It's the End of the World as We Know It

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By: 
Matt Geiger

As I sat at our dining room table Monday, trying to write stories about the global pandemic that is bringing out the very best, (and sometimes the absolute worst) in people, my daughter, who was coloring a picture of a fairy while repeatedly bumping my elbow, abruptly yelled: “Alexa, Play Christmas Carols!” 

The speaker behind us began blasting a pop/rock version of the Latin song “Gloria In Excelsis Deo” (in French) while I tried to write a serious story and the world outside, which usually bustles with life, was still and strangely silent. It felt uniquely eerie and fairly festive, sort of like the way I imagine a Batman villain spending a quiet evening at home. It also felt just about right considering the way the world is trending. 

Two days later, the snow started to fall and we made a snowman in the backyard, fitting him with a hat and scarf and a button nose, while I thought about the end of the world. 

As I have written before, “apocalypse” is an old Greek word that means “lifting of the veil.” The idea, of course, is that the world we walk through for most of our lives is not exactly the real world, or at least the full one. It is something distorted, a vague approximation of life, like a picture of a dream drawn from a memory, and we hope someday, probably near the end of our journey, we will get to really see it. That it will be revealed. That we can stand in awe of its majesties and its horrors. 

Ever since I first saw “The Road Warrior” when I was a teenager, I’ve enjoyed the post-apocalyptic genre. From “Shaun of the Dead” to the “Book of Revelation” to the parts of “The Walking Dead” that aren’t infuriatingly hackneyed, to the “Fallout” video games, there is something magical about these forays into the world after the world as we know it has gone away. 

I won’t lie and say I dislike the way people wear hockey pads, or they how battle mutants or use bottlecaps as currency, but those trappings are not the real reason stories about the end of the world entertain us and give us hope. The reason, of course, is that they allow us to think the world could come crashing down and we might just be okay in the wasteland. We might strap our babies to our backs (finally putting those ridiculous carriers to use), clutch an old shotgun in our hands, hop on a mule against whose flanks clanged a few pots and pans and rolled up tarp for shelter, and set out across abandoned highways and corn fields in which nature seethed and surged among the relics of a gone-away world

The allure is that everything could go wrong, and yet we could still remain. And where there is life, as Tolstoy said, there is hope - and laughter, and love, and even a few good stories told across campfires on which radioactive roaches sizzle and hiss on a green alder spit. 

Some stories and thought experiments are truly terrifying. What if I lose my job and my income? What if those I love become sick? One of the scariest but most useful thought experiments is to wonder: “What would the world be like if I died?”

When we are young, we tend to think all of creation would vanish if we ceased to see it. As we age, we realize it would not. One of the happiest days in my life, the day a great weight was lifted from my shoulders, was the day it occurred to me, as I sat at a table and watched children playing in the summer dandelions, that not much would change if I dropped dead. The beautiful dandelions would still return, year after year, to thwart the foolish chemical war against them. The children would still play, replaced every year by a new crop of young ones. 

When the virus began sweeping across villages, cities, countries and continents a few weeks ago, a doctor told me it rarely infects children. When it does, they tend not to get sick. In the ensuing weeks, as I saw reports of adults dying as the sickness took hold and the global economy skidded to a halt, as flour and rice and toilet paper and beer vanished from store shelves, I kept thinking about the children who were seemingly immune to its worst effects. 

What would happen if all of us - the adults who wander from pointless job to pointless job and silly political rally to silly political rally, seeing the world hazily through a veil - were suddenly gone. Would our kids be okay? 

Our first instinct, driven by ego, is that they would not. That we are indispensable. 

But in reality, they would probably be fine. They might have to wear helmets and carry big sticks or bows and arrows while riding around on bikes or goats or something, but they seem to know as much about life as I do, and I’m 40. They likely care more about important things than most adults, and they certainly care less about unimportant matters.

In truth, we won’t know for some time the full extent of the current global pandemic. Perhaps half a million people will die. Perhaps a million. Maybe more, maybe less. 

And while it’s now painfully obvious just how much harm unaccountable conspiracy theorists can do online – how many people have died because they read on Facebook or Twitter that COVID-19 was simply a hoax or “the flu”? – it is also clear that for billions of people, daily life has been profoundly changed. Even if everything goes back to normal in a few weeks, many people will no longer have jobs, and many people will struggle to feed themselves and their families. Many people will lose their homes. Many will never again feel safe. 

But it is not all bad. Aside from the very real economic and health fallouts from this virus, it has taught us many lessons. It showed me that for every one person who claims COVID-19 is a hoax, there are hundreds willing to bag up meals for those who don’t have enough to eat during a long period of “social distancing.” It has reminded me that whenever people worry about themselves, their next thought is usually other people. 

It has also reminded me how much a I love my life. I do not know what will happen in the next few months. I wonder if our family will soon enter a new phase in which food and the mortgage are no longer taken for granted. I wonder if we might soon be dining on dog food. I wonder if we might have much, much less and worry far, far more. 

But I know for a fact that this life – this current life in which we and much of the world around us are essentially cut off from one another in a voluntary quarantine that will save many lives – is a good one. Aside from all of the concerns I listed above, these days of social distancing have probably been the best in my life. Work has been tricky, as I wade through a sea of information and try to write, edit, and run newspapers and a website that covers this. But school is cancelled for the foreseeable future, and my wife and daughter are both here by my side.

I like the general public. I like bars. I like restaurants. I like plays and sporting events and social parties. I like writing. But they are not where I find meaning. Not at all. They are not the things that make my life worth living, and it’s remarkable how content I could be here for the rest of my life. Sitting here, my daughter playing bizarre music, the chickens clucking in the yard (I told you they would come in handy), a freezer full of deer meat (I told you it would come in handy), our dogs happy and uncaring about the global, local or household economy. The world a little more quiet. Families a little more together. Meaning and happiness and contemplation suddenly right in front of us, impossible to ignore. Books again a vital resource. Cooking a joy and a life skill. It’s as if we all suddenly saw the world, as if a veil has been lifted, and here we are to enjoy it, for a little while, at least. 

In this column, I have long claimed that we do not need much to be happy. That our meaning comes from places close to home. I think we are about to find out if this is true. I hope, for all of us, that it is.

 

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