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A Brief Visit to the End of the World

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People mostly want the same thing, and many of us already have it, but we don’t really notice it.

I have no way of confirming this, but I bet that if you could interview people across different centuries and cultures, asking them what they wanted most, you would notice a distinct theme in their answers.

Some people would want great riches or power. Others would say they want something very specific: to invent a particular thing, or for a particular person to love them, or to win a gold medal or give an Oscar speech.

But I suspect most of them would say they want something like this:

I want to be able to do my work and spend time with my friends and family, free to live my own values in relative peace. I just want a fair chance to pursue love and happiness, and a stable, humble life.

You could call this “The Peacetime Dream”, a life with the normal share of ups and downs—necessarily including heartbreak, health issues, setbacks and disappointments—but which isn’t defined by war or persecution. Almost universally, people want basic stability and basic freedom, and to someone who doesn’t have those things they are clearly the best things in the world.

But to someone who does have those things, their greatness is not so clear. It’s easy to forget, or never notice at all, that many or most of us already have this state of affairs, more or less—certainly most people who read blogs in their spare time.

It’s also easy to forget that many (or most?) of history’s humans never had the Peacetime Dream. I wonder how many billions of individual human lives have been lived under tyrannical regimes, forced servitude, or during a war or a plague, or maybe all of those things.

I don’t know what your everyday worries are about, but I often worry about things like my work being criticized, the difficulty in making friends post-high-school, the ease of putting on weight at Christmas, the advance of age, the murkiness of our tax laws, and the declining quality of consumer products. 

One defining characteristic of all of these concerns, aside from their ability to dominate my mind on a regular basis, is that they would evaporate the instant my basic freedom and stability were threatened. If the power went out and it became clear that it wasn’t coming back on, suddenly few of our day-to-day worries wouldn’t matter much. All we would care about is regaining the Peacetime Dream, that relatively stable state of affairs that allows a person to build a life.

But when we live in the Peacetime Dream, and always have, we don’t even notice it. Imagine already having the one thing human beings most covet, and not knowing it. Our ability to take this foundation for granted is quite amazing. Even when I do worry about true horrors like incarceration, starvation and violence, I’m worrying on behalf of other people. I believe (without realizing it) that it will always be someone else who experiences them.

In those rare moments when you’re aware of the Peacetime Dream, to even go for a walk down the street is a joy. I remember being touched by a photo of a British Spitfire pilot crouching down to kiss the ground after a rough flight. Even if it’s right under our feet, we simply can’t see the value of what we have until we have some sense of being without it.

Noticing the ground we walk on

A friend and I were talking about living under catastrophe while playing Fallout 4, where a wholesome, 1950s-style America is razed by a nuclear war. The intro is a moving sequence in which a whole neighborhood rushes to an underground shelter, leaving televisions on and stoves lit—because suddenly one’s house burning down is a very minor thing—as the bombs ignite on the horizon and the sky turns orange.

It didn’t immediately occur to us that this could really happen (and in fact has). Thinking aloud, I said that European civilians in the 1940s, who watched their cities get bombed to rubble, must have been convinced at the time that the end of the world was actually arriving. My very smart friend replied that for a lot of people, the end of the world is exactly what it was.

This was a new thought to me. We tend to think of the something like the Second World War as an unthinkable series of atrocities that is thankfully over. But for about seventy million people, each viewing the proceedings from their own corner of the world, it truly was the apocalypse, the very end. The end of the world isn’t just something that will happen to our species someday. It is something that has happened, to real people.

Of course, when we talk about “the end of the world”, we don’t mean the destruction of the planet. That event is assured, but so is our absence for it. The sun will incinerate our blue marble in a few billion years, but that will be long after every trace of our history has been erased. (Well almost every trace.)

When we talk about the end of the world, we mean the loss of civilization as we know it—the collapse of everything dear and precious, everything that had ever seemed secure, right before our eyes. This is a real thing that happens sometimes.

I realize this sounds morbid. We don’t like to think about the end of the world. But that’s why we probably should, occasionally but deliberately. We are so attached to civilization, stability, and freedom that we don’t want to even imagine life without them. For that reason, we stop noticing these huge, essential pieces of our happiness, and we fill our heads with worries about the state of the smallest pieces—missed appointments, insensitive comments, and other day-to-day ephemera that probably won’t matter a month from now.

The Peacetime Dream is the holy grail of backdrops for a human life, and it is a peculiar tragedy that we still aren’t great at finding happiness in it. Ironically, what would perhaps help us most is to look out at our neighborhoods and picture what they might be like as ruins.

