What to Do if the World Burns Up

I didn’t start out to think about the topic of suicide. [1] Actually, I started with the destruction of the entire surface of the earth, courtesy of Neal Stephenson’s recent SevenEves. [2] The death of all the humans on the planet is easily foreseen after the destruction of the moon on page one. Here’s the way Stephenson starts the book: “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”  The question for those remaining on Earth is mostly how to die, and, to a limited extent, when.  It is in that context that I have started thinking about it.

Some of the people, as Stephenson tells it, despair at the end of their race [3]. Some, for instance, do “all the things they always wanted to do,:” some legal, some not. And then they commit suicide. Others do what they have always been doing for as long as they can. I think that’s what I would do. If I had a job, I would go to work and do what needed to be done. I like doing what needs to be done. It has been a while since I have done any work anyone wanted to pay me for, so I would follow my present routine, as follows.

I would meet with the Northwest Corner Caucus at Starbucks in Multnomah Village. Then I would go home and write a little more of whatever I was writing. Then a run up in Forest Park or a workout at 24 Hour Fitness downtown. Then a nap. Then something—often another round at Starbucks with a friend on a particular topic. Then checking on what is in the refrigerator for dinner and, if necessary, a trip to the grocery. (I like shopping, but I don’t like planning.) Then dinner and then Bette and I do something or other together and then bed. That’s pretty normal for me.

7 eves fire 1If I knew that the surface of the earth was going to get hotter and hotter until it would no longer support human life, I would keep on doing my routine, or as much of it as was still available, until it got really uncomfortably hot. At that point, Bette and I would consult about how to end ourselves with as much meaning (reflections on lives lived) and as little inconvenience to anyone else as we could manage.

I’ve thought a good deal about suicide, as you would imagine, knowing that I live in Oregon. Our famed Death with Dignity Act provides for a physician’s help for anyone who is near the end of life and (usually) in substantial pain, and who still has the dexterity to convey a pill to his own mouth by his own hand.

As I imagine myself in that situation, I find myself drawing back from it a little. It’s a residual conservatism (I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense) that I might honor at the end or, as I have done with so much of my conservatism, just overrule it. But I don’t think I feel that way about holocaust. The complete consumption of the surface of the earth by fire is “holocaust” in the most literal sense of the term. [5] If it is going to be hot on Monday and blisteringly hot on Tuesday and “hide in the basement” hot on Wednesday and “hurts to breathe air that hot” on Thursday, and “collapse and die from the heat on Friday,” why would I wait until Friday? Is it “suicide” to give up on Thursday? On Wednesday? My guess is that somewhere between Monday and Tuesday, I would want to call it quits. I think I’d want to find a good reason not to.

There is the question of “others,” of course, and Bette is my principal “other,” so we would Ecola fixed updo what we do with most complicated questions. We sit down, pour a couple glasses of wine, and talk it out. I’m just skipping over that part for the purposes of this exercise because I don’t know what I would propose to Bette until I have it clear in my own mind.
In SevenEves, there were “end of the world” parties, as I recall; some quite formal. That sounds pretty good. Would there be a ceremony like a memorial service, except for all of us. Would we celebrate what makes each of us unique and also what joins us all, other than, you know, imminent death?

I think I’d like that. On the principle that one’s death should be in keeping with one’s life, living an everyday sort of life as long as possible and then joining with others to celebrate the end of it sounds just right. I’m imagining something like the party that attends a play that has had a good long run on Broadway. “Wasn’t that just amazing?!,” we would say. “Do you remember the night we were supposed to have a duel with swords and we couldn’t get them apart in time for the scene?  This party is for Young Frankenstein.

4/21/2010 — BOSTON — The cast of "Young Frankenstein" check out a cake replica of the star monster at a cast party at Teatro restaurant. The cake was designed and made by master chef Jorg Amsler and assistant Jennifer Santos, with engineering provided by Judy Lee and Adam Vollmer.

I’ve lived a religious life, so according to this principle, I ought to die a religious death, but I’m not really sure what that would be like. I have full confidence that if there is a life after this one, that God will manage it and my part in it as He chooses. According to my very forgiving orthodoxy, that makes sense. On the other hand, I am not at all confident that there actually is a life after this one, so I am prepared to lie down, like Abraham, “being old and full of years.”

[1] Please note the careful phrasing. All of my brothers and some of my kids read this and I don’t want to allow the interpretation that I am thinking of –ciding myself. I am not.
[2] The title means what you think it means, which is unusual for Stephenson. There are seven women who regenerate the whole known human population after a cataclysmic event and they are, collectively, what the Eve of the Garden of Eden is to our present human race or what the primate dubbed Eve is to a substantial part of it.
[3] Not what the Apostle Paul imagined for the end of his race and the difference is directly pertinent to what I imagine the theme of this essay is going to be.
[4] About twice as many Oregonians go to the trouble of acquiring the pill than actually use it. People report taking some comfort from the prospect that if the pain gets THAT BAD, there is something they can do. That makes complete sense to me.
[5] Joshua 6:21 says “They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” The “every living thing” is the holo- of holocaust.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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