Friday, May 16, 2014

There Is Something I Can Do

I am 56 years old today. With the world the way it is, as every warning that environmentalists and conservationists have been throwing in our faces since the 1960s bears toxic fruit, and as every week brings more ominous proof that, by the end of the century, if not a whole lot sooner, the world will be a far less hospitable and habitable place for every living thing, who could complain about being as old as I am today?

More than thirty years ago I read a stanza that summed up the mood of disengaged terror that pervaded the darkest years of the Cold War:

My God
It is a test
This riding out
The dying of the West.

By now every part of the world - the West, the East, North and South - is on the skids. How much easier it was to accept even the idea of the death of the West. At least there was the expectation that humanity, however differently constituted, would somehow survive.

Pessimism about the fate of the world itself seems increasingly inescapable at the present moment. In 1947, a moment in human history when the atomic age had just begun, when America was in sole possession of nuclear weapons, but the Soviet Union was only months away from a bomb of its own, George Orwell was doubtful:

"If I were a bookmaker, simply calculating the probabilities and leaving my own wishes out of account, I would give odds against the survival of civilization within the next hundred years."(1)

Notice how Orwell was talking about "civilization," and not humanity.

The threat of nuclear annihilation has - perhaps only momentarily - passed. Today the threat of mass extinction is looming. Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the revival of Carl Sagan's ground-breaking series Cosmos, has pointed out that "We just can't seem to break our addiction to the kinds of fuel that will bring back the climate last seen by the dinosaurs, a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on the environment and our ability to feed ourselves. Why can't we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us? The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What's our excuse?"

The answer to this somewhat disingenuous question was written by Albert Camus:

"If the instinct to live is fundamental, it is no more so than another instinct of which the academic psychologists do not speak: the death instinct, which at certain moments calls for the destruction of oneself and of others. Thus, the instinct for self-preservation is matched, in variable proportions, by the instinct for destruction. The latter is the only way of explaining altogether the various perversions which, from alcoholism to drugs, lead an individual to his death while he knows full well what is happening. Man wants to live, but it is useless to hope that this desire will dictate all his actions. He wants to be nothing; he wants the irreparable, and death for its own sake."(2)

Even if I can't bring myself to believe the most grim predictions, and I think that human beings will muddle through somehow, the remainder of my life is likely to witness natural calamities that will make the typhoon I survived last November, which was the most powerful tropical cyclone to strike land ever, look like small potatoes.

Today is my birthday. What better way to end this post on a more positive note than to talk about a great film? How many films can you name in which a character's birthday takes place? Maybe the most dramatic and most poignant can be found in Akira Kurosawa's Chekhovian masterpiece, Ikiru (1952). The title means "To Live," and it's about a Public Works Section Chief named Watanabe who learns that he has terminal stomach cancer. If the news of a his looming death were not terrible enough, he realizes that he has spent his entire life without doing anything of lasting value and importance for his community. In his last days he spends his time thinking of how to accomplish one thing that would give his wasted life meaning.

One day, in a crowded restaurant, he is sitting upstairs with a young girl who used to work in his office. She hated working in his office and chides him for devoting his life to such inhuman work. She takes a wind-up toy rabbit out of her bag, and tells him she now works making such toys. And though her work is long and pays little, she thinks of all the children who will play with the toys she is making. Watanabe, whose face has looked sad and hopeless, suddenly breaks into a smile so transfiguring that the girl is frightened by it at first. Watanabe seizes the mechanical rabbit and hurries down the stairs. Just then an office girl passes him on the stairs and her waiting friends at the top of the stairs rush forward and sing "Happy birthday to you" in English. "There is something I can do," Watanabe says excitedly as he hurries down the stairs. "There is something I can do!"

It is Watanabe's birthday, the first day of what's left of his life. He goes back to his office and immediately sets about the work that will transform a wasted piece of land, a dumping site that breeds weeds and mosquitoes, into a children's playground. In the photo above, you can see Watanabe, just before he dies, sitting in a swing on a snowy night singing a beautiful folk song. The playground is finished.



(1) George Orwell, "Toward European Unity," Partisan Review, July-August 1947.
(2) Albert Camus, "Reflections on the Guillotine," 1957.

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