Advice for the End of the World: Simulations, Flesh-Eating Bacteria, and the Meaning of Happiness

Advice for the End of the World: Simulations, Flesh-Eating Bacteria, and the Meaning of Happiness

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!

How much of a threat is flesh-eating bacteria?

Judging by the sheer number of headlines on my Google News search, it is so much a threat. Could not be more of a threat. Can I go one hour without hearing about flesh-eating bacteria? I think not. It is interesting and horrible, the thought that the planet, in her rage, is eating us alive.

Luckily, Alex Harris at the Miami Herald recently reported on this, so here’s the basic scoop. We’re generally talking about two things: Vibrio vulnificus, the actual “flesh-eating bacteria,” which emerges in salt water, and Naegleria fowleri—the “brain-eating amoeba”—which hangs out in fresh water. They both like heat, and climate change is making the water warmer; hence, cases are increasing, though both are still highly rare.

The flesh-eating bacteria has a mortality rate of about 25 percent, treatable with “hardcore” antibiotics. There were 92 cases in 2018 and 2019, and 20 people died. The brain-eating amoeba has a mortality rate of… uh… about 97 percent, but it is very preventable: just hold your nose in warm freshwater (it doesn’t hurt to drink it). And it is, again, incredibly rare, which is partly why it draws headlines; the scarcity of cases is also why it’s hard to treat. Worrying about getting a brain-eating amoeba is like “worrying about falling into a volcano,” The Atlantic’s Haley Weiss wrote.

So the threat is small, but it’s definitely not, let’s say, low-key. When asked by the Miami Herald if Vibrio actually eats your flesh, a public health professor replied:

“Short answer, yes. Long answer, define eating,” Rusk said.

Great. And the brain-eating amoeba?

“It’s an apt name,” said Dennis Kyle, a cellular biology professor at the University of Georgia. “They literally do that.”


Ellie! Help!

How happy am I supposed to be? Wait, no, don’t hang up—I mean it. This is an honest to god real question. How am I supposed to figure out how happy I am compared to everyone else? And then, how am I supposed to fix it if the answer is “less happy” or am I supposed to feel bad if the answer is “more happy”? Like is everyone else happier than me because they’re working harder at it? Or is everyone else more miserable than me but complaining less because they are more stoic? How good should life actually be? And don’t you dare tell me to not worry about it.

I asked around to find out who’s happy, but I didn’t want to ask anyone who I know is having a hard time—can you imagine?—so I’m not sure if the answers I got were representative. One friend told me she’s pretty happy in her day-to-day, temperamentally, but was quick to note that she is “miserable overall”—meaning she is aware of the general badness of things but manages to feel okay anyway. Great! Another friend, who I think is doing quite well in life, said: “When my anxiety doesn’t manifest in dizziness, chronic pain, or dissociation, yes!”

“I feel like my life is going reasonably well but I’m also generally negative about things, not sure where that puts me,” a third friend texted. I asked how her dog was doing.

“She had a really good day,” my friend replied. “She swallowed an entire steak whole, and she ate a two-year-old’s ice cream. I think she’s happy. Yesterday she ate my contact lens.”

Maybe it’s just a my-own-personal-group-of-friends thing, but I find it notable that, when asked directly, people will often complicate their own happiness. Feeling amazing is not that relatable, possibly, but more importantly, happiness goes up and down and in and out and it’s hard to really measure or trust as a static entity. Online, we just dial it up to an unambiguous 100, and everyone’s confused.

When asked directly, people will often complicate their own happiness.

I really don’t want to tell you not to worry about it, because you told me not to, and also because I think this is something that bothers a lot of people (including me). But we probably do all need to let go of the idea that life “should” be any sort of way. Your question—and I say this with love and recognition—is somewhat torturously wound around a logic of comparison and includes no information about what’s actually going on for you. You’re not asking me how to be happy, but wondering about your status (something people have always been wont to do, and are now ever more wont to do) is a guaranteed road towards feeling like shit.

I’m a hypocrite and don’t always follow this advice, but here is what you can do to escape this futile path of inquiry: figure out what makes you feel rooted, force yourself to do those things, and feel grateful that you can—even the initially unpleasant or schleppy or challenging things, like working really hard on something, or spending time in nature, or organizing a social gathering, or eating your owner’s contact lenses, or signing up for a volunteering project. And if you’re already doing that, then great! You might be happier than you think.

I’ll give you another pet analogy. I’m home in Kentucky right now visiting my family, and I am watching my cat, Bunny, trundle happily through the grass. Bunny used to live with me in New York in a small apartment, where he had few activities with which to occupy himself and no animal friends or access to the outside world. It is unclear what Bunny was thinking, but sitting inside his own brain almost certainly took up 99.9% of his day. He had several health issues, for which I was constantly taking him to the vet, and, although I was an obsessed and devoted mother, he would occasionally stare off into the distance and scream. He was not a cat that roommates enjoyed, and I could not afford to live alone, so I eventually brought him to stay with his grandparents.

Now, dislodged from the tyranny of the self, Bunny is a new man. Bunny does not think; Bunny does. Bunny trots around the yard, keeping tabs on the general state of things. Bunny sniffs the soil. Bunny watches cicadas. Bunny catches chipmunks and fails to fully kill them, upsetting everyone in the vicinity. Bunny is content.

Bunny does not think; Bunny does.

I am not comparing you to Bunny. I don’t know if you’re afflicted with mysterious rashes, I assume you do not smell like poop, I’ll bet you have some great friends and hobbies, and I’m certain you are not unpleasant to live with. What I’m saying is, basically: I think you should delete your Instagram account.

Ellie! Help!

Some predictions indicate the earth will become uninhabitable by the end of this century. The natural deaths of many millennials (+/- a generation or two) then would coincide with the end of the world anyway. Does this suggest that we are in one big solipsistic simulation and perhaps EVERY single conscious life form perceives the impending end of the world as coinciding with the end of their world? (I believe this and just want some backup.)

This question is difficult for me to follow as someone whose critical understanding of simulation theory amounts to, basically: Things are so weird right now, seems a little unreal! But I think one of the things you are implicitly asking here is: “Am I the only one who exists?” And the answer is no, because I, actually, am the only one who exists. I have it on good authority and here is why:

1. I keep accidentally walking into traffic and not getting hit by a car (let’s all knock on wood).

2. I believe that saying “knock on wood” will prevent me from getting hit by a car.

3. Sometimes I have déjà-vu.

4. I think my cat (Bunny, from above) understands what I’m thinking.

5. Something about me, I don’t know, feels important?

Think about it!

Again, I’m really skating around the corners of this philosophical minefield, but speaking broadly, it does seem to me that there is possibly nothing more solipsistic than the belief that we are living in a simulation run by advanced versions of ourselves. Now, I am not judging you, or even fully disagreeing with you. I love wondering if we are in a simulation. Love it. When I see a chyron on CNN that’s like, “SOURCE: PRESIDENT LONELY, ANGRY”, I absolutely feel, in that moment, that we are trapped inside a climaxing video game. But it also seems like highly convenient thinking, the idea that we aren’t responsible for any of this, and that we aren’t in the process of losing something singular.

Anyway, it conflicts with a way more fun theory of life, which is that the mushrooms are in charge.

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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