We’ve never met before, but I was in the audience at your keynote at SXSW in March. SXSW 2008 was the eighth SXSW I’ve attended, and I’ve been to many panels and many keynotes, but yours has been the only one during which I cried.
SXSW is often a rather stressful event for me, so this year at SXSW I gave myself a set of rules to keep myself from getting depressed, from getting too stressed out, from–well, from crying. But I didn’t cry during your keynote for any of my usual reasons, and I didn’t cry any other times during the conference, so I’m going to give myself a pass and call this year’s SXSW a success.
Your keynote made me cry for the same reason I had to stop visiting your website. You may not be too happy to hear about that, but it’s not your fault. PostSecret is a wonderful project, but I had to stop reading the website because it made me too sad. My small corner of the world–my job, my city, my hobbies, my friends, my family–is about all I can handle sometimes, and reading PostSecret reminded me that the world is much larger than I’ll ever be able to understand. Every single person has their own small corner of the world like mine, a corner they probably feel like they can’t handle any more than I can, and all those corners with their beautiful and terrible and painful secrets are sometimes too much for me to bear. I’ll never know any of these people, and the enormity of that frightens me a little.
The secrets also worry me because they make me wonder about the people I do know. Do my friends or family members have terrible secrets they’ll never tell me? How well can you ever really know another person?
Here’s the thing, though: that concept goes both ways. I’m as complicated as any other human being, aren’t I? How well do my friends and family know me? And that’s the other reason I cried during your keynote. You see, Frank Warren, I have a secret.
When I told my therapist about my secret, I expected him to look surprised. I thought he would put down his Diet Dr. Pepper, lean forward in his chair and say, “Really? Tell me more.” But he didn’t. Instead he just said, “Oh. Yeah.” I get the feeling that I share this secret with others.
I guess my secret can best be described as a debilitating, all-encompassing fear of an apocalypse. But it’s not the kind of apocalypse you see in movies where Bill Pullman is the president and Jeff Goldblum is the scientist and the aliens/dinosaurs/meteors are coming to kill us all. It’s the kind where we’re going to run out of oil, we’re going to run out of food, we’re going to run out of money, we’re going to run out of places to keep all the people and garbage and stuff we’ve created.
When gripped with apocalypse fear, I run through the same scenario over and over again in my head. It’s pretty ridiculous; are you ready to hear it? Okay. In the apocalyptic scenario, I’m sixty years old, and somehow I’m still living in the same apartment I do now. (I don’t really like this apartment, and I know I won’t be living in it when I’m sixty. Hell, it probably won’t even be here when I’m sixty. But that’s the scenario, so I go with it.) I’m sixty, and I live in this apartment, and BAM! The world runs out of gasoline, electricity, and food, all in the span of hours. There’s anarchy outside, and I’m alone in my apartment. Most of my friends don’t live nearby, so I have no way to get to them if I don’t want to walk really, really far. But then I think, hey! I have some gas left in my car, probably enough to get me to a friend’s house, and then we can all go find food together. So I walk out to the parking lot where my 1996 Acura is still there and functional, and BAM! Someone kills me for a tank of gas.
I know that what I’ve done here is taken all my worst fears and combined them into a single ten-minute play. I’m afraid I’ll never live in a place I actually like, I’m afraid I’ll be chained to my car forever, I’m afraid I’ll always be a fifteen-minute drive away from my friends, I’m afraid we’re going to run out of everything all at once and there’ll be anarchy, and I’m afraid my death will be painful, lonely, and meaningless.
Sometimes the play has a different ending. Sometimes my apartment neighbors and I band together in the crisis. We used to be strangers, but now we’re friends by necessity, and we protect each other and look for food together and take turns going down to the creek to get water. We fend off hostile groups from other apartments with pointy sticks and old kitchen knives, and at night one of us always keeps watch while the others sleep. It’s okay for awhile, but then I die of heat stroke and sunburn.
Or sometimes I manage to walk all the way to a friend’s house, and my friends and I band together to help each other stay safe and get food and water and sleep. But then someone from a rival group kills our leader, and we’re all so despondent and directionless that we disband, and then someone kills me for a tank of gas while I’m dying of heat stroke and sunburn.
