by Peter Pitzele
This is a story about my conversion and its aftermath. It is not dramatic in the way of St. Paul. Rather, mine was gradual, a mounting sense of change, an accumulation of evidence that took one last straw to tip into a certainty. That straw was a piece of reading, and the change it brought about has to do, ultimately, with my sense of dying, of death, and of the purpose of my living.
The gradual conversion of which I speak began in a movie theater in 2006 when my wife and I viewed the film “An Inconvenient Truth.” The film seeded in me a new awareness of the earth, engendered a modest activism, and sharpened my attention to climate narratives as they were emerging in the news. The film addressed the necessity of change and the efficacy of ameliorative action. It spoke of “inconvenience” as a form of individual sacrifice. It made it clear that the lifestyle of each one of us must change as we recognize the contributing effects of our habits on the ecosphere. It was a Warning. I took heed. I took to driving a hybrid, composting, recycling, and voting the issue.
Years passed. I saw how deeply rooted was the resistance to inconvenience and how extensively challenged was this notion of truth. Nothing changed in those years; quite the contrary. The accepted metrics informed me of the truth of this, as the signs of natural disaster became commonplace: the forests shrank, the reefs blanched, and icemelt and permathaw began to release their methane.
Through the years, I watched this spectacle of public and political inaction with dismay – how mild a word for the cloud that was darkening my heart. I did my bit to shake the sleepers, but the king was deaf, and the soldiers were occupied with foreign wars. Money turned and money burned, and the window of opportunity was contracting to the size of a porthole. The voice of protest was not equal to the inertia of denial.
In my later sixties and early seventies, as the heat of my own perspective moved from a simmer to a boil, I began to make use of a simple question to take the temperature of my fellow man. “On a scale of 1 to 10 regarding climate change,” I asked, “1 meaning that you think it’s all a ruse of smoke and mirrors and 10 that you are certain the end is imminent and inevitable, where do you place yourself?” And I listened without argument to what I heard. By this means, I identified those with whom I could share candidly my own intimations.
As for me, I was an 8 on my own scale. I believed time was short and that each person needed to do all he or she could to live a conscious, careful life. I believed politics, social and corporate action, common sense, and persistence could still hold off massive calamity.
I held my 8 with an agnostic’s skepticism for all extreme positions. I was ever more mindful, however, that the signs were growing dire. As I moved past seventy-five, I gave more of my attention to my aging as it made its demands on me. I took responsibility for whatever was in my control; I saw the sphere of what I could not widen. The fate of the world oppressed me, all the more since my new granddaughter cast my horizon into a farther future. But it seemed to me that her future belonged to powers and scales beyond any individual or even community capacity to influence. A sense of resignation began to color my 8, a deepening pessimism, a sadness. I grew to an 8.5. Perhaps a 9.
Then, just after my 78th birthday this year, I read an essay by Catherine Ingram, and the scale tipped, the camel’s back broke, and I became a 10.[i] Other writing along the same lines came into my hands as if by magnetic attraction. These were doomsday narratives, though similarly and strangely sweetened with a call to a response other than despair.[ii]
The shift to 10 generated a new kind of urgency in my life and, paradoxically, a greater degree of detachment. As external disorder heated, my mind seemed to cool. It was as if I could see that apparently disparate situations – the refugees and mass migrations, the hurricanes, the droughts, the pestilence, famine, fire, social aberrations, crime, civic strife – were all driven by the same engine. Slowly, I became clearer about what to do with my limited time and energy.
This certainty of the looming end of human life as we know it— the end as a nearer future rather than a more distant one, a 21st century of global disorder on a pandemic scale with the force to certainly disrupt the lives of my grandchildren, quite possibly the lives of my children, perhaps even my own—crystallized in a thought experiment:
Imagine you are on a ship, a long cruise, and you discover that you have a sudden and incurable disease that will take your life before reaching port. What is that like? And how does it change your behavior?
