I’m hearing it a lot lately. A sense that the future is already doomed to be terrible no matter what we do, so why should we do anything, what could we possibly do that would make any difference at all?
I have a lot of thoughts on that. They’re hard to put into words. So I’ll tell you a true story.
A few years ago, I was dying.
Obviously, I’m still here, so something changed. More on that later. But, what’s important is, I knew I was dying. Without anyone intervening, giving myself a year was a little too generous. I was pretty sure I’d never see 34.
I kept coming close enough to death to touch it, close enough that if I had simply stopped trying to be alive, my body would have shut down and nobody would have known I had any say in the matter. It was happening more and more often. I was getting weaker. I started passing out and becoming unable to breathe on my own. I’d wake up at 3 in the morning to the sound of my bipap alarm going off. This alarm was supposed to wake me up if the settings designed to jump-start my breathing again didn’t start me taking breaths on my own. My head would be flopped so heavily on my chest that I couldn’t lift it, and the tissue in my neck was so strained it was excruciatingly painful. I’d try to move my hands to press a button to call for help, but they were so weak I could barely move my fingers. I’d realize that even though I was awake, I wasn’t breathing on my own even a little. The alarm was still blaring. The bipap was shoving a whole breath of air into my lungs, they’d deflate on their own, and then the bipap would shove another breath in. I’d know I could die right then. But I felt no emotion. The alarm kept going. I’d try to stay awake, but I’d get woozy and pass out, only to have this repeat a few times, alarm still going, and then in the morning I’d be able to move again, at least as well as I could move at the time, which wasn’t very.
I knew that eventually this would happen while I was awake and not already hooked up to the bipap. And that if nobody saw me, I would die. I also knew every time I got sick, I got much sicker than I should, and often became so weak that it took willpower to keep my blood pumping and my lungs breathing. Weaker than some people I knew had been on the last days of their lives. It got worse every time, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I got too weak to power through it with effort. I could also feel, on a deep, instinctual level, the knowledge that my body was preparing to shut down for good.
I didn’t tell anyone how bad it was, not even the people closest to me. But I was not in denial. I was grappling with the emotional and moral implications of my impending death. I just didn’t want to deal with other people’s reactions. Later, when my father was dying of cancer, he didn’t tell anyone until he ended up in the hospital so sick that he’d been given a week. (He turned out to have pneumonia, which they treated, but he died a few months later.) I understood why he did that, but I began to realize that if I had died, it would’ve robbed my loved ones of a chance to say goodbye to me. At any rate, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I did think about my own death a lot, and how it affected my life.
Obviously, I’m still here. What happened was two different doctors happened to run two different tests just as time was becoming short. They showed I had a severe hormone deficiency (the amount in my body was too small to measure, and it’s necessary for physical survival), and a neuromuscular disease. Both of which were treatable. So I survived. But this isn’t one of those ~never give up hope for a cure~ stories. One, I’m not cured by a longshot — instead of facing an inevitable slow decline into death like before, I now exist in a precarious state where, if I get the right support and treatment, my health is like a house of cards: It can get very tall indeed, but one thing pulled out at the wrong moment and I could die in hours. And two, I had no reason to think anyone would figure out what was going wrong with my body, and most people in my position would have been diagnosed in autopsy. In fact, it was phenomenal luck many times over that I hadn’t died before the time they actually found what was going on. So the point is, I really had to face my death in the same way that anyone facing imminent death has to. I had no realistic expectation of an out.
So where did this leave me? Well, I lost my fear of death pretty early. In fact, I had beautiful dreams about dying sometimes. I didn’t have a death wish, mind you. If I had, I wouldn’t be here. I just had seen death closely enough to stop fearing it, and to find beauty in aspects of it.
Everyone handles their impending death differently. I had a number of occasions to put it to the test: I would wake up aspirating a large amount of stomach acid, and from then on, I would be taken to the hospital, knowing that from the moment I woke up choking on bile that this could be the aspiration pneumonia that would kill me. I was rapidly too exhausted to put my affairs in order, or to do much in the fight against that pneumonia other than let doctors treat me, so I’d resign myself to uncertainty. This happened over and over again.
I’ve heard people talk about how they’d feel bad if they were dying and had never traveled the world like they always want to. But when I was faced by “My life could be over within hours or days,” that was not the kind of thing I regretted. In fact, I could barely give a shit what I’d done in those regards. But I was very preoccupied with who I’d been. Had I been a person who acted from love to the best of my ability? Had I been a moral person? That was the kind of question that made me nervous. I wasn’t sure I measured up to who I should have been. I wasn’t sure I’d affected enough people’s lives for the better. I’d resolve to do better if I got out of this. With some success. I’m far from perfect, but I think my focus and priorities have shifted.
