When nothing else matters

Hello. My name is Mary, and I am a recovering anthropologist. It’s been over 20 years since I worried about tenure, but I suppose I will always be an anthropologist. As Ray Bucko, my dearest Jesuit friend, once told me, “Having a Ph.D. is a permanent condition – like the Catholic priesthood. Or herpes.”

Anthropologists used to say that Homo sapiens was a unique and special species because we were the only ones who used tools, or who were self-aware, or had language, or passed culture to our offspring… Then we started finding out that chimps and dolphins and crows and African grey parrots and snow monkeys were making a mockery of our pretensions to uniqueness, so we’ve kind of shut up about all that in recent years.

If you want a nice reductive definition of our species, I could defend this: “Human beings are bipedal tailless primates who tell stories.” That’s probably just as stupid as earlier definitions, but it’s catchier than my other version, which is “Human beings are a dangerous, invasive weed species that has invented central heating, air conditioning, and food that can be stored for up to ten years, so not even a direct hit by an asteroid would likely make us extinct.”

I thought that last one up this morning when I was reading a Maureen Dowd column about the claim that the Mayan calendar predicts that Planet Niburu will collide with Earth on Dec. 21, 2012. The astronomer David Morrison from NASA’s Ames Research Center debunked that nonsense for Dowd, and accused its purveyors of trying to make money by ginning up a hoax.

Like many insomniacs, I sometimes listen to late night talk shows on AM radio, and it’s struck me that the 2012 Doomsday “threat” is just like the hugely inflated Y2K “threat” a dozen years ago: predicting disaster is a good way to sell gold, survivalist kits, generators and guns. (This might be a good time to mention Agnes Shanklin’s warning at the very end of Dreamers of the Day. “Never buy anything from a man who’s selling fear.”) But there’s more at stake than making a buck off frightened people.

As Dr. Morrison said of the people selling Doomsday 2012, “The worst thing is, they really do frighten children. I have at least one email a day from a kid who says he can’t sleep. Some are threatening suicide. I heard about two sets of parents who talked about killing their children and themselves before [Dec. 21, 2012] and a girl hanged herself in England last fall, worrying about 2012.” Noting the growing popularity of “cosmophobia,” Morrison asked Dowd, “Why is our society so focused on potential disasters?”

Well, that kind of question is like handing a recovering anthropologist a shot of bourbon, and I’ve been thinking about it all day.

Personally, I like a good disaster movie now and then. There’s something soothing about watching a rerun of “The Day After Tomorrow” in our warm and cozy living room. A story about somebody else’s fake disaster makes me feel safe and secure while eating popcorn, and I suspect I’m not the only one.

Disaster stories also let us rehearse our reactions to a crisis. The sinking of the Titanic is perfect for this. Other big ships have gone down, but they usually sink quickly. The Titanic took a couple of hours to go under, and that was enough time for people to stop panicking for a minute and make some decisions about how they wanted to behave during the last hours of their lives.

When my son Dan was little, we used to watch “A Night To Remenber” every year or so, and it was an interesting way to observe the maturing of his sense of ethics and morality. When he was five, he hated that women and children were put into the lifeboats, even though he was a child, cuddled up on the couch with his mom. “I don’t like that they leave the daddies,” he said. “They should keep the families together.” Later on, he admired the calm chivalry of the gentlemen, and sneered at the guys who tried to sneak into the lifeboats. We both loved how the baker got drunk but still helped people, and invented a raft made of deck chairs. And we decided that if we knew we were going to die soon, we would try to be like the old man who adopted a little boy separated from his family, and held onto him tightly as the ship went down. Chokes me up, just thinking about that, even now.

I suspect that the real reason why we love stories about disasters, and battles, and fatal diseases is this: they reduce life to a single imperative. The complexity and competing demands of a rich, full, difficult life fall away, and all that’s left is This Crisis. Nothing else matters.  That’s the key. In a disaster story, everything is simple. If the world is going to end in December, you don’t have to worry about raising your child in this crazy world. You don’t worry about whether you’re saving enough for retirement. It doesn’t matter if you owe more on your house than it’s worth.

All the problems of a complex, difficult, demanding, normal life can be eliminated if you can identify a single fact or threat that makes everything else pale in comparison. No more trying to understand other people’s points of view. No more compromise. No more debate. No more weighing of complex alternatives.  And that, I think, is the key to why crisis comes as relief, almost: you can relax into a single truth. Nothing else matters.

The rebels fired on Fort Sumter. Nothing else matters.

The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. Nothing else matters.

Two planes have struck the World Trade Center. Nothing else matters.

A Hatfield killed a McCoy. Nothing else matters.

It’s cancer. Nothing else matters.

S/he cheated on me. Nothing else matters.

It’s interesting to me, as an anthropologist, that this year’s presidential election is also being couched in terms of impending disaster. Forget December 21, 2012 —  Doomsday is November 6, 2012. Why try to convey thoughtful analysis of global economics, climate change, the complexities of foreign policy? There’s no point in discussing crumbling infrastructure, the myriad causes of contemporary American poverty, and the colossal mess that is American health care, when you can say, “If my opponent is elected, America will be destroyed. Nothing else matters.”













13 thoughts on “When nothing else matters”

  1. That pretty much hits the nail on the head. Disaster is simple. We love clear, concise objectives and not all the stupid ambiguity that life really offers. Pretty much this is the appeal of sports… win the championship. Period.

    It’s probably why so many other things – like our elections – are done kinda like a season of baseball. Primaries = spring training. Then the season begins, and there’s a lot of back and forth. Finally we get to the playoffs and every single debate and moment has the potential to be game changing. Finally, the world series; a president-elect is selected and the losers are already looking to next season and planning how they’ll win that.