Now imagine you are on a ship on a long cruise, and you discover that everyone on board, yourself included, has contracted an incurable disease and will lose their lives before reaching port, and that no evacuation is possible because of contagion. What is that like? And how does it change your behavior?
This vision of fatality urged a two-sided question: How do I take care of myself, and what is my responsibility to others on this mortal vessel? Whatever I do, I must also do with my shipmates in mind. In some way, my own practice of facing dying and death must now extend to others, a kind of hospice mentality.
Apocalyptic fantasies have been part of our culture for two millennia, often associated with the End Days, the Day of Judgment, the Rapture, or the coming of the Messiah. No such teleology sanctifies my own sense of an ending. I am not focused on the classic Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—Conflict, War, Famine, and Pestilence—so much as on their precursors—Desperation, Loneliness, Helplessness, and Frenzy. These are the Demons of the Interim.
Our politics already resound with their hoof-beats. Over falling borders rush the desperate into regions where only another imprisonment awaits them. Wagons circle; weapons bristle. Desperation’s knell, Too late, too late, tolls half past the 11th hour. Sea-rise swamps villages; drought turns whole regions into dustbowls. When I look about me I see many who are captive to Frenzy: over-extended, sleep-deprived, driven by one distraction after another, seeking numbness in over-stimulation, and dulling anxiety with narcotics. How many are deprived of human intimacy and touch in the virtual world? Who can read of the latest storms, either those of heavens or those of men, without a sense of helplessness? Just as each of us will be confronted by the unknown perils of personal mortality, some of us begin to feel the perils of a collective mortality—local regional, national, global. I am reminded of Yeats’ “rough beast” in his apocalyptic poem, The Second Coming. I see such a figure—Gaia~Kali of the Unthinkable—“slouching” towards Metropolis with terminal speed.
One apocalyptic figure who haunts me is Noah. There are stories about him after the flood, this Noah who becomes the first planter of grapes, the first maker of wine, the first to seek a narcosis of sleep. But what drives this Noah to drink? Is it survivor guilt? Is it his daily labor to dispose of rotting corpses, human and beast, and the spectacle of the wasted, sodden, barren fields? His loneliness? The God who could make a mistake? Yes, these are reasons for a man to drink, the sages say, but also, they add, consider this: that he might be haunted by a sound, the sound of knocking, of pounding fists beating on the sealed walls of his ark, the drum of those who will not be saved, the muffled cries of neighbors and kin left to flounder and to drown.
I am not Noah. There is no ark for me. Where I live, in the Hudson Valley, the End is not here, not yet. I am living in the Interim, a time of unknowable duration. In that way, this Interim, is like mortal life as it’s always been, a time of choice: to fear or to love, to push away or to cherish, to consume or to create, to hoard or to share. In this time I value time in a new way; my urge is to connect to others in truthful conversation and collaboration, and to seek restorative solitude. To that end my wife and I have convened a group called “Graceful Aging” to provide a place for thoughtful interchange. Also, a group of us has created a fire-circle on a hill-top meadow; it is meant to be a gathering place for ceremony, story-telling, music, and contemplation. I take to the woods alone for solace and poetry. These endeavors serve to cultivate gratitude, patience, kindness, and reflection—four virtues I believe useful for the preservation of humanity in the Interim.[iii] Such is my learning and practice as 10 ripens to 10.1, with no doubt more to follow.
[ii] Among others: After Climate Despair – One Tale Of What Can Emerge by Jem Bendell, and What if We Stopped Pretending? by Jonathan Franzen in the September 8th New Yorker.
Peter Pitzele is a teacher-writer with several books in print. His most recent is a novel entitled “Perfect Beauty”. Along with his wife Susan, Peter created “Bibliodrama,” a form of improvisational play that explores biblical narratives. Peter is also on the Advisory Board of Unison Arts Center in New Paltz, New York. Peter has taught himself to play shakuhachi flute, which has become part of his morning practice, and whenever he can, he gets up on the mountain for walks and often comes down with a song.
He can be reached at email@example.com.