Reminding ourselves of the possibility of losing everything isn’t a new idea, but it isn’t especially popular. Alain de Botton often talks about reviving the Middle-Ages practice of keeping a human skull on one’s writing desk, which reportedly has a powerful clarifying effect on one’s priorities.

The occasional apocalyptic daydream is similarly powerful perspective exercise, a bit like looking up at the stars to remind you that your problems are a small part of the whole show. Taking twenty seconds to picture your surroundings as a post-apocalyptic ruin doesn’t sound pleasant, but it has a palpably liberating effect. Suddenly it seems significant that civilization is still happening—it turns out your timing was excellent.

Imagining the end of the world is the grand-scale version of my favorite gratitude practice: glancing at a loved one as though they’re gone and you’re only remembering them. The payoff isn’t in the morbid fantasy about loss, it’s the instant when you return from the daydream and recognize what you really have, that you’re living right in the middle of a fragile golden era. It’s unique and beautiful and will one day be gone, and you are fantastically lucky to be here for it.


(Some lovely end-of-the-world music for you to contemplate by.)

Photo by Joe Del Tufo
Sandra Pawula February 15, 2016 at 11:21 pm

A brilliant piece. Subtle discontentment to the point of not even noticing all the goodness in our lives is truly the bane of our existence. You draw it out so perfectly.

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 8:32 am

Thanks Sandra. There is a “treadmill” effect with every good thing we become accustomed to. Whatever’s normal becomes invisible.

Mike Crosby February 16, 2016 at 1:18 am

Key word–“humble”.

And with humility, naturally gratitude will follow. Your article was a beautiful way of describing Stoic’s “negative visualization”.

As a Christian, I used to be thankful and show my gratitude to god. When I became an atheist, it was a little difficult for me to experience gratitude because I had to no one to give gratitude to. Now I realize it doesn’t matter. We live in this tremendous universe and there’s much to be humble about and with that comes gratitude. As you say, a simple walk.

Thank you and wonderful piece.

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 8:36 am

The Stoics were so smart! It works on any scale too, from the end of the world to the end of the toilet paper roll. Gratitude abounds when you contemplate loss.

LennStar February 16, 2016 at 10:50 am

Haha! How to connect the end of the world to toilet paper: solved!

Problem is the end of the world is just an error away. There are still enough atomic bombs to destroy the earth several times – in several countries.
Humans only still exist because several times one of us was smart and brave enough to not do what he was supposed to do.

Its hard to be “stoic” about it if you visualize that.

On the other hand you could interpret this positively, too.

Nitya February 16, 2016 at 12:54 pm

It’s fitting to be grateful Mike, though not necessary to be grateful to anyone in particular or any anthropomorphic representation. Just being a part of the living world for our short span is reason for wonder and a sense of immense gratitude.

It helps to have the good fortune to be born into a relatively safe country where all our basic needs are more or less assured. What we do after this is up to us! I choose to see out my time enjoying the moment as best I can. I take pleasure in the company of my fellow humans and avail myself of all the means at my disposal to be as well informed as possible.

Not a bad life, all in all.

Johanna February 16, 2016 at 3:01 am

Beautiful. Thank you!

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 8:37 am

Thank you for reading Johanna.

Tracy February 16, 2016 at 5:21 am

Wow, David, essays like this are why I read your blog. Most of the time you hit a home run, but on days like today you hit a grand slam. It’s partly due to your writing that I go to bed in my nice warm bed in my nice comfortable house and think, how many people would give anything just for this? In Northern California, where I live, we watched in horror last fall as entire communities burned in the Valley fire. Surely these people wake from dreams of the homes they will never see again and face fresh agonies daily. A “fragile golden era” indeed.

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 8:43 am

I do a simple version of this when I go to bed (when I remember). I lie on my bed, notice how soft and comfortable it is, then I picture bed and the house disappearing around me, dropping me onto the bare ground in my pajamas, exposed to the elements. It makes me feel like the luckiest person alive.

Robert Wringham February 16, 2016 at 5:54 am


David Cain February 16, 2016 at 8:43 am

Thank you Mr Wringham!

Anastacia February 16, 2016 at 5:57 am

Thank you for the post… It made me rethink about some difficult situations.
And night sky really makes things clear. Stars are so far from our day troubles so, maybe, they could teach us…

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 8:45 am

The stars have been humbling us since forever. It makes me wonder whether cities, and all their light pollution, are really bad for our humility.

Dragline February 16, 2016 at 6:19 am

I like those Alain de Botton videos, too.

