Welcome to the Fold: Down Among The Dead Men Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-11-12 15:00:00 No comments

Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene - NYTimes.com

The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

Emphasis in original.

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Zen Master Seung Sahn (of Dropping Ashes on the Buddha) used to tell his students to think of themselves as being dead already. "A dead man has no desires," he pointed out. It all sounded morbid until I realized he was talking about something analogous to what is being discussed here. The point isn't to wallow in death, but to understand how our ideas about life and death don't correspond to life and death as we actually experience them, and to not remain slaves to something that is simply thought and memory. 

The idea of living in a civilization that has already been destroyed — it's just that the destruction is happening on a scale that is not immediately perceptible — seems like something that fits snugly into a certain corner of Welcome to the Fold.

A certain part of the story concerns people with an eschatological point of view — folks who want to bring this world to an end and usher in something new. Not by blowing up the old one, but by rendering it irrelevant -- making the world we have into something that would be easy to walk away from.

Some of this hearkens back to the old-school Socialist idea of the state "withering away", no longer having anything to really do now that liberation from oppression and alienation have been achieved. We all know how that unfolded, though: the state-that-was-not-really-a-state turned out to be the most despotic state of all, since it empowered a few to act as self-appointed gatekeepers to paradise.

What intrigued me, though, was the idea of a whole subclass of people walking around in "our" world, looking at every single facet of it and thinking: This is already dead. Not one part of the world as it currently exists — not our culture, not our commerce, not our spirituality, not our history, and certainly not the people who inhabit any of that — are of use to them. Imagine looking at the world around you, in all of its bustle and life, and seeing it only as ruins needing to be cleared so that something new may grow.

To a certain mindset, it's hugely enticing. It liberates you from the pressures of daily life (who worries about their credit cards when money itself is going to be consigned to perdition?), but most importantly it allows you to feel as though you are one of the elect, one who will still walk freely through the ruins when all others have perished in the flames.

And it's all wrong, of course. But as long as you can pretend it's true — and the more people you can corral along with you into pretending it's true — the longer you can tell yourself you can defy gravity, and perhaps also death as well.

Tags: Welcome to the Fold Zen death philosophy religion