Advice for the End of the World

Advice for the End of the World

For former Jezebel staffer Ellie Shechet, it is nearly always time to freak out. Doom—personal, professional, planetary—awaits, beckoning at the wings. No one has exactly asked for her advice, but we gave her a column anyway. Advice for the End of the World is a limited edition advice column for catastrophic thinkers, by a catastrophic thinker, in a time of looming catastrophe. Here are her thoughts.

Ellie! Help!

I’m so convinced that the end of the world is imminent that I keep looking at my boyfriend and thinking, “I wonder what it will be like to watch you die of thirst… if I don’t go first.” Am I worrying too much, or just being real with myself?

“Am I worrying too much or just being real with myself?” is really the defining question of these darkening times, isn’t it? It’s also a question that most experienced neurotics have eventually backed into and then continued to back into, over and over again, like a dying Roomba.

First, I’d like to say: it’s sweet, honestly, that you are worried about watching your boyfriend die. If I were your boyfriend, I’d be flattered. If you are going to be consumed by the idea that those of us who don’t get immediately trampled (i.e. me) in the Absolute Worst War of 2035 will probably die in some slow horrible way, it’s nice that you are thinking of your boyfriend before yourself. However, do you really want to spend your time focusing on this, rather than reveling in the fact that your boyfriend is so, so hot and very alive and probably not thirsty at all right at this moment?

The interesting thing about thoughts is that they are both optional and completely dedicated to tricking you into believing they are not optional. In my vast experience, worries can be particularly sticky and bulky, like a 7-year-old bully covered in dried juice with his face shoved so close to yours that he appears, in that moment, to be the entire universe.

Worries are almost always both reasonable and stupid; they are magical in that way, a kind of “freeze!” spell we cast on ourselves. One can have a somewhat realistic worry—what if my child gets Lyme disease whilst rolling in a leaf pile in Maine, what if I get laid off, what if that shitty thing I did has caused so-and-so to think I’m shitty—but by spending too much time with it, or allowing it to rest too heavily upon our turgid gut, it becomes stifling; less of a thought than a thick wool blanket on a 100-degree night.

I’m not sure, honestly, if it’s worth your time to be overwhelmingly frightened about the end of the world, unless this concern spurs you into some kind of positive community or nature-oriented action. If the latter is likely, then please, by all means, freak out; it would be cool if more people were losing their minds in a useful way, rather than just gazing forlornly into the sunken eye holes of our triple-aged FaceApp portraits.

It would be cool if more people were losing their minds in a useful way, rather than just gazing forlornly into the sunken eye holes of our triple-aged FaceApp portraits.

But this trickling, helpless, primarily interpersonal sense of impending doom, of which I believe you are speaking, is very familiar to me, and I’m not convinced that it’s entirely useful to anyone. When the world “ends”—in the event of some immediate all-at-once conflagration—in addition to wishing we’d, um, done something about it, we’ll probably wish we’d spent more time doing nice things for people, or appreciating how weird turtles are (they live in BOXES), or enjoying a taco with our boyfriends without worrying about what they’ll look like as a dehydrated husk of a man.

Ellie! Help!

What if I choose to have a baby and I do it too early and I never get those unencumbered years of my life back? What if I choose to have a baby and do it too late and I miscarry or my baby has some sort of genetic issue and I feel like it’s my fault for waiting? What if I choose not to have a baby and regret it?

I completely relate to this spin-out you’re having here, and have asked these questions many times myself, which is why I feel I can bluntly say: please put down that copy of Motherhood by Sheila Heti (never personally read it, heard great things, would love to read it, as I am in the appropriate age range, thank you so much). As a wise woman named Madeleine Davies once told me, if you believe in the existence of consequence-free decisions, you’re going to feel bad about every choice. That’s probably all you need to know, at the moment.

Anyway, by the time you’re ready to have kids, if you decide that’s something you’d like to do, we might all be dead, or floating through space in tiny ships being gently nudged towards nirvana by a flock of spiritually advanced aliens, or entirely infertile as a species.

Ellie! Help!

If I haven’t had a long-term relationship worth adapting into a screenplay by 30, am I destined to be a solo artist forever?