I think you are correct about what most people want as to people who are likely to read this blog and/or have thought consciously about it.

But without conscious reflection, I suspect what most people want is simply what they see that others have or “are”, which usually revolves around some measure of fame and/or material wealth. The whole of consumerist culture is driven by these ingrained desires that we share with most mammals, particularly primates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-dMoK48QGL8

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 8:51 am

That video was hilarious. I suppose “upon reflection” is an important qualifier here. Luckily, we can do that. But most of the time desire is a probably a pretty reactive and irrational thing.

Delma February 16, 2016 at 7:31 am

Rocked my morning, this did. Thank you for that.

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 8:54 am

Rock on Delma

Carla February 16, 2016 at 7:32 am

You NAILED it.
A friend was complaining to me last Christmas about all the family parties she was obligated to go to and on and on. I, who have no family parties to enjoy sat and listened. I listened for well over an hour. Then I just looked at her and said, “you know what I like? I like it when I turn the faucet on and clean hot water comes out. Do you know how awesome that is?”
Yes, we are still friends.

Mikel February 16, 2016 at 8:10 am

Beautiful in its impactful simplicity!

Mikel February 16, 2016 at 8:14 am

Wow, such an impactful post. A beautiful humbling gratitude practice for the Culture of Entitlement I find myself surrounded by.

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 8:56 am

Heh, a bit of well-placed snark can really open our eyes sometimes.

Dollar Flipper February 16, 2016 at 7:49 am

“I wonder how many billions of individual human lives have been lived under tyrannical regimes, forced servitude, or during a war or a plague, or maybe all of those things.”

This is something I struggle with too. I think about the atrocities being committed all around the world one minute and then I’m pissed off that someone won’t let me merge the next.

And then it’s off to the next thing. I don’t know how to handle it. On Being’s interview of BJ Miller hit this home for me too. Even a triple amputee who helps run a hospice center has these same feelings. It’s probably the most human thing you can experience. http://www.onbeing.org/program/bj-miller-reframing-our-relationship-to-that-we-dont-control/8380

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 9:16 am

It’s a tough one, and the longer I live the more I think quality of life is all about how we field the constant stream of concerns that enters our minds, great and small. It doesn’t really help anyone to fret internally over injustice and tragedy, and the question of whether we help a situation or not isn’t necessarily related to whether we suffer over it. So I think it’s mostly a matter of learning to field the emergence of desire/aversion in our minds, in real-time, Buddhist- or Stoic-style, and helping where we think we can.

Teresa February 16, 2016 at 7:53 am

My morning seems to have a theme to it. I started the day by stumbling across the article Is Humanity Getting Better? and immediately after received your new post as an email. I have pondered these questions often. How do we know if we have what we want? Can we recognize our own happiness when it’s realized? Are we hardwired to be discontented, wary, and basically unhappy? Self awareness is a good first step…

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 9:18 am

Welcome to Existential Monday!

Seo February 16, 2016 at 8:48 am

It’s interesting how coming across something in a picture, movie, or video game can change how we think about things. It’s so easy to sit back and say, “Wow, I wish I could go explore the world like >insert hero<, but I'll just live it through this game." I have a feeling that if we were in the game, with that mindset we wind up as just another NPC, watching someone else do all the cool things…

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 9:20 am

Totally. That’s why art is so important, and I think games are a medium that is finally starting to realize its potential for conveying real, meaningful insights about the human condition, and not just for making fun diversions.

Erika February 16, 2016 at 8:57 am

Wow……..thank you………speechless, just what I needed. Thank you

David Cain February 16, 2016 at 9:20 am

Have a good week.

Arthur February 16, 2016 at 1:15 pm

Ryan Holiday has a really cool passage about this in his book The Obstacle is The Way. I want to start reminding myself that I will soon be dead, whenever I find myself too scared to do something that could potentially be beneficial to me. Good post David :)

Stockbeard February 16, 2016 at 2:28 pm

I thought I was the only one sometimes thinking about my kids dying, and feeling an urge to be with them much more after it. Indeed a powerful way to count ones blessings, but I always feel guilty doing that. I’m sure better parents will tell me then don’t need to go that far to constantly care for their loved ones.

