If you absorb even a little of the negative opinion circulating in the information ether these days, you may be forgiven for thinking that we’re all trapped in an elevator on its way down to the gallows – and somebody just switched off the lights. I’m skeered.
I hear it almost every day. This neighborhood, this city, this country, our world is on its way out. It’s just a matter of time. The signs are everywhere. Elderly relatives are convinced they’re living in something called The End Times. There’s a long tradition of folks thinking, “After me, the deluge.” Fortunately, they’ve always been wrong.
I drive down Union Street in Concord, North Carolina virtually every day. Folks are out walking, exercising their pets. This home over here is getting a facelift. People dutifully slow down for the school zone near R. Brown McAllister Elementary. A woman is raking up the droppings under her magnolias as the neighbor two houses down mows his lawn. All of these mundane doings are an affirmation of the future. Why would we bother spending time and money on a well-manicured lawn if our collective lives are coming undone?
In fact, sometimes as I’m taking that short drive, I marvel how orderly things are. Look at this. I’m encountering car after car. None of them is crashing into another. We’re all tootling along at about the same speed. We observe the stop signs and lights. Nobody acts in a way that’s markedly contrary to the rules. Ah, but then, I reach the train tracks on McDill Avenue. The crossing gates descend as the lights flash. Soon a freight train is crossing my path. What’s this I see on many of the freight cars? Graffiti. Surely this is a sign of society’s unraveling; a cancerous anarchy poking its head out of the depths.
I picture all those young people. spray paint in hand, defacing property. And yet, some of it’s really quite beautiful. Maybe it’s just art on a borrowed canvas. But, there’s something more to it. What is it? Something tugs at me. As canvas after unlikely canvas rolls ponderously by, it strikes me that the graffiti images are far more than a nihilistic destruction of property. They’re a sign of a consciousness in another town; a message in a bottle that declares, “I’m here. I exist.”
And suddenly I reflect back on the space probe Voyager which rose from the Earth in September 36 years ago. Now it’s close to 20 billion kilometers away. That was the ultimate act of graffiti, sending a pile of stuff out into the cosmos bearing the explicit message, “We’re here, Hello.” It’s an act of collective faith. Faith in the possibility of a wider reality, of a deeper future. Sending one’s aesthetic impulse down the tracks expresses a deep optimism in the power of communication and the intuition that a meeting of minds is possible.
What’s the old cliche, love makes the world go ’round? A physicist can give you a more accurate assessment of the real forces at work. But one thing is sure, love keeps us all going. If there is danger out there, it lies with the abundance of free-floating hostility on the Internet and a growing cyberculture of bullying and mass humiliation.
Back in 1998, Monica Lewinsky found herself in the middle of a worldwide nightmare of pointing and laughing. There were no social media then, but the Internet had facilitated a tsunami of humiliation on the 22-year-old girl the like of which had never been seen before. She was probably the very first such victim on a macro scale. Her parents were so concerned about an outcome of self-destruction that they insisted she shower with the stall door open. There are thousands of kids literally humiliated to death because they’re outed in some way for all to see on the Internet. The phenomenon calls for us all to let compassion float to the top of the golden rule.
As for the rest of us who anticipate imminent Armageddon let me say that it’s always true that we may be hit by an errant asteroid with little warning. But is it likely to happen today? No. And yes, we all die. Just not today. Today I haven’t been indicted. I haven’t been shot while escaping. I fear no political or religious oppression. No army ascends the escarpment behind my house. There is no famine on my doorstep. I don’t even have to dig my car out of a snowbank. Instead of all that, I think I’ll go to the grocery store. Life is good.
And what isn’t good will pass.
Originally published in the Independent Tribune.