Mom … and the End of the World
David R. Weiss – July 20, 2021
NOTE: in my last post I described some of my Mom’s slow descent into dementia. I won’t recount that here, but the heartbreaking inevitability of her future is the context for this piece, which, in fact, goes to a much more heartbreaking inevitability. This post will scare some of you. It should. But, if you read past here, please commit to read all the way to the end.
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I don’t expect Mom to live long enough to see the end of the world. But she is teaching me more about it than you might guess. And that matters more than you likely suspect.
Because while I don’t expect to live long enough to see the end of the world either, I do expect that my children might—and that my grandchildren … almost certainly will. So, it matters that I learn as much as I can, while Mom is still teaching.
I can fill this out in more detail in a future post what I mean about my children and my grandchildren. And, by the way, I mean it about your children and your grandchildren, too. But right now we need to have a hard talk. I suggest you sit down.
I’ve been following climate reporting for about six years now. I am not an “expert,” but I am a pretty savvy consumer of news. And the climate news is not good.
I’m now persuaded by science news coming from multiple vantage points that we are no longer hurtling toward some ill-fated “point of no return.” We are, in fact, past that point. And headed inexorably into widescale ecological and societal collapse. There may be a human future on the far side of these twin collapses, but there is no avoiding them. And there is as likely to be an inhuman future on the far side. And whatever lies on the far side will be such a different world, that is it only fair to say OUR WORLD IS ENDING. Soon.
Twenty years? Not likely, but possible. Forty? Too possible to dismiss. Sixty to seventy years? Alas.
I hope you are listening.
Bearing any untimely deaths, it is all too possible that my six children will live long enough to see the undeniable twilight of Earth as a bountiful planet and of human civilization as we have known it. Let me name them for you, because they are real people, and I lament the future that awaits them: Laura, Leah, Megan, Meredith, Ben, Susanna. Ranging in age from 25-40, in their lifetimes the massive fractures in our ecosystems and our social systems that are already opening though still (mostly) felt in other places will be in their backyards … perhaps in their living rooms.
But it is for the sake of my nine grandchildren that I learn from Mom most fastidiously these days. They have names, too: Tomás, Kaleb, Waverly, Landon, Nora, Gretchen, John, Eli, Benjamin. They are all less than 15 years old, and I confess that I now expect they will spend some portion of their adult lives navigating the wreckage of the world they were born into.
Wildfires, drought, heatwaves, pandemics, floods, climate refugees, frayed and ruptured social systems will be … NORMAL. By the time my grandchildren are my age (61) they will no longer even remember the world I knew as a child.
This is hard. And you need to feel its hardness. Before going on I suggest you come up with your own set of names of those you know and love—children, grandchildren, friends—who are 25-40 or under 15. And replace my names with your names. This essay is a love letter of grief to persons I know. Let it be so to persons you know, too.
We will wish we could’ve chosen a different path—although God knows we have mostly not tried much at all to choose differently while we could. We have (if we’re honest) mostly not listened to nature’s feedback. We have mostly allowed our future to be sold to the highest bidder (usually the fossil fuel industry, but other capitalist interests as well, and, of course, the rich). But at some point the day-to-day desperation of life will make finger-pointing a luxury we can no longer afford. Killing the rich may feel good, but it will NOT cool the planet.
We will inevitably “wake up,” albeit too late. Having “negotiated” with science to maintain convenience and familiarity as long as possible in the face of cries for urgent change, we will finally and frantically try to bargain with Mother Nature herself. And we will discover to our astonishment-anger-anguish that, exactly as science told us about Mother Nature, that bitch does not bargain. Oops. Having loaded the atmosphere with so much carbon, and having over-stressed the whole planetary system on too many fronts, our last best measures and our most sincere efforts, are going to be FAR too little and FAR too late. This world is ending. Collapse is coming. Soon. And it is too late to stop it.
Now. Take three deep breaths. I’ll wait. Take them now, please. Then we’ll go on.
See, Mom’s world is ending, too. Her cognition is collapsing. Bit by bit. And whatever combination of neurological drought, heatwave, hurricane, or wildfire is wreaking damage in her synapses will not be stopped. And yet, as I wrote in my last post, she remains worthy of compassion, kindness, care—and love—even amid my grief. Even amid the heartbreaking inevitability of her tomorrow. And I will meet the cataclysm unfolding in her with cheerful banter, a smile, maybe even a song. I will throw joy to the wind. For love.
This is what Mom is teaching me from within her dementia: that it is in mid-collapse that we discover the fulness of our own humanity … or we meet the despair inside us that has merely masqueraded as life up until now.
One common reaction to people who state the future as bluntly as I have, is “How can you say this?! You mean there’s no hope?! You’re asking for abject despair! Why should we even go on?!”
Okay. I say it because I’m persuaded it’s true. And we do ourselves (and our children, and—dammit!!—our grandchildren!) no favors by continuing to run as fast as we can into an ecological brick wall. If collapse is inevitable—and I’m telling you, it is—we might at least attempt to slow down and brace ourselves. And if we care about those who will be here … after, then that care counts as hope, and it will manifest itself in forms of compassion and kindness that will be far grittier than we thought ourselves capable of, but which may yet “save the day.” (Where “save the day” does NOT mean avoiding catastrophe, but meeting it with fierce resolve and grace and character … and hope … and love. And doing these things will be nothing short of a miracle in the midst of a society that has placed such goddamn faith in guns.)
I am not giving up.
Not on Mom—who will receive my best love and more for the rest of her life. And not on humanity—least of all on the fifteen beloved humans called out by name (or the many others known by name and loved by heart).
What we do from here on out is akin to weathering a pandemic—but with even higher stakes. (And if 2020 was a trial run … we’re gonna need to up our game.) We cannot turn it aside. But we can take steps, both level-headed and kind-hearted, to bring the best of ourselves into play day-by-day. For the sake of all of us. Even though we don’t know how bad it will get. We may yet lessen the degree of catastrophe, but we cannot any longer turn it aside. We may—perhaps—have a vote on whether “catastrophe” is in 12-point font … or a 72-point bold print headline. But we have bought all the letters for the word, and even our best choices now will not be able to unspell it. Mother Nature is not vengeful, but she is painfully deliberate, and her math is unforgiving. We bought each letter, and now she is doing the math.
That doesn’t make our choices less meaningful. It means the full weight of hope rests upon them. God help us should we not rise to meet this moment.
Our choices—yours and mine—are right now(!) determining the scope of the cataclysm that will engulf us. And these choices will determine the chances that those beloved ones who come … after will emerge on the far side with their humanity intact even if many of our cherished societal institutions are not.
Science matters more now than ever. Politics matters more now than ever. Arts and literature matter more now than ever. Family, friendship, and network of human community matter now more than ever. And religious faith, in its most noble this-worldly dimension, matters now more than ever. Each of these has the ability to inform the love, the hope, the grief, and the joy that can carry us through.
The end of the world is soon upon us. And I am learning how to meet it from Mom. I hope you’re listening in.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.