The End of Pessimism

How I was transformed by becoming a parent in apocalyptic times.

Collage of a glass divided into two pieces, the top half a child's drawing of two children saying hi through walkie talkies and the bottom a dark glass.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Kosolovskyy/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Angelo Abear/Unsplash.

My son has a dinosaur’s tooth mounted in a frame over his bed. We bought it in Edinburgh, in a little shop in the Old Town that sells fossils. The tooth once belonged to a Spinosaurus that lived out its days in what is nowadays Morocco. It cost me 25 pounds, which seemed surprisingly affordable for something that had been around since the late Cretaceous period. Beneath the tooth, on the white cardboard to which it’s affixed, are these words in my own slightly cramped hand: Dinosaur Tooth, Spinosaurus Aegypticus, 69 Million Years Old.

Sometimes when I’m kissing my son goodnight, or reading him a story, I look up at it and am struck by the sheer oddity of its presence in his bedroom, alongside the various pictures around it—a robot, some rabbits, a raccoon playing the fiddle—this curved incisor from a 60-foot-long carnivore that went extinct millions of years before our own species appeared on the Earth. It’s the cheap Ikea frame that does it, I think: this remnant of a former world contained in so representative an artifact of our own. I look at it, and time telescopes forward in my mind, and I imagine the whole thing—ancient tooth, slightly less ancient frame—constituting a single compound relic, perhaps mounted somewhere in yet another frame, in a place and time completely inconceivable from the vantage of our own. Wood and Plastic Frame, Northern European Origin, 50 million years old; Dinosaur Tooth, 119 Million Years Old. 

During the two years or so I spent researching a book I was writing on the apocalyptic mood of our time—a project that brought me to New Zealand, to the Scottish Highlands, to South Dakota, and to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone—the world often gave me cause to remember the damage we were doing to it, and ourselves, with our voracious consumption of fossilized matter. I was not unaware of the irony of my flying to all these places, consuming in the process more than my fair share of fossilized matter, in the interest of this inquiry into apocalyptic anxieties.

Further ironies were in store. In the weeks leading up to the book’s publication, a global pandemic ensured that the apocalypse was trending at unprecedented levels. In those early days of the new viral dispensation, I began to see myself not only as a potential victim but as a potential vector—an unwitting transmitter, contributing as blithely to our collapse with the touch of a door handle as with the booking of a flight or the purchase of a cheap Ikea frame.

There is no way of contemplating the catastrophe of our way of life from the outside. There is no outside. I myself am the apocalypse of which I speak.

For many years, I considered myself a pessimist. This is not to say that my own experience of life was a miserable one. I was, broadly speaking, a happy and fortunate person for whom the world had laid on a great many privileges and benefits. But to the extent that I could claim to have a basic philosophical position, it was that life, for most people in most places, was characterized by terrible suffering, for no good reason, and that it was unlikely to get any better over time, and that it was therefore on balance probably more trouble than it was worth. Throughout my 20s and into my 30s, the writers who seemed to me to possess the truest vision of the world, who seemed to speak to me out of the deepest wisdom and authority, were those who most firmly denounced the possibility of hope, who rejected most thoroughly the idea that life might be on aggregate a good thing.

In the black gleam of Schopenhauer’s prose, I saw a particular reflection of the world’s true darkness. Certain passages of his struck me, in those days, with the fierce clarity of a divine decree. Lines like these, from On the Suffering of the World:

In early youth we sit before the impending course of our life like children at the theatre before the curtain is raised, who sit in happy and excited expectation of the things that are to come. It is a blessing that we do not know what will actually come. For to the man who knows, the children may at times appear to be like innocent delinquents who are condemned not to death, but to life, and have not yet grasped the purport of their sentence.

Who could argue with such a bracing bleakness, such a brave and rigorous rejection of the world? I for one felt no inclination to do so. Every glance at a newspaper, at the scrolling abyss of my Twitter timeline, was a reaffirmation that everything was both as awful as possible and somehow getting steadily worse. Pessimism seemed the only reasonable position to take in relation to it all—to the relentless degradation of the natural world, the wars and the disasters and the random acts of perverse violence and insanity.

