On the newness of doom

I’ve been reading Madeleine L’Engle, one of my favorite writers (though sometimes she does say things that make me feel funny, and I haven’t yet been able to figure out why), and this time I’m reading her nonfiction musings, not her novels. In writing about the younger generation — this was in the 1970s, and she was in her mid-fifties — she says they had a sense of limited time which was entirely new to that generation. Here’s a sampling:

They have a sense of eschatology (another of those ology words: the word about the end of time, the word about the last things) that my generation, even growing up into the Second World War, didn’t experience. This spring our eleventh-grade son, calling home from boarding school, kept saying, “I don’t have time,” which is how many young people feel: if they aren’t killed in a war which they don’t understand, they’ll die of lung cancer from the polluted environment, or radiation effects from milk containing Strontium 90, or simply [acid] rainfall or snowfall.

Our children used to eat the snow when they were little… Is [my daughter] Josephine going to have to say to her babies, “Be careful not to get the snow in your mouth, it might kill you”?

This sense of urgency has always been with my children, and those I work and talk with. They’ve grown up knowing that at any moment we could blow up our planet if some madman pushes the wrong button. During the Cuban crisis, when our youngest child was a second grader, we were listening to the news and when the weather report was announced he said, “Storms tomorrow. If there is a tomorrow.”

L’Engle was writing from a very real place of amazement that this was so for her children, but I read it and thought, “Woah, there was a time when this was new?” People must always have felt that their time was limited; people used to die much younger than they do now, half (or more) of a family’s babies succumbed to diseases we shrug off now (or have eradicated); there was always uncertainty and danger. But L’Engle seems to be referring to the inescapability of myriad possibilities for total annihilation, which I guess was new to that era and is, by now, old to our era. We still have war and madmen and cancer and pollution to worry about, but her list of threats feels almost quaint to me, as though she were fussing about things we’ve already gotten over — which is, in a way, true. These things are still problems, but I often feel like we are post-nuclear-war in some way… but maybe that’s just because we have new things to worry about. How can I worry about stuff in my milk when someone might hijack the plane I’m on and fly it into a skyscraper?* The latest threats always seem the most pressing.

After reading the L’Engle piece I started wondering what it would be like if I didn’t know about all the dreadful things that may await us, out in the world. What if I hadn’t grown up knowing about bombs, hate crimes, rapists in every neighborhood, stalkers, pedophiles, mad cow disease, factory farming, global warming, terrorism, human rights violations, chemical and biological warfare, bacterial resistance, concentration camps, drive-by shootings, kidnappings? I cannot even imagine… these are simply the features of the world I know; it’s almost easier to imagine living without gravity. I suppose growing up in a world without these things might have made me more trustful: of my neighbors, of strangers, of my government, of human nature in general. If I’d grown up without these things, and then learned about one of them, it might shake me, but that early-laid foundation of trust would still be there. Wouldn’t it? But I don’t know… before all these things existed, or before they were common knowledge, there was still thievery, fraud, war, disease, famine, betrayal, murder, slavery, and tragedy and abomination of all kinds. People might have left their doors unlocked a hundred years ago, but did they really trust their neighbors, any more than we do? Or any less than we do?

It’s so hard to say. Backward what-iffing nearly always leads to this answer.

As for whether I myself feel time-pressured by these ominous possibilities, as L’Engle claims her son did, I don’t know either. I can’t say I think about them constantly, but it does often seem that with so many kinds of doom so very near to us (and so graphically portrayed in all those summer-blockbuster apocalyptic movies), we’re lucky to have held on as long as we have. But that’s the only way to live, isn’t it? To act as though we are just living, not facing imminent doom from all sides? What else can we do?

*I didn’t realize, when this entry began as a few paragraphs of my Morning Pages, that I was writing about all this on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But it is very appropriate.