Making Love as the World Ends: on Joy During an Apocalypse
David R. Weiss – August 29, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #39 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
Today’s post is dedicated to M, a young friend and former student of mine. I’ve been thinking about writing on these thoughts for some time now—they speak to the pitched tension in my own life, too. But the final push was M’s recent lament: “How do I keep working towards seemingly pointless goals like career and marriage when the earth is dying and my lifetime will probably see an apocalyptic world?”
To some of you, M’s mini-existential crisis might seem like mere young adult drama. But I assure you, it’s your misplaced sense of security that makes M’s anguish seem over the top. If you ask me, she’s named all too pointedly the path we’re ALL on. She simply has the (dis)advantage of seeing-feeling this more clearly than most of us. In part because she’s young enough to have not yet fully found her place in the world; and having not yet landed on her feet as an adult means it’s a bit easier to call “Bullshit” on the increasingly empty presumptions of that adult world.
Besides this, M is inwardly home to a perfect storm of intelligence, empathy, creativity, curiosity, playful spirit, and wounded soul. She feels life—including at times the absence of feeling—with an immediacy that would be refreshing were it not just as often overwhelming.
Her question is really OUR question. (Even if we haven’t asked it yet—though if you know me, you know my own versions of her question have chased me relentlessly the past few years.) And I want to share some thoughts on it—for M, of course. But also for the rest of you. And for me, too.
Our worlds—both the physical biosphere and the constructed social-cultural sphere—are not on the verge of collapse. That collapse is already underway. The fabric of our common life—flora, fauna, ecosystems, and societies—is a single garment, and it is actively fraying right now, though often beyond our line of vision. There are certainly things we can do to lessen the speed and the scope of that collapse—though it is an open question (really, a doubtful prospect) as to whether we muster the resolve to do those things. But the idea that we can somehow sidestep the coming collapse, that’s the type of wishful delusion that M is unwilling—in the immediacy of her perception, unable—to swallow.
And I’m with her.
But if this is our real situation—if we truly face the end of the world (at least the world as we know it), how dare we spend our time making love? How dare we pursue joy while an apocalypse arrives? I say: HOW DARE WE NOT? Even—maybe especially—in a world fast unraveling, the invocation of joy is a deep good. Indeed, revelatory.
Let me explain. I suspect I’m actually both less hopeful AND more hopeful than most of my readers. Less hopeful, because I’m persuaded that over the next five decades (maybe sooner) our world will be unmade by the choices we’ve made over the past several centuries. Mad Max? No, probably not (but maybe). But the worst problems we face here and there today will be amplified … and everywhere. Ecological, social, political, relational. When I say “collapse,” I don’t choose the word for effect but for accuracy.
And yet, more hopeful as well. For two reasons. First, because life on the far side of collapse may actually come to embrace practices that are more sustainable and regenerative, more in sync with our place on the planet. Collapse may do for our society what our political-cultural-moral will seems roundly incapable of: reigning in the egos and addictions that are deadly to life itself. It may not, of course. In which case, Mad Max may yet have his day. But it just might. Secondly, though, I’m more hopeful than most of you because even in the midst of collapse, I believe human dignity, compassion, meaning, and beauty can survive. Here, too, it’s possible they won’t. But they may—and I hope they do.
Which means that career and marriage—meaningful work and chosen companionship—still matter. And, if anything, they matter all the more, because such things as these will be among the first notes in any halting symphony that sounds forth beauty in the midst of chaos. Which is why I might argue that we have a human moral duty to make love as the world ends. “Duty” is a strange word to apply to intimate ecstasy, so I use it advisedly—more to make a point about how important it is, than to turn joy into obligation.
Our capacity to make love—to cultivate profoundly tactile joy with another—as the world ends, is one measure of our commitment to make sure that such intimacy carries forward on the far side of that ending. Our quiet persistent intention to choose simple joy and vocational purpose and authentic companionship matters, even as the unraveling world tries to tell us they don’t. It’s capitalism and consumerism and corporate power that don’t matter. It’s these forces (and more) that underwrote this unraveling. And while they might want to take every last vestige of humanity out with them, we can claim the best of who are as worth saving. We must.
Something does come next. And what we value in this moment will indelibly mark the next one.
So, M, this is my counsel to you. I can’t pretend it’s perfect or wise. It’s just my own heartfelt intuition. But I trust it. And I think you will be able to hear it right now. Others may need to tuck it away until the day comes when they have nothing left to hang onto except crumpled words like these.
Trust the grief that calls your name. It is real, and deep, and overwhelming. It is the world’s wound asking to be known. It is, if you like, God crying out in this corner of the cosmos. No mere babe in a manger, but every babe … and every creature … and even whole ecosystems creaking under the strain of human folly. And if we cannot heal the earth, we might at least cradle it in our heart.
And while I do not think Earth’s anguish wishes to undo you, it still might, if you do not tether yourself also to joy.
This, then, is the deep paradox, the peril-promise of this fraught moment. Seek to find work with humble purpose, because by doing mundane good day by day by day, you will also discover that Earth’s pain can be borne only the same way: day by day by day. Treasure the trusted and tender companions you’ve made, because in their company the infinite weight of Earth’s wounds will press you low, but not too low. And make sweet love (or bake bread, or paint pictures, or walk in the woods—however you find your simple ecstasy)—yes, make sweet love as the world ends, so that Earth’s heartbreak is somehow held within your joy.
If you do these things—even imperfectly—it will be enough.
The seed cannot predict the soil or the weather, its whole purpose is to be ready to do its small part to carry one more generation forward. You are that seed of compassion and curiosity, of searing sorrow and giggling joy. You are enough.
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.