Given the world, given the situation, the question that remains is whether having children is a statement of hope, an insistence on the beauty and meaningfulness and basic worth of being here, or an act of human sacrifice? Or is it perhaps some convoluted entanglement of both, a sacrifice of the child—by means of incurring its birth—to the ideal of hope? You want to believe that it is you who has done your children a favor by “giving” them life, but the reverse is at least as true, and probably more so.

You want to believe that you are doing a good thing, and that it might mean something to be doing it. And it can’t be ruled out, even at this late stage, that you are not wrong to believe these things.

Because the truth is that, for me, the experience of parenthood has meant a radically increased stake in the future. It’s not simply that I care about the world in a way I somehow didn’t before I had children, but rather that the future has become a realer and more intimate presence in my life, something in relation to which I no longer feel inclined to take abstract positions. I no longer feel the definitive force of pessimism as a philosophy. Statements of hopelessness, no matter how elegantly formulated, no longer sound quite the same tone of authority and wisdom. Which is not to say that I have become an optimist, or anything even close, but simply that life no longer seems to afford me the luxury of submitting to the comfort of despair.

There have been a lot of opportunities for despair these last weeks. Sometimes I have taken them, but mostly I have not. In Ireland, where we live, the thing that seemed at first most unbearable to me about lockdown was the thought of how long it might be until my son saw his friends again. A few days in, we celebrated his seventh birthday, and I found myself wondering whether he might be 8 before he got to play with his friends. Would they feel strange around each other when they finally met again, would they have grown apart? How much taller would they all be? These were the thoughts, in those first days, that brought me close to tears.

And then, on the afternoon of my son’s birthday, there was a knock on the door, and on the doorstep was a bag containing a walkie-talkie and a birthday card. It was from his friend Mila, who lives across the street from us, and who had got her dad to drop the bag outside our house. She had made the card herself, and she had drawn a picture of him and her in their separate houses speaking into their walkie-talkies, with a long line of text stretching across the street saying, “HI HI HI HI HI HI HI HI.” The following day, I was working in the spare room, and I heard him roaring into the walkie-talkie. “Hi Mila! Do you miss your friends? Over!” I could hear her answer, too: “Hi Mike. Yes, I miss my friends. How about you? Over.” I didn’t feel hopeless. I still felt sad, but I was also laughing.

There are times when I forget that I’m supposed to be thinking about the end of days, that I’m supposed to be channeling the apocalyptic energies of our time, metabolizing the unease, the fleeting visions of disintegration and dissolution. There are times when I live only in the present, and it is a good place for the time being.

One evening a while back, we were driving home after a visit to my wife’s parents. There was very little traffic, and the children were quiet in the back of the car. Our son was playing with a Ninja Turtle, stretching its rubbery arms as far as they would go, sustaining as he played a happy stream of self-contained chatter, half-lucid trash talk, threats and counterthreats. His infant sister was asleep beside him. At some point, I became aware that he had stopped talking, that he was being unusually quiet. I glanced in the rearview mirror, and saw that he was gazing out the window.

“Look at the sky,” he said.

The air was illuminated by the setting sun, by a lurid spillage of purples and pinks and oranges, spreading and deepening. It was one of those spectacles only nature could have successfully pulled off. If anyone else had tried it, it would have looked garish and tasteless. By rights it should have been an aesthetic catastrophe, but somehow it was working.

“It’s so beautiful,” he said.

His mother and I both agreed that it was lovely.

For a while then we said nothing, and he continued to stare out the window at the blaze of color.

“And it’s very interesting,” he said.

I waited for him to elaborate, but he seemed content to leave it at that. I had never heard him use the word interesting in quite this way before, and I’d never known him to take much note of the sky. This was something new. He was right, I thought: It was very interesting. And I was very glad that he thought so.