In January I watched a man die. I had never witnessed death in real time before. Thus began 2018, my year of gloom. Harry, a longtime friend, drained away before my eyes. His breath crescendoed in torment, until it eased into quiet serenity. Lover, daughters, friend stood around his bedside. Solace speckled our grief; Harry exited our world in peace.
Beyond that intimate circle, anguish rippled wise across the earth like a radioactive boulder shattering a tranquil sea. We devoted more time in postulating how humanity would end—environmental catastrophe, nuclear annihilation, biological contagion, toxic incivility—than envisioning how our species might thrive.
Despair informed my reading. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: a grim curiosity shop of creatures we’ve shoveled out of existence. James Suzman’s Affluence without Abundance: a Bushmen hunter-gatherer society, stable for over 100,000 years, unhinged within a few generations. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: tapping the root of our deadened soul. Tales that traverse millions of years of evolution even as they excavate our unconscious now.
We are specks spinning on a rock. The rock’s a mere dot in the universe. Our universe is nothing more than a cosmic dust mite. We do not matter; we don’t even know what it might mean to matter, in any galactic way. And yet within each of us lies a universe complete onto itself. Our feelings, our movements, our very breath, constitute an all consuming whole.
In this, man’s essential duality, I find hope for the New Year. We are simultaneously insignificant and omnipotent. We do not know how or when we will end, as individuals or as a species. We just know that our end is ordained by the greater powers of god, science, and myth. Yet we believe, thanks to the gift of projection, that our spirit will transcend physical reality.
“Enough!” I declared one morning, to no one but me. Exhausted from dreams of destruction, I sought a path to balance, to nurture humanity’s time here on earth without being numbed by our inevitable demise. Our problems are monstrous; our responses to them are inadequate, actually absurd. What one man can do is miniscule. Yet within my personal universe, action connotes power. And so I carry my bags to the market, wear a sweater and turn the thermostat down. I write my legislators and attend rallies. I vote. I volunteer. I operate outside of the news cycle, the business cycle, every kind of societal mousetrap except maybe the bi-cycle. I post far-flung ideas up to the cloud and don’t sweat meager reader stats. What’s good and lasting is not breaking news. It’s aged. Seasoned. It infiltrates our essence and lodges in our conscience. It awaits a viral future.
Most of all, I greet every person I encounter with equanimity. I try to be kind. I try to keep my breath moderate as my politics and my temper. I try to be kind. I try to see the world through seven billion different eyes, and when I fail, I try to be kind.
And so, here is my trio of New Year wishes to you and yours.
Acknowledge the gloom of our age, but don’t succumb to it.
Harness the energy of action for equity and justice.
And most important, be kind to those you love, and especially to those you don’t.
Let 2019 be the year we shirk our gloom. Let us act like we care for ourselves, and each other. When the time comes for each of us—eventually all of us—to cease this planet for good, let us rage, rage against the dying of the light. And then inhale our inevitable last breath in quiet serenity. May we all resolve in peace.