I never cease to be amazed by the uncertainties of life. Americans have been cruising along for years, enjoying the nonexistent economic recovery, rooting for their favorite thug teams, and piling evermore vacations, cars, and all kinds of frivolous and discretionary goodies onto their credit card balances.
But times they are a-changin’ — beheadings in the American heartland … ebola, enterovirus D68, and whooping cough … vanishing health insurance to go along with vanishing doctors … the Russian bear growling and once again rising up on its hind legs … a nuclear Iran … a ban on words and ideas that were part of mainstream vocabulary and thinking not that long ago … to name but a few of the more sobering items in the news.
Just what the hell is going on here, anyway? What happened to The Waltons, Charlie’s Angels, All in the Family, and The Cosby Show? What happened to “the era of big government is over?” What happened to the shining city on the hill?
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Heck, even The Mick left us nearly twenty years ago, along with Johnny U and a long list of other sports legends who did quite well without wearing girly man hairstyles.
And from the silver screen, real men like Burt Lancaster, Jimmy Stewart, William Holden, and John Wayne must be shaking their heads in Hollywood Heaven at today’s whining, face-in-the-crowd, childlike actors.
As I write this, life-threatening diseases and ISIS have been sharing the spotlight. ISIS, of course, is only a problem because the civilized world chooses to allow it to be so. But killer diseases are more problematic. They’ve been around since time immemorial. In fact, a lot of very smart folks believe that pathogenic microbes may have played a major role in wiping out the dinosaurs, probably with some help from the infamous asteroid impact in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula some 65 million years ago.
And let us not forget the Black Death (bubonic plague, or simply “the plague”) that killed an estimated twenty-five to seventy-five million people (depending upon the historian you read) in the 14th century. The culprit, Yersinia pestis, is an airborne bacterium that is still around today.
Interestingly, biological anthropologist Dr. Sharon N. DeWitte did an extensive study on the remains of about 600 pre- and post-Black Death Londoners and found that people who survived the Black Death, as well as their descendants, lived longer than those who lived prior to the onset of the disease.
Of course, it can be argued that a lot of other factors, particularly the improved standard of living, contributed to the increased longevity, but DeWitte’s study does seem to lend support to Nietzsche’s contention that “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
But infectious diseases are just one of a long list of things that make life in today’s nonsensical, uncertain world an unsettling experience. For example, The Big One — a giant-sized asteroid colliding with earth or a solar flare (a violent eruption on the sun’s surface that can be equivalent to 10 billion Hiroshima bombs exploding simultaneously) could hit us at any time and destroy all life on earth in short order.
To put all this in perspective, I find it sobering to review Carl Sagan’s “cosmic calendar.” As Sagan explained it, “If the eons that comprise the lifetime of Earth were compressed into the span of a single year … recorded history would occupy the last thirty seconds of the last day of such a year.”
Based on Sagan’s cosmic calendar, one could justifiably argue that mankind has not played a significant role in the history of the universe. But not so fast. As youthful as mankind may be, he still possesses the most powerful force in the universe: human intelligence.
Only human intelligence can collect, share, and act on information. Our brain has made it possible for us to make tools, create products to improve the quality of our lives, replace many of our body parts, and, unlike the dinosaurs, cure diseases (or at least we used to be able to cure them).
We can also solve complex problems, think abstractly, and use language. Above all, we can reflect on ourselves and our very existence, and, most important, we can take action to actually better our existence. Pretty cool, I’d say.
That said, the plethora of fearful stuff in today’s news reminds me of a time in my younger years when I stayed up all night reading Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. Scared the hell out of me. It was the first time I had ever wondered if there was any point to working and planning for the future, given that the end of the world was just over the horizon.
That was forty years ago, but, lo and behold, I’m still here. And so, too, is the world. True, it’s not the world we once knew, but, in all its politically correct, decadent glory, it keeps right along spinning on its axis. Ditto with life. Even though it’s coming apart at its moral seams, it has a habit of finding ways to keep on going.
So while it’s important not to allow normalcy bias to lull us into a comfort zone that prevents us from being prepared for crises such as a rapidly spreading infectious disease, major terrorist attacks on the homeland, or the death of our power grid, the empirical evidence suggests that it’s also important to keep moving forward with our lives.
I suppose it’s possible that America could one day be governed by Sharia Law, the world could be overwhelmed by a pandemic, or some nutcase country could start an all-out nuclear war. But, as with an asteroid collision or solar flare, any of these events could be twenty, fifty, or a hundred years away — or they may never happen at all.
In the meantime, life goes on. And as it does, it’s a good idea to be present — both physically and mentally. It seems to me that being left behind could be a very lonely existence.