Doomsday prophesies aren’t just a bookish pet peeve. As a general rule, I’m frustrated by fear mongering – promoting the idea that we’re traveling down a slippery slope of ultimate human suffering and destruction from which we can never recover. *Cue ominous music*
Suffering and destruction are realities of human existence. No doubt about that. But humans are also extraordinarily resilient creatures. We’ve survived centuries, millennia, of wars, plague, and life before the Internet. Lingering in anger and resentment, obsessing about the past and what we want but can’t have – these hold us back and prevent us from dealing with reality as it is, like it or not.
I’m reminded of the time I was sucked into a riptide on a beach in New Jersey. It spun me around so violently that I lost track of where the surface was. In the moment, I had one thought in my head: Find the light. And I’m not referring to the metaphorical light. I figured my best hope of finding the surface was following the sun. It worked, obviously, since I’m still alive to write this post. And it provides an apt metaphor. Maybe that’s why, in my book Unlocking Worlds, I devote a chapter to what happens when things fall apart. I often find myself thinking about how to move forward in an imperfect world. With so much out of our control, how can we shift attention away from doomsday prophesies and smug post mortems toward what we can control and to beauty, hope, and joy at being alive?
I don’t have a definitive answer to this question. As is so often the case, it can seem easier to identify what’s unhelpful than what works. Call it the process of elimination game: It’s easier to eliminate the wrong answers until only the right one remains. Still, I can think of books that showed me our human will to thrive, even in the most difficult times:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Because in the post-apocalypse world of her novel, in which only .1 percent of the human population survives, those survivors continue to seek connection, beauty, and rebuilding.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Because even when all seems lost, it’s not. Just one seed can be a catalyst that leads to growth, regeneration, rebuilding.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: Because his characters show us that even in the bleakest of times, we have the capacity to seek hope and connection and to push ourselves further than we ever thought possible in the name of love.
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway: Because the cellist’s response to destruction is to create beauty, and his creative act inspires wonder and hope.
Beowulf: Because this moving poem about danger, destruction, and survival has itself survived more than a thousand years and continues to inspire wonder.
In a sense, what these books tell me is brilliantly, eloquently expressed in the British World War II poster, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It was one of three the British government commissioned in 1939 to provide inspiration to the public as war loomed. The three proposed posters featured the following messages:
- “Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory”
- “Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might”
- “Keep calm and carry on”
What strikes me about the third poster’s message is that, unlike the first’s, it makes no false promises. Unfortunately, it’s possible to have courage, cheerfulness, and resolution and still fail. The second poster differs from the third in that it names the danger explicitly (“freedom is in peril”) and provides a vague directive (“defend it with all your might” … but what does that look like?).
The genius of the third poster is in naming two very specific behaviors citizens can choose: Keep calm and carry on. Expressed in the negative: Don’t panic. Don’t stand around, eyes locked on the past. Expressed in the positive: Keep calm and carry on. In any case, in every case: Keep calm and carry on. It’s a timeless mantra.
If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend this short video that expands on the poster’s history and discovery in an English bookshop decades after the war:
As the video’s narrator notes, the poster has been replicated, parodied, and trivialized such that we may overlook its profound message. But I hope we don’t. It’s a message for our times, for any times.
I love that the poster was rediscovered in a bookshop. I’m always – always – looking for books that demonstrate people keeping calm and carrying on, even in the most devastating circumstances. Any reads you recommend in this vein?