God, I hope not. I know you probably don’t mean for this question to be taken earnestly, but the root of what you’re asking, which you do mean and are wondering, isn’t so wild. It’s shockingly easy to be single, and “forever,” as anyone over 25 can attest, moves quickly. One could very swiftly conclude that an entire life spent alone is in the cards. Like, may we please be dramatic for one moment? May we please panic? This is scary! The world doesn’t owe us anything! We could just choke on a turmeric capsule and die and that’s it!

As a person approaching 30 myself, my own dating history can feel clownish, filled with flings and false starts and casual whatevers and piles of men that I have deemed unworthy for probably bad reasons and around zero long-term partnerships. I can’t offer wisdom from The Other Side; I’m still figuring this out. This column, in general, is for commiserating (and hopefully, coping).

Are we cyborgs? Are we just awful? And yet, awful people fall in love every day. Does that mean we are especially awful?

So, yes, it can be anxiety-inducing to feel like you’re failing at something intuitive. Are we cyborgs? Are we just awful? And yet, awful people fall in love every day. Does that mean we are especially awful? It’s easy to feel like a victim of yourself—to believe that there is some terrible honking demon inside of you preventing you from becoming that glowing bitch at the barbecue, set suddenly at ease by the stabilizing love of another. “Wow!” everyone would say, if not for, sadly, this dark passenger hiding out in your esophagus. “They are really coming into their own, thanks to their amazing relationship!”

For me (and I think possibly for you, judging by the framing of your question), all of this can quickly take on the air of a high-stakes performance. We start to worry about how it looks that we’re still single, what it means about us; we begin to see coupledom as a crown, or a glowing box that reads “CHECK ME ASAP OR ELSE I GUESS YOU’RE A NIGHTMARE.” It’s hard to shake this worldview when our culture remains determined to celebrate relationships as a marker of normalcy, and when we watch as, one by one, our peers scoot on down the shiny road of healthy adulthood—renting affordable one-bedrooms, planting gardens, adopting dogs and relaxed expressions, getting married, getting toasted, getting shiny tangerine Le Creuset dutch ovens that you would frankly also like to own.

You can know, on an intellectual level, that a lot of these people are no happier than you are, that some of them are putting on a show of their own, and that some of their relationships are weird and depressing; it doesn’t matter. You want it. It’s an understandable impulse, but it can also get kind of intense and grabby and solipsistic, and it’s possible that whoever you’re dating at the moment will not feel particularly seen. Which is all anyone really wants.

I don’t know why you’re single; maybe it’s mostly circumstantial, maybe you’ve dated some real turds, maybe it’s a blend of a million reasons. I am no oracle, and I cannot say if a lifetime of solo artistry is in your future. But if you’re asking for my advice (and I’m not sure if you are but I’d like to continue), the best approach probably has something do with becoming—or, in the face of repeated disappointment, remaining—open, which is not so much an action as a herculean shift in perspective.

We’re all flawed, but for most people, openness requires a certain acceptance of the fact that there’s nothing massively bad or wrong inside of you that you must keep tabs on at all times. That belief—particularly hard to avoid for those who have danced with rejection and/or solitude—tends to turn our relationships with ourselves into a corrosive exercise in stage management, and it trains us to feel suspicious of anyone who might want to get involved in such a cursed production. It keeps us locked out of the world, lost in a murky narrative. Having spent some time in there myself, I can say: you’re probably not going to make any interesting discoveries.

I realize that I am basically suggesting you try “living in the moment.” But there are only a few true things, and most of them are saccharine and cliché, and everybody needs to get over it. Anyway, this is actually an easy skill to practice, particularly outside of a dating context. Personally, being a millennial, I’ve been spending a lot of time staring at plants. Jenny Odell recommends birds. Ultimately, our individual lives are small and not so serious, and the more we can stay in touch with that sense of levity, and keep our attention trained on whatever or whoever is sitting right in front of us, the more three-dimensional our experiences—and relationships—will become.

(In the meantime, I feel like I should remind you: singlehood, and also angst, are essentially fountains of creativity. Relationships can be boring, I hear. If nothing else, going on dates is a nice way to learn about the behaviors and idiosyncrasies of other people—especially if you are, say, interested in writing a novel, or a screenplay. Just a thought.)

Feeling melodramatic? Frantic, even? Email Ellie at [email protected] with “Ellie! Help!” in the subject line. If you need actual help, please reach out to a therapist or medical professional.

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