How To Breathe When The Very Air Is Toxic

When I was a kid, I remember hearing stories about acid rain. About holes in the ozone layer. About a world of toxic pollutants encroaching on every element of our lives.

And then, it seemed, those stories went away. Did those issues go away? Were initial reports exaggerated? Or did we just learn to accept the world as it was, knowing these things were beyond our control, as we danced in the puddles of sludge as a burning sun beat down upon us incubating cancer cells to kill us in a less distant future? I don’t know. I just went on breathing.

Recently, I have become aware that there is a storm coming — or, no, not coming, but already here. A world in which our every movement and idea is monitored, where thought is policed, where giant corporations not merely observe every facet of our reality but actively seek to construct an alternate one. This is not the future. This is not science fiction. This is reality.

It’s not paranoia when it’s true.

What can I do? Do I surrender myself to this reality, as it chokes and kills us all? Or do I don a gas mask and hazard suit, praying that it will be enough, screaming for everyone else to do likewise, while they stare at me like I am a raving lunatic?

A therapist once told me that I am prone to catastrophizing — a way of seeing the world and imagining the worst. He’s not wrong. I imagine all the ways a scenario might go wrong and then assume that it will go wrong in one of those ways. It’s not a healthy way of viewing the world.

That does not mean it is an inaccurate one.

Martin Luther King famously said “let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Steven Pinker suggests that the pattern of human history is one that moves towards a more peaceful, less violent world. But the view that feels more true to me is that of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who argues instead that instead it “bends toward chaos…And I think the record of history — and human history — is behind me.”

So how to be in this world? Is the act of being mindful, staying grounded, living in the present moment, simply a way to put oneself into a delusional haze that ignores the reality of the universe?

How do I, as an educator, help prepare children to be in this world? Do I teach them to think critically of what they learn, but not too critically, less they gaze over the precipice of this precarious illusion of a functional world we have so carefully constructed? Do I try and arm them against the All Knowing, All Seeing, All Powerful Big Other, encourage them to fight against an enemy against which they cannot win, that will inevitably ground them into dust and do so in a laborious torurtious fashion?

Or do I encourage them to surrender, to accept reality as it has been fashioned for them, that a component of what we know in our bones to be part of the hunan condition has already been packaged and sold?

How do we even breathe? I feel like I cannot breathe.

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