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In which John plays the why game before discovering that he is in the vast shade of a sycamore tree.

You can listen to this and every episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed wherever you get your podcasts. This review was edited by Stan Muller. The music was composed by Hannis Brown. Jenny Lawton and Rosianna Halse Rojas produced it. Joe Plourde was the technical director. It was written by me.

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(0:00~0:35) My children like to play an age old game with me called "Why". I'll tell them for instance that I need them to finish breakfast, and they'll say "Why?" And I'll say, "So you can receive adequate nutrition and hydration." And they'll say, "Why?" And I'll say, "Because as your parent I feel obligated to protect your health." And they'll say, "Why?" And I'll say, "Ah, I mean partly because I love you, and partly because of evolutionary imperatives baked into my biology." And they'll say, "Why?" And I'll say, "Because the species wants to go on." And they'll say, "Why?"

(0:36~1:07) And I'll pause for a long time, before saying, "I don't know, I guess I believe in spite of it all that the human enterprise has value." And then, there will be a silence. A blessed and beautiful silence will spread across the breakfast table. I might even see a kid pick up a fork. And then, just as the silence seems ready to take off its coat and stay awhile, one of my kids will say, "Why?" 

(1:08~1:39) My brain likes to play a somewhat similar game. The game is called, "What's Even The Point?" There's an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem I've quoted in two of my novels, and will now quote again, because I've never come across anything that describes my depressive blizzards so perfectly: "The chill is in the air," the poem begins. "Which the wise know well, and even have learned to bear. This joy, I know, Will soon be under snow."

(1:40~2:05) I'm in an airport, when suddenly I feel the chill in the air. What's even the point? I'm about to fly to Milwaukee on a Tuesday afternoon, about to herd with other moderately intelligent apes into a tube that will spew a truly astonishing amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, in order to transport us from one population center to a different one.

(2:06~2:32) Nothing that anyone has to do in Milwaukee really matters, because nothing really matters. There's no point to the human endeavor in the largest sense. We will leave no permanent legacy in this impermanent universe. And our central lasting contribution to Earth will be that we were the first species to grow powerful enough to muck up the planet. 

(2:33~3:09) When my mind starts playing "What's Even The Point", I can't find a point to making art, which is just using the finite resources of our planet to decorate. And I can't find a point to planting gardens, which is just inefficiently creating food that will sustain our useless vessels for a little while longer. And I can't find a point to falling love, which is just a desperate attempt to stave off the loneliness that you can never really solve for, because you are always alone in what Robert Penn Warren called, “the darkness, which is you.”

(3:10~3:38) Except, it's not really a darkness. It's much more worse than that. The writer Jacqueline Woodson has said that we need to consider carefully what we construct as dark, and she's right. When my brain plays "What's even the point?" what really descends upon me is a blizzard of blinding frozen white light. Being in the dark doesn't hurt, but this does. Like staring at the sun.

(3:39~3:58) That Millay poem refers to "the eye's bright trouble." It seems to me "the bright trouble" is the light you see the first time you open your eyes after birth. The light that makes you cry your first tears. The light that is your first and greatest fear. 

(3:59~4:17) What's even the point? All this trial and travail for what will become nothing, and soon. Sitting in this airport, I'm disgusted by my excesses, my failures, my pathetic attempts to forge some meaning or hope from the materials of this meaningless world.

(4:18~4:49) I’ve been tricking myself, thinking there was some reason for all of it, thinking that consciousness was a miracle when it’s really a burden, thinking that to be alive was wondrous when it’s really a terror. The plain fact, my brain tells me when it plays this game, is that the universe doesn’t care if I’m here. "Night falls fast", Millay wrote. "Today is in the past."

(4:50~5:36) The thing about this game is that once my brain starts playing it, I can’t figure out a way to get it to stop. Any defense I try to mount is destroyed instantaneously by the blinding light. It feels like the only way to survive life is to cultivate an ironic detachment from it. If I can’t be happy, I at least want to be cool. When my brain is playing "What’s Even the Point", hope feels so flimsy and naïve—especially in the face of the endless outrages and horrors of human life. What kind of mouth-breathing jackass looks at the state of human experience and responds with anything other than nihilistic despair?

(5:37~6:07) But of course the problem with despair is that it isn’t very productive. Like a replicating virus, all despair makes is more of itself. If playing "What’s Even the Point" made me a more committed advocate for justice or environmental protection, I’d be all for it. But the white light of despair instead renders me inert and apathetic. I struggle to do anything. I often can’t find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

(6:08~6:30) Philosophical questions—what’s the point of being alive, what should we seek from life, how can we know what we know, how and where should we seek meaning—are often dismissed as pointless. What’s the difference between a philosophy degree and a pepperoni pizza? The pepperoni pizza can feed a family of four. And so on.

(6:31~7:01) But I think those questions are genuinely important, because I need to be able to survive my mind playing "What’s Even the Point". I don’t want to give it to despair; I don’t want to take refuge in detached ridicule of unironized emotion. I don’t want to be cool, if cool means being cold to or distant from the reality of experience. I want to feel what there is to feel while I am here. 

(7:02~7:29) You don’t choose when your kids play the "Why" game, and you don’t choose when your brain plays "What’s Even the Point". It’s exhausting. It gets old so fast, listening to the elaborate prose of your brain tell you that you’re an idiot for even trying. When the game is being played, it feels like it will never end, like you will be in active combat with your brain for what remains of your wretched life.

(7:30~8:04) But no. No. Now always feels infinite and never is. You keep going. You go to therapy. You try a different medication. You meditate, even though you dislike meditation. You exercise. You wait. Your mind keeps playing "What’s Even the Point", and you keep refusing to give in to it—battling it with philosophy, and self-help books, and religion, and whatever else works.

(8:05~8:48) And then one day, the air is a bit warmer, and the sky is not so blindingly bright. It’s overcast, and you’re walking through a forested park with your children. Your nine-year-old points out two squirrels racing up an immense American Sycamore tree, its white bark peeling in patches, its leaves bigger than dinner plates. You think, my God that’s a beautiful tree. It must be a hundred years old, maybe more. Later, you’ll go home and read up on sycamores and learn that there are sycamore trees alive today that date back more than three hundred years, trees that are older than your nation.

(8:49~9:15) You’ll learn that George Washington once measured a sycamore tree that was over thirteen meters in circumference. You’ll read that Herodotus wrote 2,400 years ago that the Persian emperor Xerxes was marching his army through a grove of sycamore trees when he came across one of “such beauty that he was moved to decorate it with golden ornaments and to leave behind one of his soldiers to guard it.”

(9:16~9:47) But for now you’re just looking up at that tree, thinking about how it turned dirt and water and sunshine into wood and bark and leaves. How it turned nothing into a place where squirrels play, and you realize you are in the vast dark shade of this giant tree, and that’s the point. I give sycamore trees four and a half stars.