But the reason I’m telling this story is because I feel like how we deal with our own personal mortality mirrors how we deal with the mortality of our entire species. We are facing the very real prospect that either humans won’t survive a lot longer, or not many of us will survive much longer.
One response I hear a lot is, “We’re doomed anyway, so why does it matter what I do?”
And some people do respond to their own personal death in that way. They start caring only about their own pleasure and stop giving a shit how they affect other people.
But the thing I discovered around my own death is — my end is not the end. That’s an understandable but self-centered way of looking at life. I’m not talking about life after death. I have some guesses about that, but they can only ever be guesses until I experience it. I’m talking about the fact that even if I am no longer in the world (whether death is the end for me, personally, or not), other people still will be.
I was going to die, but the rest of the world wasn’t, at least not right then. And dying may have meant I needed to conserve my energy in ways that made it harder to do certain things, or any obvious thing, for other people. But it didn’t mean I had lost the obligation to behave like a decent human being when it was possible to do so. If anything, that obligation seemed more important than ever the closer I got to death. If my life was going to mean anything, it was going to mean that I’d tried hard to do my best by other people, whether in big ways or small.
And this has really changed things for me. I haven’t become some kind of saint. I’m still saddled with the same confusion and self-centeredness that seems to plague human beings in general, but I make my best effort with what I’ve got. Which is all any of us can do.
And I see a strong parallel here with the way people respond to the thought of human extinction. “We’re screwed anyway, so might as well enjoy ourselves before we go out and forget about what we’re doing to the environment.” It might seem like the end of our species should mean we’re let off the hook, even if our own personal death doesn’t. After all, not only is any one individual person not going to be around, no other human being will be around either. There’s a lot of problems with this, though.
I’m going to start from the idea that total human extinction is soon and inevitable. Which it isn’t. Yet. But just saying it was.
We still have a responsibility to each other in the meantime. The reality is that nobody gets out of life alive. And yet most of us care about how we live in the time we’re still here. Treating each other decently is part of that. Because until we’re not here, we are here. And while we are here, how we treat each other matters. We can’t just throw everything to the winds and do whatever we feel like. For one, that’s actually a recipe for misery and unsatisfaction, even if it doesn’t seem like one. But also, it screws over everyone else we’re sharing the planet with in the meantime. And if screwing people over is bad even though each person you screw over will one day, individually, be dead, that isn’t actually changed by the entire species being dead.
There’s also this slide of inevitability that keeps us passive. One bad thing follows from the next bad thing follows from the next bad thing. We haven’t stopped it, so we won’t likely stop it, so let the next bad thing continue and go about our lives.
But the thing is. Again, even if it’s true we’re all universally doomed as a species (which it isn’t — yet). It doesn’t mean that we have to kill as many of us off as soon as humanly possible. Let’s say we knew that no matter what we did, nobody would be alive in 150 years. Would that make it okay to make a decision to just continue escalating things until it’s 75 years, and a huge bunch of people would die younger, and harder, and another huge bunch would never be born? Killing us off as soon as humanly possible because you didn’t think it would affect you personally whether it’s 75 years or 150 years because ou won’t be here is the kind of mentality that got us into this. If you don’t like it as things are now, how do you think your grandchildren or great-grandchildren will feel when they discover you could’ve at least ensured they’d grow up? How do you think the last people to die will feel when they know they could’ve had more time, could’ve faced a less extreme end?
But also, equally important when talking about human extinction is that humans are not and never have been the only life on the planet, or the only ones that matter. Very powerful people thinking humans are the only ones that matter, and only some humans at that, is a big part of what’s killing us. If we all die off, it still matters how many species we take out with us. It matters what we leave for the species most likely to survive us. We can’t just sit here and pull down the roof over our heads. That’d be like me deciding I’m dying anyway so I might as well blow up the whole hospital or something, who cares about everyone else there and what they might want. There has been life for far longer than humans have been around, and life will doubtless outlast us. Animals, plants, fungus, microscopic life of all kinds, all of these things deserve a chance. Failing to give them the best chance possible is like nuking your entire city because you’ll be dead from cancer tomorrow anyway. It’s selfish, destructive, and irresponsible.
So no matter what’s ahead — for you or for all of us — try like hell to contribute, to make the world better for other people, to stop terrible things from becoming even more terrible. Nothing gets us out of that obligation, ever. Sometimes we can do big things, sometimes we can do small things. But always try to find what you can do to the best effect, and do something. Hope isn’t always about knowing you won’t die right then. Hope is sometimes about knowing you could die, even knowing you will die, and doing the right thing anyway, because it’s still the right thing to do.
[This post was written recently. I kept it as a draft and planned to edit it. But I’m posting as-is.]