I’m a world traveler. With this statement comes a certain sort of arrogance, bravado and elitism and I’m happy to embrace all of it. I’m quite content to brag and throw in everyone’s face that I’ve been to, somewhere in the neighborhood of, 27 countries across the globe, a few of them twice or more. Traveling, for me has a very special link to mental and emotional health. As a child growing up in rural Arkansas, I felt stuck. There was no culture, no art, no life. And in line with the small mindedness a small town often breeds, there was no outside push to seek or create any of these things. Life, simply was, as big as one’s own front porch and that was fine. But it was not fine for me.
Perhaps in other writings I’ll go more in depth on the ideas of why travel is important for me and why I think it should be important to everyone. I once read that there was direct evidence that travel was psychologically beneficial. As it was something like a Facebook trending article, I cannot vouch for the scientific legitimacy of the article but I can state that this has definitely been the case for me. Therefore, suffice it to say that for me, travel is important, it has contributed to my mental and emotional health and that I’m gonna keep on keepin on.
My most recent adventure landed me in Scotland. It was a place that’s been on the list for some time and after seeing a Hannibal Burress standup comedy/documentary about his month long performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and finding out that the festival was only a few months away and that I could attend, I knew that the time had come. The Fringe, is the world’s largest performing arts festival and it was everything it promised. Nearly 24 hours a day of comedy, theater, music, spoken word, busking, and performance art of all varieties in so much quantity that one could NEVER see all of it. The hardest part was trying to decide which shows to attend.
But my point today is not to talk to you about the Fringe Festival (although I could, at length). My goal today is quite a lot darker. I’d like talk about the end of mankind. And oddly, for me, the heralding of that end that was done with bagpipes.
While in Edinburgh, I had the opportunity to watch The Royal Military Tattoo. Although I managed to stay ignorant of what “tattoo” meant in this context, the real life application of it meant a performance by several companies of Scottish military bagpipes just outside the entrance to Edinburgh Castle. It was a beautiful thing to behold. The pomp and majesty and the expression of hundreds of years of cultural tradition being laid out before me was so beautiful at times tears came to my eyes. (I know the sound of bagpipes isn’t usually associated with tearful beauty by the average American but trust me, it was a majestic thing.) Hundreds of pipers in full military regalia marched out with drums and various other woodwind instruments and filled the stadium with an overwhelming and dizzying array of noise. I could picture being in the Scottish highlands 300 years ago, Claymore sword in hand, hearing an army marching towards me with their own sword and shield, intent on my destruction. It was a soundtrack to battle. Although it found it criticized MANY times while in Scotland, I couldn’t help but cast myself as a character in Braveheart in my head. I found myself completely immersed in the music, the tradition and the spirit of what was unfolding before my eyes and ears. Even writing about it now makes me a bit misty. (SHUT UP, I GOT SOMETHING IN MY EYE!)
Here’s where this blog gets a tad morose and possibly a bit melodramatic. Whilst witnessing this beautiful and majestic thing, suddenly it occurred to me; this beautiful and majestic thing I was witnessing… was developed for war. The songs I heard on that night in full safety, may have been the final songs heard by thousands that were killed to its tune. They were songs and traditions built around the act of bringing harm and hopeful destruction to others. This thing that I was watching, that was making my heart soar, was likely also associated with terrorism, territorial expansion, greed, oppression of the weak, arrogance, vengeance, corruption and death; all the things, which nationalism tries to hide but which are still undeniably associated with armed conflict between groups. A wave of ambivalence washed over me. I continued to be enraptured by the sounds and the sights but also looked upon myself and other spectators with disgust. As I also applauded, I asked myself “How can we sit back and clap for this?” With every auditory smacking together of my hands, I was symbolically praising the demise of someone else.
It’s also important to mention that during this time, Hurricane Harvey was only a day or so away from wreaking havoc on Houston and the gulf coast area. Whether it’s true or not or whether you believe it or not, it’s been said that human activity has had an influence on storms like this. I’ll refrain from going into that idea too far but suffice it to say that this thought was rolling around in my head and greatly influenced the thoughts that will be discussed shortly. Fortunately, my family and I sustained no damage but at the time, this was an unknown. Flights back to Houston were canceled. There was no way for me to get back home, even if that had been my decision. I was stuck. I was in constant contact with my wife and daughter back home some 4000 miles away but had resigned myself to the idea that there was a chance that I could lose them both. All that I could do was sit back and watch the events of the storm unfold on my smartphone both completely unable to give or receive any help in the matter. Hell of a time to take a vacation eh?
While watching the Royal Military Tattoo and pondering the war aspect of it, I caught myself in an act of self-soothing. I said to myself, “yes, this is for war but there’s also a growing movement towards peace”. People are becoming more tolerant, the environment is being more cared for, fundamental human rights are becoming more visible to the world at large and the dismissing of them isn’t met with the same apathy that has been in the past. My pessimism soon caught up with me, though. I believe that the world IS IN FACT becoming a better, more tolerant place. We are doing better with our natural resources and our environment in general.
