Stories

My daughter sent me a very depressing link this summer: When Will Climate Change Make the Earth Too Hot For Humans?

This sent me spinning down once again. I didn’t fall quite as low or as utterly unreachable as I had when I read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth, but still…

And then, while pondering the bleakness of the end of the world as we know it, I remembered a Star Trek Next Generation episode I had watched many years ago, when my husband and I were young marrieds and date night was a single episode on TV. I don’t think I ever knew the name of the episode, but because the plot was one that was seared into my memory, I knew Google would come to the rescue.

“Star Trek Next Generation episode where Captain Picard lives entire life on alien planet”, I typed into my phone.

And there it was, the answer:  Season 5, episode 25, The Inner Light.

(Can I just stop and say something? This 50-year-old woman, who grew up with all her questions and wonderings left unsatisfyingly hanging, unanswered and unresolved, freaking loves Google.)

So, of course, I had to watch it again, and this time our 12-year-old son joined my husband and me.

This particular episode, in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s mind is inoculated with four decades-worth of memories of a life lived on a dying planet — in which he virtually becomes another man, painfully aware that his children’s and grandchildren’s existence is doomed —  brings all sorts of existentialistic and unanswerable questions to my mind.

What was the purpose of this mind inoculation?

We know that the people living on this dying planet — a planet that had already been dead for a considerable time when the Enterprise happened upon their probe — wanted to ensure their history lived on, wanted to make their once-existence known to others.

But why? Why does the story of their once-existence matter?

And once I voice that question, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to the question, why does our existence matter?

(Hoo boy … This, I suppose, is sufficient to explain my silence since mid-June?)

Pondering this has led me to some deep thinking about stories.

I’ve been thinking about how utterly and completely human it is to share stories: to want to escape into entirely made-up stories, to use stories to instruct and inform; to want others to understand our stories — our personal histories — and to be curious about their stories — their personal histories.

And that, in turn, has gotten me thinking about the way our personal stories have evolved over the course of humankind’s existence on this planet.

Once-upon-a-time, our stories were short tales filled with hardship, disease, injury, and early death, where the mere fact that you had subsisted and survived long enough to reproduce constituted a happy ending.

And now … now our stories — at least those told in vast swaths of the western world — have become complex and lengthy novels. Mere subsistence has been supplanted by personal growth and freedom, with entire chapters devoted to materialistic style, frivolity and convenience, all of us peering through the lens of collective amnesia that shrouds the brutality of our common past and allows us to write deeply personal and oftentimes egocentric themes centred on the words I am, I want, I deserve. 

As I’ve been pondering this evolution, I’ve been considering the very sobering thought that even as short as one generation ago, we could chalk all of this up to progress. We could imagine that there were no bounds to human potential, that the planet was here for us to pillage and that there would be no consequences. Or, if there were consequences, we could imagine that humans would be able to manage them. We could be forgiven for imagining that the Earth was a big enough library to shelve all our unedited and increasingly verbose novels.

But we’re now at 7.5 billion humans on this one planet Earth.

The uncomfortable and inconvenient fact is that there isn’t the room or the resources on this one planet for all of us to live 1000-page western-style tomes. And the corollary is, if we are well and truly fucked, then the stories that my own children will be able to write will be markedly different than the one I am halfway through writing.

This is proving to be a tremendous source of anger, grief and guilt: anger towards those who continue to take and take and fail to understand the meaning of enough; grief for those who are coming along in our wake, the ones who will be tasked with cleaning up an insurmountable mess; guilt for the role I have played in all this.

So I’ve been thinking quite deeply about my own story. About wanting to edit, to keep it concise and to the point. About wanting it to be a small and responsible tale. About wanting to do my best to take only enough, to focus on needs, not wants. About recognizing my 1-in-7.5 billion-who-the-hell-do-I-think-I-am utter insignificance.

Thinking about insignificance pulled this bit of Macbethian Shakespeare from my (very limited) stores:

… all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Which brings me back full circle: if it all signifies nothing, if this once-existence doesn’t matter, then surely that means our 21st-century tales of sound and fury should be responsible ones; surely that means that our collective robbing of future others of their sound and fury will someday be viewed through a very brittle lens indeed.

And surely that means that those of us who care about such things should not stop trying?

All of which is a really, really, really long-winded way of saying I’m going to next week’s PTO meeting. And I will try, once again, to see if I can convince them to please please please think of the environment. I’m so nervous I’m actually nauseous.

(On a more positive note, we’ve just wrapped up yet another crap-free book fair. I’m happy to report not a single child or parent asked if we had any erasers or light-up pens for sale.)

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