I had one of those moments yesterday. I think it started when I read about Antarctica. In case you haven't heard or have willfully chosen not to hear, scientists think a major ice sheet in Antarctica has begun an irreversible melting process that will result in ocean levels rising about ten feet over the next few hundred to nine hundred years.
Of course—given the prolonged time table of the doomsday scenarios and my indomitable narcissism—I should be content to throw up the deuces and be all like, 'Boo-yah! Sucks to live in five hundred years, losers!' This mortal coil will have long been shuffled off before the more dire effects of environmental catastrophe have assailed us (and by 'us' I mean 'them'—i.e., the punk-ass bitches who will reap what we've sown); so, in the lexicon of the self-obsessed, 'Not my problem'... right?
On the one hand, it's extraordinarily difficult to feel sympathy for the human race. If you can't relate, just remind yourself that this is the same society that imagines the preservation of the environment is a political issue. Instead of trusting science, the right wing would prefer to believe that environmental regulation is just another incarnation of liberal America's wet dream of 'big government'—or perhaps the 'radical' left's attempt force one of its hippy-dippy pet causes on American society (usually at the expense of big business, of course, which heavily funds Republican campaigns).
When you look at it from this perspective, it's tempting to just say, 'Fuck 'em all. Let the whole planet dry out and wither away.' On the macro level, we deserve our fate. Future generations aren't likely to be more reasonable or compassionate than this one. Sure, they'll curse past generations for turning the earth into a wasteland, but that's only situational—because they're there and we're here. It has nothing to do with their being better or wiser or more innocent than those who have preceded them. All the individual differences in the world population will average out into approximately the same mouth-breathing, braindead mean.
You see, I don't believe that society had gotten better or worse over the ages. We're probably pretty close to same bastards that we always were. Sure, we may have new variables to contend with—new technologies and new ways of engaging with society as a whole—but the instincts, preoccupations, and predilections are roundabout the same.
I'm getting a little off-track. I started by telling you that I had 'one of those moments' yesterday. Antarctica and global warning and political game-playing is only part of it. I suddenly felt as if every peril—both large-scale and personal—had surrounded me all at once: environmental disaster, nuclear holocaust, asteroid collision, genocide, terrorism, war, murder, pollution, toxicity, heart disease, cancer, genetic mutation, natural disaster, automobile crash, insanity (and so on and so forth) were all hunkered around me, asserting their presence, reminding me that I'm just an insignificant and dispensable atom in the great social body.
Do you ever have those moments—when you are acutely aware of your own vulnerability? Usually we don't think about things like that. After all, we are everything to ourselves, so we tend to assume our endurance is a given. We trust in our continuity—at least in the near future; and this doesn't only imply our physical continuity, but our psychological continuity as well. We believe in our 'self' as this unbroken stream of consciousness that accumulates past experience and compiles it into a somewhat coherent idea of what it means to be uniquely us.
I was having these thoughts as I was driving home from work. Every day I drive past the apartment complex where I used to live about ten years ago, but yesterday I thought about who I was at that time. I was aware that there was a long line of experiences and thoughts that connected me to that younger me, who was familiar to me, of course, but no longer intimately. I couldn't really relate to some of my ideals or tastes of that time. I could only superficially understand who I was because so much of the context and peculiarity of that moment was lost to me now.
But despite all that, I felt a deep affection for that person—that younger me—who stood at the starting point of a journey that stretched from then until this very moment. It's strange how retrospectively I assign so much possibility to my former self because I know that he has ten years of life ahead of him during which to accomplish many great (and not-so-great) things; but the me of today isn't guaranteed ten years or ten days or ten seconds... I'm always at the furthest reach of my own life, no matter how old I am. I must judge myself only on the basis of what I've done and not what I intend to do.
As I drove home yesterday, suddenly sensing all the dangers of the world convening around me, I thought it was miraculous that I am still here. I don't mean that it was miraculous that I am still alive (or I don't only mean that); I mean that it's miraculous that I was ever here at all. It isn't rational to think this way, of course; many of our most elemental feelings aren't grounded in the practical. But I couldn't help thinking about myself as I was ten years ago and feeling grateful to him and protective of him and intensely affectionate toward him, as you might feel toward something good and unspoiled. I elided the ten years between then and now and saw my former self as a distinct and separate person, to whom I was forever indebted for my existence (as I am now). I saw myself as a child—but the child who gave birth to me.