We seem rather preoccupied with the end of the world lately.
From The Hunger Games to The Walking Dead, the end of life as we know it has become commonplace in popular fiction. At least half of the new book releases in the young adult market for the past 5 years have featured a dystopian setting or a post-apocalyptic world, and it’s become rare to stumble across a video game that doesn’t take place in a ruined landscape. Just look at this summer movie season alone: Oblivion, World War Z, Elysium, Pacific Rim, even The World’s End. Pop culture has gotten to the point where you need to beat off the zombies with a stick.
So what’s our fixation with the death of civilization and the last gasp of humanity? What makes these stories so consistently compelling to our collective consciousness, to the point where publishers are skimming through endless stacks of manuscripts just to find the next Hunger Games (and stamping that distinction on plenty of lesser books in the meantime)?
Well, I doubt any single answer would suffice, because cultural climates are always more nuanced than people give them credit for. But I have a personal theory.
I think we’re deeply uncomfortable with our own creature comforts.
We live in a world that is more connected than ever through technology and the Internet, but it’s also more isolated than ever. We’re tethered to our bubble – to the image of ourselves we have created through social media, and to the way media has shaped our cultural perception of others.
Sure, on a macrolevel, it’s obvious why the dystopian narrative is popular today: the disconnect between the rich and poor is starker than ever, the rally for change has reached a fever pitch, and we seem inclined to either crucify or deify our political authorities (with no middle ground). All that, and the threat of mass destruction from “nuclear deterrents” has gone nowhere.
But I’m talking on a microlevel.
I think our apathy and emotional isolation – especially in the Western world – has created a thirst in us as individuals, making us turn to a very unusual form of escapism: we want to see what our lives look like when all of the bells and whistles of the post-modern age are stripped away, when we are forced to the brink of our own nature. Because… who would that person even be?
It’s the one common theme in every story of a devastated world: on the brink of survival, temet nosce (“know thyself”) becomes the most pressing issue for each character. We want to know who we are, and there’s no better place to learn than at rock bottom.
But there’s a catch. You can’t reach rock bottom if you remain apathetic. Apathy protects you. And I think that’s the real tension in these narratives, beyond the portentous reflection of our world: the setting reinforces each character’s need for indifference – how else to stay sane in such a ruthless world? – yet at the same time, the emotional isolation of apathy just ends up making a person more vulnerable in the end. If you don’t regularly face your own humanity and weaknesses, the day will come when you no longer know how to handle them.
One of the most poignant depictions of this I’ve seen lately takes place in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. After the death of his 13-year-old daughter Sarah on the crux of a global pandemic, Joel spends the next 20 years with no greater goal than survival. He kills without remorse, takes what he needs, and lays his reasons at the feet of his god Survival. When his partner Tess confronts him about the fact that they are pretty terrible people, he immediately returns: “No, we are survivors.” It’s all he knows – the only reason for doing anything that makes sense to him.
When 14-year-old Ellie comes into his life, reminding him all too painfully of his lost daughter, it soon becomes clear that Joel has never actually confronted Sarah’s death in any emotionally real way. In fact, any time Ellie brings up the death of a person they know, Joel grows agitated, shutting down the conversation before it can even begin.
He’s the king of cognitive dissonance. He has successfully cut himself off from even thinking about anything that would render him vulnerable. But he’s an empty shell of person because of it.
In many ways, the post-apocalyptic landscape isn’t all that unfamiliar to us. Our world is already overwhelmingly depressing on its best days, ravaged by the selfishness and violence of the human race. Sometimes it feels like the good in the world is simply incapable of challenging the bad. Apathy is how most of us survive in the face of this. And if we never let that wall come down, we may well be the lone survivors at the end of it all. But is that really a badge worth wearing? Does our indifference really free us from the world, or is it merely another prison?
Thomas Merton puts it this way in his introduction to The Way of Chuang Tzu:
The idea that one can seriously cultivate his own personal freedom merely by discarding inhibitions and obligations – to live in self-centered spontaneity – results in the complete decay of the true self and of its capacity for freedom.
And yet, there’s a flipside (isn’t there always?): it isn’t healthy to hinge all your life’s worth and meaning on another person. Joel ends up investing everything in Ellie, clinging to her emotionally like a liferaft, and that dependence has a two-fold effect: it humanizes him, but it also prompts him to take extreme action against other people who threaten their bond. In the context of the game’s narrative and Joel’s character, all of his decisions make sense, but that doesn’t lessen the tragedy of some of them. The part of him that cares has been locked away for 20 years, and when it returns, it is dangerous; it has no filter.
We are dependent creatures at heart, as much as we hate that fact. We can’t live in isolation forever; we need other people. And that’s what I think is so sad and beautiful about these stories. They are all, on some level, about how humanity has driven itself into isolation, how we have created calluses to protect ourselves from each other – and yet there is no way to escape our need to connect. It haunts us. Indifference can protect us, but love is the only thing that can save us. Survival may keep us breathing, but it’s not the same as living. And we know it.
The father in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road makes a beautiful remark when he watches his sleeping son:
He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.
Some days, I am unable to see God in the greater picture: it all seems so grey and compromised to my eyes. But it’s then that – if I am paying attention – I will notice him in the faces of other people. Speaking in the familiar voice of a loved one. Watching me expectantly with the face of a stranger. Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.* It all reminds me that the sacred has chosen to be present here in the secular. Not detached. Not indifferent. But suffering with us, sharing our joys and our sorrows in equal measure. When I let myself believe that even for a moment (instead of merely confessing it), it takes my breath away.
People can hurt me so deeply. But they are also the primary thing God uses to heal me. God with us is messy and painful as often as it’s comforting. I’m not always willing to accept that double-edged sword, but it is part of the larger paradox and tension I live with every day.
We are strange creatures, capable of such incredible good and also such unfathomable bad, in extremes that are dizzying at both ends. But ultimately, I have to side with Dostoyevsky’s vision of the future in The Brothers Karamazov – his belief in a eucatastrophe beyond our own self-destruction:
I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man; that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.
Let it be so.