Personal Essay: Averting the Apocalypse, Quietly
MARCH 27, 2017
The Academy Award for Best Picture — arguably one of the most monetarily valuable honors given anywhere in the world, a fact which is itself absurd — was recently bestowed upon the wrong film. Tens of millions of people from around the globe watched as the most famous humans, with the biggest possible stakes, royally fucked up, a fuck-up which was, even more preposterously, not rectified for minute after minute of unadulterated stupidity.
More consequential stupidity, of course, has wreaked far greater havoc than this debacle at the Oscars. Indeed, as our species struggles to cope with catastrophic and self-inflicted crises like rapid climate change, shocking wealth inequality, and the ever-mounting peril of nuclear holocaust, all that we seem able to do in response is fight over the meaningless differences in the pigmentation of our skin, over the irrelevant distinctions between which sexual organs we prefer, over the invisible borders we’ve established to divide us, and over our imaginary friends in the sky. This is not how educated and responsible adults are supposed to solve problems. On the contrary, this is how toddlers act before they get time-outs.
Moreover, the democratically elected leader of the (perhaps formerly) free world during the escalation of these existential-level crises is a stunningly inarticulate, insecurity-driven, orange reality TV star and pathological liar who has no previous political experience, who brags about sexual assault, who mocks disabled reporters, who openly advocates for the U.S. military to kill the innocent relatives of terrorists (itself an act of terrorism), who approves of torture, who calls global warming a Chinese hoax, who dislikes the freedom of religion and freedom of the press clauses in the Constitution, and who rose to power by bullying his political opponents about their appearance, accusing them of literally founding ISIS, and threatening to throw them in jail. In light of our collective choice to entrust this objectively thin-skinned and uniquely impulsive man with the nuclear codes, Earth-orbiting aliens deciding whether to save our failing planet would surely find it devoid of intelligent life and move on.
Such developments have led me to the horrific yet unshakable conclusion that humankind is essentially doomed, assuming that we don’t right the ship in the immediate future. My father, who shares many of my desperate concerns about our present state of affairs, has recently dedicated himself to doing what he can to prepare people for a much less comfortable time to come: helping found a university charged with solving global problems, securing land on the outskirts of Los Angeles to build housing for the city’s homeless residents, and so on. My conversations with him on this subject have, unsurprisingly, been fairly depressing. More than that, though, they have also burdened me with a persistent guilt about my planned direction in life, which has always been to become a novelist. After all, how could I possibly justify dedicating myself to writing, and to writing fiction, no less, with the knowledge that I could alternatively be working like him to assist my fellow Americans? And on the other hand, how could I live with myself if I chose not to write, with the knowledge that nothing else makes me feel so deeply whole inside?
This cocktail of emptiness and selfishness and confusion began to seep into my stories and poison my paragraphs, not ruining them outright, but instead giving me the vague, drunken suspicion that they were simply the single-spaced secretions of an overly inflated ego. Indeed, it wasn’t until a week ago, as I passed by one of the more ornate local churches, that this intoxicated feeling finally subsided (one of the rare occasions that a church has had such a sobering effect on me). Standing there, I remembered vividly the thoughts I’d had as a boy while reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, an almost thousand-page work of historical fiction about the construction of a cathedral in the 1100s, and, in retrospect, a bizarre book to recommend to a twelve-year-old.
Tedious as it may sound, that novel was one of the fastest reads of my life — the chapters flew by as I engulfed myself in not only another world, but also in another worldview. Even as a staunch atheist, I could feel the overwhelming awe that Follett’s characters experienced as they admired the practically anachronistic, approximately supernatural creation before them: this magnificent, colossal sanctuary and tribute to their Almighty God, rising majestically at the heart of the town, towering forty times higher than the humble dwellings in its environs, its iridescent windows illuminating a landscape of grey walls and colorless monotony, its every detail constructed with the utmost care over the course of decades and generations and hundreds of pages, this product of countless man-hours and several lost human lives, once burned to the ground only to be rebuilt yet more spectacularly, its architects undeterred, undeterrable, most of them knowing they’d die before they’d ever see their masterpiece completed, hoping against hope that it might serve as a beacon of salvation for their descendants in the next millennium. Among all my real-life encounters with beautiful cathedrals — St. Peter’s Basilica, Westminster Abbey — none have kindled within me such a profound sense of reverence for my species and its capacity to achieve the seemingly unachievable as did that mere ink-and-paper text. And frankly, it’s not even my favorite book.
In the shadow of the much less noteworthy Berkeley church, I was struck by a series of semi-spiritual epiphanies. Writing, it occurred to me then, is something incredibly pure— without sound, or pictures, or someone else to guide your words. It’s just your brain and the page staring back at you, daring you to say something no one has ever said before, shaming you when you lazily recite the ideas of others, compelling you to unearth what your true values are, and pressuring you with the prospect of posterity to do so with a stark elegance that is forever the envy of other mediums. In the end, it’s just naked words, naked arguments, and naked humanity. Perhaps this literary nudity has revealed my hidden speckle of optimism, but beneath all the dogmatic intolerance and the capitalist greed and the manufactured anger, I guess I think that we, in general, prefer to love rather than hate.
Of course, hate has gotten a gigantic head start, and its lead may in fact prove insurmountable, but we cannot lay down our arms — or our pens — just yet. To those striving every day for a better future, I say to you — and to my father especially — you’re my heroes. However, at the risk of making everyone reading this throw up, I’ll state for the first time that writers can be heroes too. No, not just journalists, although journalism is also a great passion of mine, and journalists undeniably do critical work. Instead, I mean to say that novelists, and imagineers, and fiction writers can make a genuine difference as well. There’s a reason that the Catholic Church has a long history of banning books, and it lies in the fact that, as many a writer has noted before me, ideas are incredibly dangerous, and books are nothing but ideas.
Ideas, beyond just being threatening, are really all that we have. And fittingly, I believe they’re all that we need to fix this shitty mess in which we now find ourselves. If everyone on this planet sincerely believed the notion that their god wanted them to murder their neighbors, and that the universe depended on them doing so, we’d all be dead in short order. Conversely, if everyone subscribed to a couple more rational principles — we’re all in this together, we should respect our fellow creatures, we should feed the hungry, we shouldn’t kill anyone — the Earth would soon be transformed into a virtual utopia. It is eminently clear to me that what’s missing today is empathy and understanding and tolerance, and how better to perfect these traits than by reading about places and people very different from oneself?
Ultimately, the root of my guilt about being a writer is captured by a proverb we’ve all heard more or less since birth: actions speak louder than words. But maybe it’s not sheer volume and brute force that’s required today. Maybe the key ingredient that’s been lacking all along is not swift action but quiet contemplation, not speaking loudly but listening patiently. And maybe we need a world wherein we escape from our outside influences and pour ourselves onto the page, and then show those pages to anyone willing to give them a chance. In short, we need a world that writes. We need a world that reads. And we need fiction.