But it’s too late.
If you’ve traveled some, I’m sure you can vouch for the idea that it forces you to think. It forces you to be with yourself in a way that makes you look inside and ponder things that you may not have in your normal 8-5, Monday- Friday week. As I sat in those bleachers listening to the soundtrack of war and pondering humanity’s recklessness and with a potentially human influenced hurricane threatening to potentially take my home and the 2 people closest to me, I had another unpleasant epiphany; I may be witnessing the last days of humanity. Sure, the world is getting better, we’re starting to do things in a healthier way but is it soon enough? Have we done so much damage that we can’t undo it? I obviously can’t answer that question but I lean towards the negative on it. Perhaps this is just doom and gloom prophesy but one has to put forth only the most minimal of efforts to find examples of the damage humans have doe to the earth and to find testaments to our destructive behaviors and I’m not sure we have enough time to turn this all around. From both an environmental standpoint and as a species, we may be nearing the end. Needless to say, I left the performance a little depressed and with a few tears shed. I’m hopeful that the elderly German couple next to me just thought I was wrapped up in the beauty of the show.
As I slogged my way back to my hostel, pondering these ideas, I found myself more and more depressed. Was it the hurricane? Was it the distance between myself and my family at that moment? Was it my advance mourning for the fate of mankind? Was it perhaps that I’d had a bit too much to drink? Possibly, it was all of those but it was real and it was intense. Had I not been lost in a crowd of literally hundreds of thousands exiting Edinburgh Castle onto The Royal Mile, I would have stood out as a lonely sad man. When I returned to my room later that night, I distracted myself with YouTube videos on my phone (thinking back now to an earlier blog where I denounce that sort of thing). I happened upon an interview with Ricky Gervais. For those of you who’ve never heard of him, Gervais is a British actor and comedian and staunch atheist. I don’t know his work extensively and he’s by far not one of my favorites but for sure he’s “a guy I like to watch sometimes”. In this interview, Gervais, in talking about his own lack of religious faith, states that he has “no reason to die” as opposed to the argument often given by critics of atheism of “no reason to live”. He goes on to state a belief that the world is a magical wonderful thing and that he sees beauty in many things the world has to offer. It was a simple message but it hit me in just the right way. Maybe this was the answer. The world is full of evil and wretchedness. Sometimes the bad guy wins. Sometimes crime does pay. There are entire genres of music, that although awe inspiring, are written as a soundtrack for crimes against humanity. Due, in part to our own short sighted actions, our doom is near. And in the end what will we have to show for it? Absolutely nothing. We will die and our name will be erased from the planet and forgotten forever. But, as Gervais suggested, there’s also incredible beauty in the world. There exists art that can bring you to tears. Landscapes that change your perception of reality. There are experiences with relationships with others and the relationship one has with one’s self that illuminate the dark that does also certainly exist.
I didn’t lose anything in Hurricane Harvey. Some people did. None of my close friends or family were affected. But some people were. But before I knew this was to be the case, I had to reconcile with myself that I may lose any or all of it. Here’s how I did it; The cosmological view.There are planets and stars billions of light years away. Their light won’t reach us in our lifetime and may still be on its way long after humans are gone. What I do and the things that happen to me, whether it be a hurricane or a war or the eventual end of the human race entirely will have no bearing on these planets and stars. I bring into this world nothing and in the grander scheme of things I leave nothing behind. I don’t matter. Why bother then, some might ask. If the world is cold and indifferent and potentially full of evil and if we’re all doomed, possibly much sooner than we should have be, due to our own actions, then why live at all?
Because we’re supposed to.
We all will die. That is a fact. To me, this means that I have a short time to experience and do all the things I want. I won’t have enough life for all of them but I’m going to try. I believe it is my duty as a human to do so. It’s the same as the UFC fighter who steps into the ring; “I will be punched and kicked and elbowed and kneed in the face; the opponent will do everything in his power to contort my limbs unto their breaking point and he will choke me unconscious if given the chance. There’s a strong likelihood that I will sustain serious bodily injury as a result of these actions and an even stronger likelihood that I will sustain at least mild injury as a result of these actions. The chance that I will escape this without pain or injury is almost zero, BUT IM’ GOING TO DO IT ANYWAY.” It’s what I’m meant to do.
Our destiny as humans is to live. To live fully while acknowledging that the other half of our destiny is to die. It is our duty to take this life that we have and use it up until there is none left. To fully exhaust it. To leave nothing but a burned out castle to, paraphrase Nietzsche. This also means acknowledging that there are terrible things in the world, some of which are our own doing, that cannot be overcome and that ultimately, we will lose the battle.
Do it anyway.
Unrelated Book: 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage by John Gottman.
The unrelated song(s) for this blog is completely related. This video was not taken by me but this IS the performance I attended. Scroll to 2:30 for what I think is one of the best parts.