I get it: People are panicked—and justifiably so. Everything—everything— is in turmoil. We don’t know exactly how this will all end, and we’re tired. It’s been a long century, these past six months.
I have my panic moments, and I find I’m getting superstitious. I find myself unwilling to say things like, “Can 2020 get any worse?” because I’m afraid 2020 will say, “Hold my beer.” (I’m also afraid 2021 will say, “Hold my beer,” but that’s a different column.)
I’m not the only one who has become superstitious. When George Takei, who is usually one of my go-to people for sanity on Twitter, succumbs to superstition, I know we’re in trouble. Don’t believe me? On October 5, he noted that a mummy’s tomb was being opened after having been sealed for 2500 years. Takei tweeted: I’m not superstitious, but could we wait until 2021?
Um, yeah. Please. (Here’s the link if you want to see: https://twitter.com/GeorgeTakei/status/1313282151186604032.)
So I have this reflexive superstition coupled with the belief that with the turn of a calendar page we’re all going to be saved. Come 2021, everything will be fine.
Only I know it won’t be. Even if we have a vaccine, most people won’t have access to it yet. And it might be 50% effective, which is good, but not great. We’re going to have to rebuild our economy, mourn many many many lives cut short too quickly, and figure out how to heal. We have a lot of difficulty ahead.
I’m ready, more or less. Except when I panic just a little.
But a few things give me strength to recover from my panic—history, science fiction, and George Carlin.
Let me explain.
A few days ago, a much younger friend opined that we were in the end times. The pandemic proves it, he said. The human race will never recover. Everything is bad, and getting worse. Within a decade, the planet will be irretrievably gone.
I didn’t argue. We’re all having moments of pessimism. I get it.
But as I walked away, I found myself thinking about George Carlin.
If things are as dire as my friend says, then he’s still wrong. George Carlin was right, back in 1992, when he was (theoretically) riffing on saving the planet. In a now-famous routine first performed in New York, he said,
The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. I mean, to be fair, the planet probably sees us as a mild threat; something to be dealt with, and I’m sure the planet will defend itself in the manner of a large organism. Like a beehive or an ant colony can muster a defense, I’m sure the planet will think of something. What would you do if you were the planet trying to defend against this pesky, troublesome species? Let’s see… what might… hmm… viruses! Viruses might be good. They seem vulnerable to viruses.
(You can find the whole transcript here: https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/2019/08/22/george-carlin-saving-planet-transcript/. The routine itself, in all its politically incorrect glory, is preserved on YouTube.)
It’s not the viruses part that caught me, although that’s prescient. It was the part about the planet. He starts all of this with that cry, “Save the planet.” We’re not talking about saving the planet, he said in another variation of this routine, we’re talking about saving the humans. And again he said, the planet will be here. We’re just worried about making the planet uninhabitable for us.
I didn’t mention that to my friend. It’s just too complicated for one thing, and for another George Carlin is and was an acquired taste. He loved pissing people off, which is probably why his personal history was so fraught. He made me laugh, though, and I miss his bracing humor. I have no idea what his take would be on these past four years, but I’d wager it would have been amazing. (And snort-beer-through-your-nose funny.)
But when I’m less pessimistic, when I’m not at Carlin level, my go-to is history. When this pandemic started and everyone was thinking it would be over in a few months, I hoped it would while the historian in me knew it wouldn’t be.
Human beings have gone through pandemics throughout our entire existence on this earth. So far, none have wiped us out entirely, but all of them have changed the way we lived forever afterward. Pandemics and plagues destroy cultures, ruin entire nations, and leave vast swaths of people who are shell-shocked over their own survival.
But that last part is the key. Pandemics and plagues pass through our world. We remain. Forever changed, but we remain. The Washington Post did a great article a month or so back on the 1918 flu, which is still with us in a variety of ways. (You can find their conclusions here: thewashingtonpost.com/history/2020/09/01/1918-flu-pandemic-end)
Human beings survive pandemics. Individual human beings often do not, but we as a species generally do. And one of the dirty little secrets of these planet-wide events is what Carlin so viciously (and humorously) said in his routine. We’re just fleas. The planet was and is trying to eradicate us. It at least wants our numbers cut down, and sadly, it’s working.
That was very bleak of me, and a bit crass, which is why I didn’t say that to my friend either.
What I almost pointed out to him was that science fiction has always looked at the end times—after a plague, after a pandemic, after nuclear war—and because science fiction at its core is about humanity, those end-of-the-world stories always look at the survivors of the plague, pandemic, or nuclear war. How do they rebuild? What makes them start again? How do they adapt?
Because science fiction at its best knows the basic truth about humanity. We don’t just endure, we adapt.
There’s hope in these stories. Lots of hope. And that is one reason why people read them. It’s also why that subgenre is selling well right now. People are looking for hope.
So I don’t believe we’re at the end times, as my friend described it. Nor do I believe that George Carlin’s bleak pronouncement from thirty years ago is true either: We humans can’t rid ourselves of fleas, and the planet can’t rid itself of humans. We’re stuck with each other.
I am still a bit concerned about the opening of that mummy’s tomb, however. But only in a fun so-that-explains-2020 kinda way.
But I’m not going to challenge the year by saying it can’t get worse. It can.
I’m just going to continue trudging through the days, head down, remembering that old saying: If you’re going through hell, keep on moving. Because Lord knows, it’s better than standing still.