When I read, fiction or nonfiction, I develop these very specific visual images in my mind, and they travel with me from text to text. I’m not sure if these emblazoned images are created through experience, TV and movies, or the simple fact of how my gut and brain work together with my mind’s eye, but when I first created an image for the apocalypse, 2021 isn’t what I envisioned.
Let me explain…
I never, in my lifetime, thought I would see the downfall of anything, really. Yet, here I sit, an elder millennial, trying to figure out each day as it’s happening. I did all the right things I was told to do—college and school loans and jobs and “fun” stuff. But now that the US sits at the precipice of a severe divide, an intellectual splitting that seems to keep growing at the forefront of this dialectical war, I see the word apocalypse in a new way. I see my fellow humans in a new way. The concept of zombies and desolate landscapes are far from my new interpretation because this apocalypse, the word connoting the final destruction of the world, really translates to that which we cannot come back from. Every day that passes, I wonder when our footing will irreparably slip.
This summer, I packed up my car and drove across the country alone. I knew it needed to happen, and I knew if I didn’t do it this year, it might never be possible again. For the first time in about a decade, the infinite unknown was a welcoming feeling.
One of the goals I set out to accomplish was talking to people. I just wanted to see what people in all the states had to say, how they felt, without prejudice. Overall, people were kind—everywhere. Even when a Mormon man named Donald in Cortez, Colorado told me I was going to burn in hell if I didn’t repent, I didn’t take offense because it wasn’t what he said; it was how he said it. We sat drinking beers with my friend Taylor at one of the only bars around the Mesa Verde area, letting each other share the wealth of knowledge and experience we had both accumulated over the years.
Not only did we share, but we both set boundaries in the conversation, and we both upheld them. When he made a comment about Trump being a great guy, I shared my views as a woman. He agreed he had no place in that aspect of the conversation and changed the subject. I pushed the boundaries with Christianity, and instead of pushing more to invoke a negative reaction from Donald, I stopped myself and asked him to explain his religious views through genuine words. And I listened from beginning to end. There were also some books we shared in common, mainly 1984 and other pre-dystopian sci-fi, but overall, what I walked away with was a refresher on how to properly enact a dialogue, something that has been lost, nay, stolen from me, throughout the last 10 years of my life.
Today, most people are attempting to persuade others. It’s the reason they are conversing. They have a view or a thought or a feeling and will do anything they can to cram it down the other person’s throat. But a dialogue, specifically based on philosophical and logical principles, is supposed to be about people coming together, to listen and share knowledge, experience, and facts. Whomever has the most facts and experiences creates the most persuasive argument that the pair/group can choose to agree or disagree with, and from here, new perceptions can be birthed.
Dialogue was, and still can be, used to come to some type of understanding. However, to successfully complete this task, one must first “know thyself” and then be willing to see and hear another without ego or prejudice. Easier said than done.
Saying you’re open-minded doesn’t make it so, and saying you know something to be true without any actual experience or data won’t cut it in Socratic seminar. But I think this lost art form, the negation of traditional dialogue, is truly dividing the nation. Fact versus fiction and the inability to learn and discern is becoming an apocalyptic event.
I had a wonderful conversation with a woman in Roswell, New Mexico. She owns a scrapbooking store. Her family had an incredible history with celebrities, the likes of which I’ve forgotten now, but the sticking point for me was that while we voted differently, we had a lot of the same views. At one point I said, “Ya know what, I bet if we didn’t have a two-party system, you and I might vote the same.” She agreed. But getting there took time, and patience, and the formation of a dialogue. We both made a lot of assumptions about each other. She took one look at me and thought I would be a loopy liberal, and I took one look at her and thought she was a Christian redneck. But at the end of the conversation, we both agreed that if we pay taxes, the money should go back to the people (healthcare, education, etc.), that corporations should be taxed, and that both parties are corrupt. I don’t care for guns, but I’m not trying to take hers away. She doesn’t believe in abortions, but she doesn’t think that’s the government’s choice to make. I know this isn’t what Rod Sterling meant, but I started to (re)believe that “people are alike all over.”
The most satisfying conversation I had was in Austin, Texas. I met a group of government defense dudes and spent most of my time there in long conversations with one man in particular. He made a LOT of assumptions about me that he would later reveal, simply based on my looks and the fact I was from “The North.” While he is a libertarian from North Carolina who was in the military for a significant amount of time, again, we were very much on the same page. That dude quoted more Nietzsche and Socrates than I did. From Paradise Lost to Pride and Prejudice, I was a pig in shit rolling around in this form of dialogue. We both left the conversations better for the experience, and as he put it, we left each other with more banners to fly and more bridges to connect others seemingly unlike ourselves. “Jenn, we need to keep raising banners and making connections like this. I forgot how until this weekend. I judged you so hard when I saw you, and yet, our intellectual paths are nearly identical.” I agreed. Something woke up in me again towards humanity, and literature, and dialogue. That entire weekend, we continued to work hard to find common ground and educate the other based on lived experience and data from multiple sources, providing apt clarifications and multiple examples to showcase true understanding. If we found ourselves faltering or without real information, we conceded and let the other speak. We all need to be ready to concede when we speak.