    Democrats are the Yankees, Republicans are the Red Sox, and Ron Paul is the Cubs.

  2. While reading this, I heard on the radio that the Queen is currently sailing down the Thames with 1000 boats following her – what a contrast to “nothing else matters.”

  3. Very well put, as usual! Thanks for reminding me about the Dec. 2012 end of the world thing, Mary! Been dealing with some complexities of my own and my head has been spinning way too fast. This was all I needed to calm it down! 😉
    Hope things are going well for you! I”m rereading “The Sparrow” and remembering again why I LOVE it so much! It is my fix for each day!! 🙂 Thanks for being my “drug”!! 😉

  4. Mary,

    Thanks for this insightful piece…especially thoughts espoused at its conclusion.

    In an earlier paragraph you spoke of spreading fear as being a motivational force. The entire modern day fundament of the Republican Party is to spread fear about the future…though it is not the premise for the existence of the Democrat Party.

    The Republicans thrive and prosper upon fear, creating fear about everything chosen to berate…which is nearly everything but God and Guns, in which they place their trust. One is certainly an imaginative figure, the concept so convoluted that it has escaped any semblance of possible reality.

    Most Democrats on the other hand, look toward a future that is not necessarily based upon Prophesy, the Rapture and End Times. In short, they are preparing for a better world for people living on well into the future…past December 21st, while the Republican Party fight for convoluted power and the promotion of the rights of corporations and limiting ‘people’s’ participation within government.

    Republicans insure the continuity of their party by keeping people stupid, limiting funding for ‘edumacation’, frightening ‘Americans’ about aliens and anybody who isn’t Caucasian…especially the present occupant of the White House, who affronts what they loosely consider to be their ‘sensibilities’.

    In my humble opinion, America (as we knew it) will indeed be destroyed (what’s left of it, at this point) should Romney and his crew of Neocon fascists win the upcoming presidential election. As stated in an earlier email to you…I believe the United States is on the brink of a historical and cataclysmic shift, one that Germany experienced in the early 1930’s. Too bad it is possibly inevitable and may well result in an outcome similar to the one Germany experienced.

    There will be a December 22nd, in any case.

  5. A good read, as usual, but I get tired of people belittling the real threat of Y2K. I worked for IBM for 32 years and was well aware of the immense expenditures of time and money required to reset the clocks in millions of computers and billions of other control devices. Society underestimated the task and it was not apparent until the final months that it would be successful or timely. The result of failure would have indeed been catastrophic.

  6. I loved this until you brought up the November election. The candidates have been running for 2+ years. This hardly qualifies–to me–anything ugent, unknown, or potentially distastrous. Whichever candidate is elected, he still has to deal with a recalcitrant Congress and a moribund economy that no one person or party is going to do much to effectively fix or further mar.

    But the rest was spot on. We are so distracted in so many directions by so much triviality. How nice when it comes down to fight or flight. Or just plain focusing on one thing at a time.

  7. How true. Its easier to NOT think and see the other as evil or even worse not human. Complexity of issues are so hard to deal with and sometimes leaves is holding contradictory views on the same issue. We are still prisoner of our reptilian brain and wall street/madison ave have honed in on by appealling to the reptilian brain to push us emotionally to where they want us to go.

  8. Ha! Try living in Tennessee during The Iben Browning Earthquake Prediction Year. No wait…try working at the Earthquake Center during the IBEPY. Bring it on, Mayans.

    And Mary, stop this blog writing and get back to that book! Right now! We see you sitting there, drinking tea, submitting blog entries…

  9. Great post, as always. I agree with so many things here, including
    posts by your visitors. A good disaster movie can certainly put things
    into perspective in my own life. Watching someone else’s fake disaster
    as a for of relaxation 🙂

    The election is indeed making me feel as if a true, to me, to all of us,
    disaster is pending. Especially after this mornings news out of Wisconsin.
    I always love your blog posts. Usually they make me smile, or even laugh.
    today it makes me think.

  10. Mary:

    I’m about midway through Shelby Foote’s massive three-tome history of the Civil War, so it’s funny you should mention Fort Sumter. Foote was highly critical of the political figures both sides initially appointed to command troops in the field
    (e.g., J. C. Fremont) who were chosen not for their valor, but for their ability to tell politicians what they wanted to hear. Are our present-day generals and admirals ham-strung by our politicians’ insistence upon officers’ political correctness and not their military acumen?

    Going one step further than your post does regarding fear-mongering, one should add that if History teaches anything, it is that we generally choose to ignore it. After all, this is the 21st Century. What happened during the 1870’s through the 1900’s hardly applies to us: we’ve become much more sophisticated, we are communication-linked more than ever before, and we have the mass-media to tell us what to think. Congress couldn’t possibly be manipulated by special interests as it was when Thomas Nast drew his classical cartoons about the trusts and Tammany Hall, could it?

    It seems to me that most of the world gleefully engages in “analysis paralysis” regarding any momentious decisions. Opinions from experts sprout like mushrooms upon the carcasses of great ideas until the end result is what my chess-playing son described as “muddle mate”. Perhaps we’re all victim to our own ego-centricism.

    In review, my response to your post reminds me of Paul Simon’s “Simple Desultory Philippic”. However, One must agree that the politics of polarization has completely supplanted cooperation in the world arena, and that the path we’re treading leads us to something similar to For Sumter or to August 1914.


  11. If the Republicans win big in November, I will just hide under my desk and cover my head like we used to in 50’s nuclear bomb drills. It has worked so far. Prepare for simple disasters. Nothing else matters.

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