and energy, mesmerized in disbelief and horror, focused on Donald Trump.  Is there a more perfect definition of armchair hell? And if by chance we drop into our hearts, there is no question that the circus feeds pain and dread there, increasing the urgency of our attentions and the levels of our anxieties.

I have absolutely no doubt that the Trump administration and their lackeys in Congress will cause unimaginable suffering for individuals all over the planet, even as they blow up the still-standing ruins of American democracy. This goes almost without saying, but I say it none-the-less for foundational purposes, to acknowledge the terrible significance of the real actions/inactions being underwritten by our current government.

But friends, this is a sideshow. A riveting one to be sure, replete with drama, true trauma, tragedy and comedy, but a side-show all the same, run by a carnival barker who knows well how to keep us turning his way.

As we fix our collective and terrified gaze on the (dangerous) antics of a canny bully and his gang, more and more evidence emerges to suggest that no matter what they do, what any of us do, our species’ time on this planet is rapidly drawing to a close. Certainly that which we term ‘civilization’ is well into its final act.  Trump and his cronies are an engine that will vastly accelerate this near inevitability, but the greater decimation is not of his making.

Very few of us would like to look in this direction, to consider the increasing probability, for instance, that most of the children born this year may not make it to middle-age, quite possibly not even to adulthood.  Even in first world countries. Even in the upper economic echelons of first world countries. This reality—as opposed to the surreality emerging from the White House– appears to offer so little to work with, to engage with, to, well…DO.  As humans, most of us like to DO, and we like to find ways to feel valid and hopeful and good about our lives.  It isn’t always easy and the specter of repeatedly chosen self-destruction looms darkly right now, acknowledged or not. Survival fears, well-founded ones that currently spark in a panoply of flavors, drive many of us, intent upon finding comfort, into unconsciousness, denial, frantic action.

Joining with others—virtually or in person—who share righteous outrage at violations of decency and morality and law—this can alleviate the sense of helplessness.  Being angry, being right, being in solidarity are all energizing anodynes for despair and disempowerment.  A case could be put that the Women’s Marches in January made very prominent important points of view that oppose the administration’s. Which is something. But did all those pussy hats, did the speeches and the songs and huge numbers of human beings in the streets accomplish anything concrete?  Did anyone on Wall Street quake?  Even a little? Did the leadership of the infamous 17 intelligence agencies feel more inclined to act lawfully afterward?  Did the administration think twice about its intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement?  (This latter being much too little, much too late, and yet we hold fast to the tiny strands, hoping that we can turn this raft around before that roaring ahead reveals itself to be the Niagara, falling.)  We all suspect strongly that the answers are consistently in the negative. The impact of protest and civil disobedience hinges heavily upon a state’s capacity for shame, on it’s having a conscience. Neither of those are much in evidence these days. Let’s not forget that 30-some million people out on the streets worldwide in early 2003 didn’t manage to slow down the rollout of Shock and Awe at all.

But what if we ask another set of questions, having to do with the hearts and minds of those who participated and those who couldn’t but would have liked to? Then we see the value of coming together and coming out to state in positive ways who we are and what we believe. We embolden and affirm one another. And perhaps—perhaps– someone with a bit of power is moved in ways we cannot and will never see.  Maybe the airport demonstrations actually created enough ‘drag’ to delay the zealots for a few weeks, weeks that meant the world to a number of individuals.

So, activism is worthwhile. We can make our passions known through public displays, we can organize locally to make change in that arena, we can write and make movies and record songs all to disseminate the truth, we can choose differently about what and how we consume, or drive, or educate our children.  We can direct our resources to support what we believe.

Each of us is responsible for considering how we contribute to or diminish the common good, for knowing and living up to our own capacities in this regard.  You know what you can do, and you also know what can’t do.  You also know—for yourself– what alleviates the feelings of panic and rage, and what leaves you feeling hopeless and despairing.

Which brings me back to the likelihood that we are now in the midst of the Grand Finale.  Why would anyone want to think about the prospect that we are rapidly approaching our own self-orchestrated extinction event? Too late to alter outcomes, we may see but two choices: helpless contemplation of a bleak and dystopian future that ends in rubble, or taking a smidgeon of control and tuning it all out, changing the station, and maybe even revving up a little over the ‘All Trump All The Time’ news.  It seems pretty simple.  If there is nothing to be done, then why make ourselves sick and sad and depressed over that which can’t be changed?  And there is no denying that there are sideshows aplenty to divert us if we are so inclined.  Maybe we can even DO something about the social and civil disasters.