Mikael February 16, 2016 at 2:58 pm

Hi David, wonderful post !
It’s my first comment here , and i want to share an exercise that i do , regarding imagining that you are going to die :
So like once a year, when i’m in my bed alone , i like to imagine that i have a serious illness( cancer) which is under treatment and i don’t know if i’m going to make it and that i could die anytime.
So i imagine that my body is starting to have convultions, and to think that this might be the day i die. And i start praying ( doesn’t need to be to God , just pray ) , and begging to not die that day, because i still have alot of things that i didn’t do yet ( and think which are those things) , and promise myself that if i’m not going to die , i will stop wasting my time , start doing the things i really want to do , and be more carefull to treat myself well( eat well , sleep well , exercise , read , take breaks to relax , don’t smoke and reduce drinking as much as possible., etc).
The period after i do this exercise i start being more grateful just for still being alive , and also start making plans for the things i want to do , and start to put them into practice. Also i stop the relationships with the people that treat me bad ( Hey , i almost died , if you still treat me bad , you can go fuck yourself !)
Also i like to imagine that the people that i care about have been through the same thing , and start apreciating them just for simply still being alive. I want to enjoy the time spent with them and support the things that matter for them , because i never know when they or i could die for real.

David Cain February 17, 2016 at 8:47 am

That’s wonderful. It’s remarkable how reliable these kinds of thinking exercises are. I have never done one and not have it work. One simple one I do is imagine that the next step I take is my first step out of prison, after serving a long sentence. I have a second chance that begins now to make use of my freedom.

Monika February 16, 2016 at 3:06 pm

A lot of this has crossed my mind in the past (however fleeting and unfocused) but the following paragraph hit me really hard in its absolute truth:
“Even when I do worry about true horrors like incarceration, starvation and violence, I’m worrying on behalf of other people. I believe (without realizing it) that it will always be someone else who experiences them.”
Never thought about it – never be able to forget about it now.
Thank you for your work. It means a lot.

Mateus February 16, 2016 at 3:52 pm

Hi David. Not sure if I posted here already, probably yes. Anyway, great fan of your work, Raptitude has been around through some very difficult times and I am thankful for the insights.

Anyway, it is such a coincidence to see this entry because today I was struck with a strange feeling. I was supposed to write down my ambitions and professional goals for this year at a work related appraisal. I am usually very demanding with myself, thinking of me as being so far from the person that I want to be. But then when I should suggest changes for my work, I couldn’t find much. I am obviously willing to learn and improve, but it was the first time since long ago in which I felt quite close to being OK with my situation. That’s such an strange feeling after so much struggles, but I liked it.

Receiving this post in my email brought to me the same feeling again. Sometimes we are just stuck in the spiral of improvement/not-enough/one-day-I-will-get-there that we just forget to look around and evaluate what we already achieved and feel grateful for that.

I guess I’ll sleep a little bit happier today and hope that tomorrow I will still remember to go for a walk.

David Cain February 17, 2016 at 8:53 am

That’s really interesting…. I have had that feeling sometimes, but I think most of the time I don’t have it. I really wonder how much it has to do with our situations, and how much is a matter of day-to-day perspective. I also wonder if it’s necessary, or if we can find happiness when we feel that not-quite-there-yet state.

I guess when we’re truly living in the moment, we’re not evaluating our lives at all. So it doesn’t matter whether you’d have a “good enough” evaluation or a “not-quite” evaluation. The concept of “my life and how it’s going” is really an abstract thing, a thought in the moment.

Mary February 16, 2016 at 5:09 pm

I’m thinking about getting a realistic but plastic skull for my desk. What a wonderful contemplation!

David Cain February 17, 2016 at 8:54 am

I think I decided yesterday to donate my skull to a writer who would have me on their desk. I should arrange that before it’s too late.

Hamed February 16, 2016 at 6:56 pm

Ah, just goes to show how negative visualization has its benefits. In “The Book of Death and the Afterlife” by Ghazali, he recounts the story of Rabi Bin Khaytham, a Sufi (mystic sage and ascetic) who lived several centuries ago. Upon feeling internally constricted, which affected the quality and productivity of his work and habits, he actually dug a grave for himself in his dwelling. He would lay inside until he would plea for his “revival”, basically a second chance. He would persist in repeating his plea, until finally he would reply to his very self, “Rabi, you have returned, thus act now and perform.”

David Cain February 17, 2016 at 8:58 am

If I had a backyard I would do this right now.

Michael February 16, 2016 at 11:11 pm

I’m currently reading Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live, which is a one year meditation practice in which you imagine you will die in a year. How would we spend that year? How does that focus on death affect the decisions we make, how much we appreciate our loved ones, what really matters, etc. Levine worked with dying patients for a few decades so had some personal experience in this (he died last month actually). It’s honestly difficult to attempt these meditations but I can see the benefits of doing so. Anyway, I thought it nicely complements your post. Thanks!