The dialogues I encountered throughout my trip made me miss college. The books, the new perspectives, the people with brains to explore, the discussions based on lived experience, and various texts and studies that were always being updated. If and when opinions were thrown into the mix, they were gently removed and shifted into a place of real understanding through literary supports and actual examples that connect to the person speaking about them.
I think about how many times I spoke about the South before this experience, never having been there until 2021. I think about how many people I’ve spoken with from the South, listed here and the ones that reside in my mind, who judged the shit out of me upon one glance, who have surely spoken of me and my fellow residents of the North without ever having a genuine conversation with any of us. Are you speaking about shit you don’t know; about people you’ve never met? It doesn’t matter which side you’re on. If you are, you are part of the problem. We are always part of the problem.
It’s wild to me that now, in 2021, I hear people saying that public education and college institutions are propaganda machines. Truth is gone. Science is gone. Now reading and writing? I don’t know what everyone else’s college experiences were like, but I had to read a million sources and compile so much data in a logical form of argumentation, looking at all sides, to be taken seriously. Critical thinking and discernment are the only two things that will save us from ourselves, and it’s these two things I value most from my time in higher education because critical thinking and discernment come from self-awareness, the opposite of indoctrination. I feel this concept is lost on many and used as another form of propaganda. Do I think the government is doing this on purpose? Absolutely not. They know people don’t care enough to do the work and learn. There are no locks on the doors to scientific information and books written by authors from now through the first spoken word. It’s easier to create our own narrative than to read 20 books to learn all angles regarding any subject. We are the fools in Fahrenheit 451 who created censorship. All the government did was step in after the two-sided PC war ended.
The moral of the story? I don’t have one. I’m tired. Beat up. Confused. But what I do know is that I am continually trying to see my fellow humans as such—humans. We only know what we know, we are deeply flawed, we are not gods, and unfortunately, there is a lot we don’t know but FEEL we know. The apocalypse for me now looks like a world divided. It’s a psychological battlefield of anger, ignorance, fear, and ego, and because it takes place in the mind, it’s constantly warping our views of reality. It feels like there is no turning back from this distorted narrative that blurs fact and fiction. Real dystopias are categorized as utopias because they look good from the outside but are void of real thought, art, and joy. And if you really pay attention to all the books in this genre, the people/citizens created the reality; the government just upheld it. But that narrative isn’t sexy, and it doesn’t give the people a reason to be mad. It’s easier to create a new narrative and or blame someone else other than ourselves. It’s always easier to burn the witch or label a scapegoat than to take personal responsibility.
I will never claim to know it all, and I wish others would share in this curious view of the world. I always ask myself, what do I know, and know for sure? I can label things, but language is a construct. I can tell you 2+2=4 only because we label the things we are counting. However, if you see two things and then add two more things, you can clearly see the representation of four. The things I’m counting exist outside of labels, but that makes me question sensation and perception all the more. And at the end of the day, these are all things that occur in the mind that we can’t see. It’s a lot of blind faith in ourselves, our combined knowledge, and the concept of reality as such.
One thing I do know for sure is that death is the big truth I believe we are all seeking to understand yet paradoxically ignoring. We run from it with products to make us look and feel younger and vibrant stories of what will occur after our hearts stop beating. BUT we don’t know what happens when we die because we’ve never experienced it. That’s not to say forgo religion or spirituality; I say this because we are bags of blood and bone, flying on a living rock in outer space. That’s a difficult reality to face. It’s why we tell stories, to create meaning for ourselves, our people, our cultures, and our hearts. It’s a chaotically beautiful paradox that is terrifying, confusing, and filled with bliss.
I believe it’s this underlying existential fact, the sole reality of death, that creates conspiracy and political hate because it’s easier to make up a new narrative than to continue to live here with a bunch of people you don’t know with no IDEA of what’s actually happening around us. There is no truth, kids. Only speculation. Even science can only get it right 99.9% of the time, but at least they admit that truth without the abuse of absolutes. To this, I’ll offer some advice I received in my first logic class a long time ago: be wary of people who use absolutes like always and never. Perfection, in its purest iteration, doesn’t exist.
If you want a moral, here’s what I’ll say based on my lived experience: never lose your inner Alice, the girl who was told to think six impossible things before breakfast. We need imagination to create and build and move forward. Imagination breeds dreams and hope. But remember, Wonderland is a scary and dangerous place, as Carroll, a mathematical logician, aimed to create a world without such tools. Alice begged to come back home, to actually WAKE UP from her nap as that world tried to consume her and break her down. Heck, the Red Queen wanted her dead. But when she returned home, she found grace and gratitude for what was right in front of her, and that’s what changed her life. She found solace in her reality, without a fancy narrative to soften the blow.