But usually I’m killed for the gas right away. I’ve begun to use the phrase, “when someone kills me for a tank of gas” as shorthand for the whole thing. “My inability to be productive won’t really matter when someone kills me for a tank of gas.” “It’s okay if I watch TV all day because it won’t make a difference when someone kills me for a tank of gas.” “This problem will seem insignificant by the time someone kills me for a tank of gas.”
The shorthand is necessary, though, because not a day goes by when I don’t think about my apocalypse fear. I can’t go to the grocery store without imagining what it might look like with empty shelves. I can’t check my mailbox without imagining all my junk mail in a landfill. I can’t visit Houston without imagining it flooded with seawater from melted ice. I can’t look at paper plates and plastic forks without thinking about our “consumption-based culture in which disposability is an added value.” I can’t look at my coworkers and acquaintances without thinking, “Do they know? Can they see it coming?” My corner of the world may look normal on the outside, but inside my head it’s covered with a sticky film of impending disaster.
My apocalypse fear came to a head last summer and fall. I was having at least one anxiety attack per day, usually while driving home from work, usually related to the fact that I work in a far-flung suburb of a city without a lot of reliable public transportation. I would find myself paralyzed with guilt at all the gas I was wasting getting to and from work, and equally paralyzed at the thought of having to ride both the bus and my bicycle to the office every day. Then I would feel guilty about not wanting to ride the bus, and then guilty about wasting the gas, and on and on until sometimes I wasn’t really watching the road anymore. “That’s okay,” I would think to myself. “This won’t matter when someone kills me for a tank of gas.”
(When I find myself thinking this way, I’m reminded of a comment someone left on a post I wrote on my website awhile back. I’d had a bad day, and I wrote that it seemed to me like nothing I did was ever going to matter in the grand scope of human existence, so what the hell was the point. Someone named John wrote, “The sun’s going to go out in a million years, and here I am going to work like a sucker.” It was exactly how I felt that day, and it was exactly how I felt last fall.)
I didn’t tell anyone about my fear for a really long time. Running out of food and gasoline and electricity and potable water is a scary topic, and I didn’t want to depress my friends. I was afraid that they’d hear about what I was going through and say, “Alison, I don’t really want to talk about that right now.” Worse, I was afraid they would tell me that I was wrong, that all that stuff is never going to happen, that it’s pointless to worry about it. As I’m pretty sure it’s all going to happen at some point, hearing that would only have made me feel even more alone. And I already felt really alone. The collapse of Western civilization isn’t something I’d ever heard anyone talk about in casual conversation, so naturally I assumed that everyone else a) didn’t know, or b) knew but was handling it much better than I was.
Things all came to a head in December. I’d been obsessing over the apocalypse since June or July, I hadn’t told anyone, and it was driving me so insane that I was probably thisclose to buying a gun and putting all my savings under my mattress. A few weeks before Christmas, I had a friend over. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I guess I couldn’t hold my worry and fear in anymore, and all of a sudden I was telling him that we were running out of food and water and electricity and someone was going to kill me for a tank of gas. To my great surprise, he didn’t tell me he didn’t want to talk about it, and he didn’t tell me my fears were unfounded. Instead he listened, and asked questions, and was generally sympathetic to what I was going through. I guess I don’t give my friends enough credit.
After I finally told someone about it, I started to feel a bit better. At SXSW I told another friend, who said that he thinks about it, too. Then I told another friend, who said that it’s something she and her mom have talked about. And that, Frank Warren, is why I think PostSecret is important, even if I can’t read it myself. To take your secret out of your own head and put it somewhere else is often the thing that separates you from insanity. I still see the world through empty shelves and plastic bags and non-renewable resources and the wasting, wasting, wasting of everything, but talking about it has made living in that world a little bit easier.
P.S. Other good has come out of this, too. I’m becoming much more aware of what I buy and what I throw away, I’ve mostly stopped eating meat, and I’m working on chipping away at my gas usage. It’s a slow process, but if I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that I won’t do anyone any good if I sit back and let it drive me insane.
P.P.S. I know that we’re not going to run out of food and water and oil all at the same time. I also know that thirty years from now is a debatable, perhaps even arbitrary, figure. My fears are just that, fears, and I don’t put them through an accuracy test before I let them take over.
P.P.P.S. I would never really buy a gun. You know that, right?
P.P.P.P.S. Thank you Ryan and Ariel.