Imagine this: you are in a hospital bed recovering from major surgery.  You are starting to remember who you are and why you are here and what is at stake.  The pain is pretty bad, but you can manage it if you keep downing narcotics, if the healing continues apace, if you can get back to your real life soon. The doctor arrives to check on you.  She appears to be kind and encouraging and competent, and yet you can read the bad news on her face before she speaks. When she does, she tells you that the pathology was not good, that short of keeping you ‘comfortable,’ there is little more that medicine has to offer.

How could this be?  Just a few weeks ago, all was well and you were looking forward to a new trajectory in your life.  Maybe a grandchild, maybe a grand opus, maybe a love just beginning.  But here you are: in bed, suffering, having just received the diagnosis: you are terminal.

So what do you want to do?  Are there things you don’t want to leave this life not having done?  Or been?  Books to read?  Conversations to have?  Amends to make?  Places to see?  Habits to break?  Things to learn?  Truths to tell? Do you want to find peace?  Forgive yourself or someone else?  Do you want to let go of fear?  Do you want to love with all your heart?

If you wish to make the most of the time that remains, you need to live with death on your left shoulder, as many shamanic traditions advise.  You must not put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Time is precious if you have limited quantities of it and you have living left to do.  When we reach this juncture, as most of us will, some will ramp up the fight to live, others will wander lost in sorrow. Some of us will use all of our energy to uphold the scaffolding of denial and still others will spend their final weeks or months in anger and regret.  When we are facing almost certain death, the options are limited.  It is, after all, a fundamental loss of control.  But we can choose how we live while we are alive. That may be all that is left to us.

You will see where I am going with this. As a species, Homo sapiens could well be on its last upright legs.  That means you.  It means me. It means our beloved children and everyone we hold dear. And it is quite likely that another round of chemo (e.g., the Paris Agreement) will forestall the inevitable only slightly.

This is heartbreaking, a virtual definition of tragedy.  It didn’t have to be this way, and yet something (the fatal flaw?) has brought us as a species to this pass.  (I leave aside for the moment all the other species we have carelessly dragged down with or ahead of us.)  Serious scientists and thinkers are writing in increasing numbers that we need to consider the possibility our children will not live out their ‘natural’ lives.  Google human extinction (57 million hits in .66 second), or try the search feature on CounterPunch for substantive reporting on our prospects.

It is almost too grievous to look at full on.  But if we fail to do so, we may lose the impetus to live our lives as truly and as gloriously and as deeply as is possible.  You may want to spend some of the last part of your life watching everything Fred Astaire ever danced, or you might want to read Nietzsche at last, or you could have a passion to swim with the dolphins (if they consent).  Maybe it is your longing to stand in front of an IDF (or American) tank in the purest affirmation of human empathy and courage you can muster, or perhaps have always felt poetry rising within but never committed those jewels to paper.  Whatever it is—know it.  And then, do it.  Live it.  Feel it.  Be it.  We are all in that hospital bed, whether we allow ourselves to feel the truth of it or not.  Miracles do happen and there is no need to be defeated.  But as is often said, we have only this moment.  Trite, but never truer.

So I joyfully suggest that we seize the day.  Be who you are here to be.  Be who you want to be.  Don’t hold back and don’t wait.  Fight for what you believe in, but don’t forget to live fully, unfurled, as yourself.  There may be no one in the future to look back and remember or celebrate us, but we do have this time, precious time to be-here-now, to share our love, our wisdom, our gifts; to rejoice in the many and gorgeous offerings of other humans, the scent of apple blossoms on the evening breeze, geese honking as they wing overhead. Despite what might be a fatal flaw, we are an extraordinary, profoundly beautiful invention.  A failure to endure forever need not diminish that reality. So let’s live our humanness all the way, while we can, while we are here.  And please, don’t let anyone, no matter how surreal, no matter how mad, rob you of the right to make that choice.

Elizabeth West lives, writes and strives to find beauty and joy less than half a mile from the Chevron refinery in Richmond CA. She can be reached at elizabethwest@sonic.net.

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