“Both Angel and Animal”
I believe that if we want to save our world we must face our fear that we will destroy our world.
As a young person I was skeptical about the long-term survival of the planet. In ninth grade I read ‘The Population Bomb’ and became persuaded that the explosion in growth of the human race spelled life-eclipsing pollution and famine within decades. In tenth grade I read after-the-atom-bomb novels and watched ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ and became persuaded that nuclear holocaust was inevitable.
Then for a while I stopped thinking about such things. Family, studies, and teaching occupied my mental energies.
Now world events have me worrying, again, that we humans are set to ruin our planet, whether through nuclear annihilation or global warming. When I consider these prospects my breath shortens and my heart races. I panic at the realization of how much would be lost. My nine-year-old daughter has a tender heart and she cannot face the dire scenarios either. My fourteen-year-old daughter tells her that if the bombs are dropped only the cockroaches will live, and the younger one tunes out. She cannot bear that news. I am with her. I do not want to think about it.
Contemplating the destruction of the world is like contemplating one’s own death, writ large. As humans we’ve developed a myriad of strategies to cope with the terror of death. Humans feel terror because, as Ernest Becker wrote, we are both angel and animal: with minds and loves that reach to heaven, yet destined to become food for worms. So we devote ourselves to what- or whomever promises to soothe our anxiety. The trouble is that no person, no diverting obsession can take away the fragility of our well-being and the certainty of our death.
Søren Kierkegaard wrote that confronting our own death can free us to grow beyond anxiety to a new dimension of faith and life. At seventeen I sat at the edge of a pristine lake in Canada at sunrise. For the first time I sensed my own finitude and smallness against the great expanse of creation and time. That moment has affected the rest of my life, helping me to focus on the things that matter, though I often need to relearn the lesson.
As a society we are frittering away our precious personal and national resources on things that really don’t matter. But our many diversions do not ease the growing dread. I believe that if we want to save our world we must face the real chance that we will destroy our world. Facing this fear can free us to take the risks and make the sacrifices necessary to ensure earth’s continuing survival. We can move beyond anxiety and denial to a new dimension of wisdom, faith, joy, and life.
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