“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor)
“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” (Samuel Johnson)
One of the stories that we like, is the one where the main character is somehow confronted with their mortality – perhaps a diagnosis of fatal illness, or the experience of a catastrophic accident, or the confrontation with another’s brutality and violence, or the visitation of a succession of spirits from past, present, and future. Maybe the character survives, preferably, for narrative purposes, undergoing an escape or rehabilitation that is almost as traumatic as the initial crisis (learning to walk again, cutting off one’s own arm to escape dying alone in a crevasse). Or, maybe, there’s no option but to surrender to death. The appeal in these stories is partly the suspense: will he survive the surgery/find a doctor who can cure him/learn to walk/cut off his own arm in order to escape the crevasse?? But we also like the didactic thrust: whether the character is able to learn the lesson or not, we can learn – we should learn – that there’s nothing quite like a brush with death to clarify one’s priorities. Our protagonist is forced to stare into the existential abyss, and, confronted with the prospect of ceasing to exist, of no longer being with friends or loved ones, of being mourned – or, most horrifying, not being mourned at all – realizes that everything he’s thought gives meaning to his existence (usually heedless greed, self-absorption, the pursuit of wealth and power at the expense of compassion and connection) has been not just pointless, but wrong. If he’s lucky, he gets the chance to start over, with priorities radically re-aligned. But whatever the outcome for the protagonist, the lesson for us is that we don’t have to, and must not, wait for such tragedy to befall us. We can act to change our lives now.
These are stories of individual fragility, and of moral urgency. Time is the figurative loaded gun that is aimed at all of us; mortality will take each of us out sooner or later: so what are we waiting for? But it’s easy to mistake a complacent recognition of this very abstract thought for actual action. Yes, sure, the story has taught me that life is short, and I must cherish it, so now I’ll go to yoga and have a bath; maybe I’ll have an extra glass of wine. Lesson learned. And then the story gets forgotten, pushed aside by the exigencies of the everyday: work to do, bills to pay, immediate obligations to be met to keep ourselves out of trouble in the short term, and maybe to buy us comfort in the long term. And after all, things aren’t so perilous in the here and now, I’m not in any immediate danger, there is no crevasse, no random serial killer, no supernatural meddling, no real gun, no real threat.
Except, of course, that there is.
And never mind the usual hypotheticals, like disease or accident, that are more personally menacing in our imaginations. Don’t tell me you haven’t been paying attention to the news. Climate change is the loaded gun pointed at all of us, threatening catastrophe.
We know how this story is supposed to go: the urgency of the peril is supposed to prompt clarity, to re-align our priorities, to get us to wake up and act. It’s not like we’re helpless – we have the knowledge, and the technology we need, we just need to use it, collectively, and on a global scale. And yet, we do…not enough, and anything short of enough, in this case, is nothing.
What are we waiting for?
Since this isn’t a clever, fictional, morality tale, but our actual mortal lives we’re talking about here, the question isn’t rhetorical. We should not – must not, cannot – wait.
And yet – what are you doing right now? Reading this while at the gym? while you’re eating soup at your desk before going to that meeting about that bureaucratic thing? while you’re sitting on the couch watching some series about a dystopian future? while you’re sitting in the tub with your wine practicing good self care, because you know how to enjoy life and be in the moment? while you’re writing your little blog because you’re hoping that words count as action, though you’re pretty sure that’s not going to be sufficient?
What are we waiting for?
I’m kind of surprised – at myself, as much as anyone else – that we all continue to go to work and school every day, spending our time as though nothing out of the ordinary is happening. Spending our energy.
– As opposed to dropping everything we’re doing to overhaul our society and economy NOW.
I suppose many of us are waiting to be told that everything’s going to be ok, that the threat is overblown, that everything’s going to be fine (please, will it be?). Maybe it seems a bit of a luxury to be worried. Too many of us are run ragged trying to keep our heads above water in this economy – paying bills, going to meetings, working for the mortgage, the minimum payment on the credit card, the hot water heater that just blew, the kids’ college fund, the health insurance that won’t be enough to cover the treatment. Too many of us have our ambitions held hostage by inequality, injustice, oppression. If we’re lucky, we’re merely tired, burned out, and lacking time, money, energy. Perhaps we don’t have the permission or power to change, or believe we don’t. All good reasons, we think – if we can think – to keep on doing what we’re doing.
And I suppose a lot of us are taking it for granted that if there’s something important to be dealt with, our government is will take care of it. Yes, that “government,” the one that’s been ground to an absolute stand-still in a paroxysm of bigotry, childish pettiness, and breathtaking idiocy. We’re all hoping that the people’s representatives will get shaken out of their fit of hysteria soon enough to take intelligent, enlightened action – but perhaps the rest of us can’t afford to wait for that to happen.
But then – what would that really involve? When we read the moving stories, and nod thoughtfully, and get inspired, and think: I must change my life…we usually only take fleeting, superficial action, not because we’re superficial necessarily, but because to really change your life, to really change the way we all live, to reject everything we’ve been taught is valuable and reliable, and live in a way that is truly different (because our survival depends on it) – where do we even start? Shouldn’t someone else go first? What choices would we make differently? What would we cut loose as inessential? What radical action would we take to protect what truly matters?
And if I have to act, and you have to act, and we have to act together…we’re in the embarrassing position of realizing that we’ve lost the skill, the habit, of collective action, of taking risks, and making sacrifices for a larger, necessary, good. We don’t want things to be different. We don’t want to be uncomfortable.
But it just doesn’t matter if we’re insulated by denial (if we’re lucky), paralyzed by terror if we’re not. This isn’t fiction, that we can respond to, or not, from the safe remove of the quotidian and familiar.
We need to wake up, and act.
The priorities are simple.
Consume less. Waste less.
And make more – knowledge, art, care. Teach, create, give, nurture.
Nothing could be simpler.
Nothing could be harder.
We’re staring down the barrel of a loaded gun (our own, that we thought we could handle, and which, in the nature of guns, has been turned against us).
That gun is on a hair trigger.
What are we waiting for?
How do we want the story to go?