The Weight of the Future
Why The Apocalypse Can Be A Relief
I like thinking about a zombie apocalypse.
Given the popularity of the genre in film, tv, and video games, I’m not the only one.
It’s fun - thinking about the resources I’d need to acquire, the plans I’d make, what locations provide fortification and food, and of course it’s always pleasant to entertain heroic fantasies about blasting apart the undead.
Such daydreams have always been accompanied, in my own experience, with a curious sense of relief, and it’s this sense that I want to talk about.
The Popular Apocalypse
Why are apocalyptic scenarios so popular?
Perhaps the question has an empirical answer. I could imagine correlating interest in apocalyptic fiction with real-world surveys of general sentiment or news headlines, generating evidence that our fiction explores a future in ruins because that’s where people believe we’re headed.
But I don’t quite think that’s the answer.
Apocalyptic thinking is old - really old. The Book of Revelations in the bible, old.
So what draws people to thinking that the world is ending?
And in this day and age, what is enjoyable about that thought? In an age of comfort and predictability, where I know where my next meal is coming from for the next ten years, why is it such a relief to imagine all of that safety and certainty disappearing in the fires of calamity?
Why do I find it pleasant to imagine a world that is, on any objective metric, terrible to live in?
The Present Future
If you’re reading this, odds are you know what you’re doing for the rest of day.
You probably have a concrete idea of how the rest of the week will go.
The rest of the month, too.
Maybe you even have a five-year plan. A ten-year plan?
A thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage?
Do you put money into a retirement account you won’t be able to use for decades? Do you have some idea of how you want to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries that are years in the future?
In modern day America, for me at least, the future is an ever-present concern, and has been since childhood.
In primary school it was all about getting good grades, not just to get them but because I needed good grades to get into a good college, preferably with a scholarship. In college I needed to do well to get a good job. At my job I need to do well to get promoted.
And so on.
One of the greatest triumphs of science and progress is the safety of knowing there’s a very large chance you’ll live to grow old, so large that it becomes the default path for one’s life to take. Yet the increase of years to live also necessitates an increase in years to plan for.
One’s youth is spent preparing to face adulthood, one’s adulthood is spent planning for retirement, and one’s retirement is spent preparing to die.
I spend time every day thinking about the future.
The future, in other words, is present, even in the present. It has a tangible presence, one that can be felt long before any actual future comes to pass.
And that, I believe, is what makes apocalyptic scenarios so seductive: they involve no future beyond the immediate.
The Weight of the Future, Gone
When the apocalypse hits, the future vanishes.
All those bills lying on the kitchen table? Irrelevant.
Concerns about passing a midterm exam or climbing the corporate ladder? Meaningless.
Anxiety about the economy and whether you have enough saved for retirement? Smoke on the breeze.
When the apocalypse hits, the only thing that matters is right now. The current moment. “Are you or are you not zombie chow?” is a question with a definitive and concrete answer. There’s no need to wait or study or prepare or plan.
Beyond the immediate concern of being masticated by the undead, what else is there? The next minute, hour, day, perhaps, but that’s it. It’s a timescale that humans have dealt with since we’ve existed, long before the 401k and other investment vehicles allowed us to contemplate how we might spend our time half a century in the future.
The future can be experienced as a magnificent, wide-open field of promise and potential just waiting to be tapped, but I personally experience it more as a weight that must constantly be carried. How much lighter would I feel, how unburdened would my shoulders be, I wonder, without the years ahead to way them down?
The Sober Reality
Of course, in reality, I’m quite glad I have a future to plan for. There are plenty of people who don’t.
The time we have alive - the future I describe as heavy - is a luxury bought by all the wonders of technology and civilization, and it is well worth the cost of its weight. The absence of said wonders isn’t some kind of freedom; it’s a prison of poverty and sickness and quiet desperation.
It’s still nice to imagine, if only in an idle daydream, the thought of not having to be concerned with anything except the present moment.
Even if said moment does include a zombie trying to eat your brain.
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