David Cain February 17, 2016 at 8:59 am

Wow, that would be a hell of an experiment. That year would include a lot of phone calls and lunches with friends, probably some apologies too.

Andris February 17, 2016 at 1:50 am

Very stirring. It really is a fragile golden era!
Thank you, David!

Jonathan Verrecchia February 17, 2016 at 9:42 am

Very insightful! I just imagined my city devastated and how lucky I am to have tomato sauce. That felt pretty great! A lot of your articles talk about habits to do once in a while, like this one. What do you think would be a good way to make sure we remember to do it? I’ve tried things like weekly or monthly reminders to “think about this thing”, and I always end up ignoring them after a while. How do you do it? :)

Cindy February 17, 2016 at 11:07 pm

David, I can’t thank you enough. Counting my blessings from the ground up has always made me feel rich beyond belief. Gratitude for a warm home, with electric and a bathroom, food, my health and my kids’ health, not to mention our freedom and infrastructure, realizing how many people live without these, always puts my first world problems into perspective.
I once had a client “James” tell me in great detail of his awful experience at a restaurant. His chief complaint involved being seated next to a man with crutches. Every time James stood up to revisit the all you can eat buffet for more prime rib, the man on crutches asked James to kindly bring him a plate also. Can you imagine the horror of having to endure this experience? Please keep posting your insights and experiments. I’ve enjoyed all of your posts and I venture to say you’re a wiser man than you give yourself credit for. Thanks again!

Naomi Alexander February 18, 2016 at 5:43 am

Hi David, I’m a Brit (living in Southsea, England) and my grandmother (who was born in 1914) often told me that there was no way to explain what it was like during the 2nd World War.
She was from Coventry (bombed extensively https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coventry_Blitz) and she said you woke up every morning wondering who would be dead/alive today from your friends, family and colleagues.

Your writings are very thought-provoking. Particularly liked the one when your bike got nicked (sorry about that though!) and the gratefulness idea. Am trying to use that in my own life now.

Anne February 18, 2016 at 6:17 am

David, this is a beautiful piece – thank you. On 9/11, I walked home from work, still in shock from the images I’d seen on the news. I was deeply present in the moment because I was conscious as never before of how easily every structure of my life could come to an end. I saw a young woman pushing a pram, a man up a ladder – normal, everyday life, and it was suddenly so fragile. I was overwhelmed with gratitude that I was born in the UK after World War 2 and must be one of a tiny percentage of human beings who’d ever, in all of history, lived for 50 years in peace and with enough and more of everything I need. I felt that even if we were now looking at the end (that day was so strange, so disorientating, that anything seemed possible), , I had been incredibly fortunate. That feeling has never completely left me – my view of life was permanently shifted slightly. Have you read Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel? That describes very vividly what happens when the lights go out for good (and starts in Toronto!). In spite of the grim subject, it’s a beautiful, haunting, uplifting book that, again, left me so grateful for all we have.

Tonya February 20, 2016 at 9:07 am

I imagine this is a lot like what happened with Hurricane Katrina. No one could fathom that “the end of the world” could happen here, but for many, it probably did feel like that, and that why there was such panic and disarray. It is so easy to get caught up with such small stuff in life that we can’t even see how absolutely brilliant we have it. Great post!

TheHappyPhilosopher February 20, 2016 at 11:16 am

Stoicism on crack…I love it :)

I notice the best I feel is immediately after illness, because I realize my health could be taken from me at any time. Negative visualization really makes not having gratitude impossible!

Best antidepressant ever.

Alex McKellar February 21, 2016 at 7:07 am

Gosh we only have to turn on the news and see its the end of the world, somewhere in the world all the time. Just ask a Syrian refugee.

Maggie @ SelfThrive February 22, 2016 at 11:52 am

I do often think abut how much worse things could be for me. When I’m feeling down it usually helps to put things in perspective, and once I realize how fortunate I am, the things that were once upsetting me end up seeming quite trivial. I have clothing, I have a place to live, I have food… I am luckier than many.

Duška Woods February 23, 2016 at 1:08 pm

I worry if my daughter will be able to continue living long with the gastric implant that is helping her digest food. She suffered most of her life as diabetic and now has side effects that prevent her to digest food.
How is this for ‘having almost everything to be happy’?
Many in this world have to deal with circumstances beyond their control.
Wake up idealists, I understand your point but it’s not always realistic.

Elaine Estes February 24, 2016 at 8:53 pm

You always have such clear insights into life. I think when one almost loses something that is precious to them, such as their life, they appreciate it more than everyone else. You said it better./

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