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The Existentialism of End Time

Personal Perspective: Updating nihilism as the species wanes.

Key points

  • We've always been worried about death. But what about the death of the species?
  • A radical existential response may be the best response to the fact that our species is waning.
  • The radical existential response is a new blend of doing nothing and doing everything in our power.
Source: Andy Holmes/Unsplash
Source: Andy Holmes/Unsplash

It has always been our job to deal with death. Now it looks like we must also deal with the death of the species.

That is what I feel in my bones, both our personal mortality and the end of it all. That second blow may do us each in, psychologically, if that is how you, too, are feeling. Can people experiencing this stomach it? Can they tolerate it? Is this nihilism the bottom line nihilism, the mother of all nihilisms?

It feels as if it is.

Because many of us are racing and hustling, not only do we sense that end but we feel ourselves racing toward it, propelled by all the new realities. If the end of it all could just stay on the horizon, far enough away from us, that would be one thing. But we ourselves are racing toward it, aren't we? Nihilism used to be a quieter thing, that 3 a.m. disastrous silence. Now it is noisy and fast and pressing: despair as a migraine.

I have the sense that AI will hasten the end. That fascism will overrun us. That stupidity is winning. That massacres are coming. That, likewise, enslavement is coming. That the Doomsday clock is about to strike the hour. The conventional answers are antidepressants, the newest sushi restaurant, a funny HBO series, and more racing, as those of us feeling this way simultaneously race away from the end time and toward it. The conventional answers are not working.

That other answer, that all civilizations crash and burn, and that you and I are just part of the great cycle of being, an existential kumbaya moment, where maybe heroes and heroines and warriors and who-knows-whats come forward in the ashes of yet another inevitably-failed society and make the next thing happen, just doesn’t sound very heart-warming. Not to my ear, at least. It’s the exact equivalent of saying, well, hey, there will still be some folks left after the bomb. That vision is supposed to sustain someone with a raging existential migraine?

Of course, the question is, given that you and I were going to die anyway, does this current existential extremity actually matter? How has the job of living really changed in the face of this deeper void? Has it changed? Are our existential challenges any different now or not really different at all? As mortals, we were only passing through anyway—what’s different now?

Well, maybe foolishly, it nevertheless feels as if this is new and different and more difficult. Maybe the feeling that we matter is just an artifact of being alive, as useful as an appendix, and it is this new blow to mattering that is making it feel so difficult? Maybe if those of us feeling this way just stopped all of our wishful thinking, that this life counts, that the species ought to be sustained, that we can possibly save our grandchildren, maybe then this new extremity would just float away like a soap bubble? Maybe the difficulty is, after all, just attachment.

And yet.

Physicists debate whether the standard model can hold up. The standard model? Are we more interested in quarks than us? Maybe. Maybe this is the same old solace to take, in pondering, in debating, in writing a brilliant article or a charming sentence, in winning a prize, in reveling in tenure. But can tenure last? Can universities last? I'm certainly feeling all of that shuddering and crumbling. Is the answer to hole up in a cave, making sure not to watch Dr. Strangelove, but a cooking show instead?

Radical self-interest is a well-known idea. Maybe radical self-interest will still work. More of "me, me, me." I am a lone individual, after all, designed with selfish genes and insatiable appetites. Let me just be that person, unapologetically a beast, whether carnivorous or vegan, whether hungry for sex or peanuts. Let me frame everything as “What does the me, me, me want?” and “How can the me, me, me get the good stuff?”


Maybe there is nothing to try. Or maybe there is something you and I might dub the "radical existential response," updated for the end of times, the last, biggest, wildest effort—beyond heavy lifting, beyond anything named by any kimono-clad French postmodernist. The radical existential response will mean being satisfied by a gesture, just as Sisyphus is presumably satisfied by his small smile. It will mean doing two things at once: eliminating expectations, so that not having shoes just means tougher feet, and fighting, against whom and for what reasons remaining three-quarters unknowable.

Does this feel like a “this civilization is ending but something just fine will come along next” moment? If it does, maybe that’s a vision to hang your hat on. But even if that were true, the individual—you, me, our children, our grandchildren—are certainly still in for it. Practically speaking, all hell is going to break loose, it seems to me. Still, psychologically, we have that one resource, which is maybe that much more valuable and that much more available with crisis: the radical existential response.

What does that response sound like? “I intend to do nothing while doing as much as I can.” Let me quietly peel a potato—and then lob it like a hand grenade. Or just dice it and make some nice hash browns. Or maybe make a hash of dicing it and laugh and stand on one leg and be a living comedy. Or maybe smash a tyrant and read a banned book from cover to cover. I’m certain I don’t know what the answer is, but, while all of that is working itself out, I think that my only choice is the radical existential response, from here to eternity.

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