When one turns fifty, as I recently did, one’s sense of mortality inches insidiously closer. As for me, I crossed this symbolic age threshold determined to embrace, rather than resist, life’s unforgiving lesson that all things eventually die.
While savoring all that the present has to offer, I simultaneously regard the future (from a rapidly shrinking distance) as an inevitable series of “letting go’s.” Letting go of my kids when they leave the house one day, letting go of a career as I approach retirement, letting go of hobbies no longer suited to an aging body. Letting go of loved ones who reach the proverbial finish line ahead of me. I am mentally steeling myself for all of these unpleasant certainties.
What’s more, all of this existential ruminating doesn’t stop at the perimeter of my own body, or within the narrow confines of my own small life. Rather, my thought ripples extend significantly outward, to the declining health of our country, our planet, our climate.
My daily news feed prompts me to build a significantly longer “letting go” list, as I dwell on the prospect of climate rise exceeding two degrees Celsius, or imagine America’s political system tilting even further into a populistic or oligarchic abyss. Goodbye, coral reefs. Farewell, civil liberties. As I absorb the daily shocks, a creeping fatalism threatens to consume me: Democracy will erode, the climate will change, humanity will suffer and ultimately decline.
At times, I question whether I am succumbing to a doomsday delusion, an exaggerated sense of the existential threats and risks our human civilization faces. Perhaps I am accidentally conflating my own inevitable demise with a false, hubristic certainty that the whole world is going down with me. “Relax,” I tell myself, “After all, plenty of reasonable people don’t seem worried. After all, no one really knows what’s going to happen. After all, humankind has existed for millenia.”
“C’mon, if I were 30 instead of 50,” I challenge myself to consider, “would I feel so pessimistic about the state of democracy, and the planet?”
So far, however, every round of second-guessing and self-doubt has led me right back to the same conclusions: Yes, I really will eventually die, and yes, democracy really is at risk, and yes, the climate catastrophe really is real. As it turns out, all of these things can be really, independently true at the same time.
Here is another thing that is true: my children are 10 and 11 years old. And if my take on our current circumstances is even directionally correct, then they will come of age in a world far less democratic — and a climate far less hospitable — than I have enjoyed. Nothing jolts me out of my fatalistic repose like this imagined conversation: “Hey, kiddoes, I know you were looking forward to having a great life, like mine, but it’s time to start lowering your expectations. In fact, you should probably start preparing for the worst. Sorry.”
No. I can be fatalistic about my own future, but I don’t have the right to be fatalistic about theirs.
For my kids, I must be an activist, not a fatalist.
For my kids, I am launching my “second mountain” career as a political and social reformer.
For my kids, I am working on things that will buy us all some time. Working to squeeze another hundred years out of our dog-eared democracy. Another hundred years out of our fragile climate.
For my kids, I stand in solidarity with Greta Thunberg and climate youth activists around the world during this week’s climate strikes.
For my kids, I write letters and postcards and make phone calls and send texts and knock on doors to remind people to fulfill their obligations as democratic citizens.
For my kids, I seek to validate others who are striving to replace their “inner fatalist” with a strong and resolute “inner activist.” (The struggle is real. I understand, I really do.)
For my kids. For your kids. For all the kids.
Kristin Hansen is the Director of Mismatch by AllSides. She has a Lean Left bias.