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Commentary: The world won't end

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 10, 2011 - Their college applications were in, awaiting the decisions of strangers. In the meantime, the girls were acting in plays, doing their math, experimenting in physics, writing their research papers. In my class they were reading and writing. Immortal stories by Hemingway, Welty, Fitzgerald, Anderson. Plays by Miller and Williams.

Since I happen to be teaching in a Catholic school, they were also saying their prayers. There was revolution across the Middle East, nearly a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The earthquake-triggered tsunami had ravaged Japan; radiation followed. Narco-terrorists menaced Mexico. My students prayed for peace.

As we got nearer to spring break, classroom talk flowed more freely, melted like the season, overspilled its formal English class banks.

"Dr. Schaenen," a student asked me, "Do you think the world will end in 2012 like they say?" About that "Dr. Schaenen." She is (I am) a recently minted professional wonderer, tumbled out of the academy less than a year ago to make and spread knowledge, especially knowledge about what reading, writing and talking does for us human beings. Dr. Schaenen might be supposed to know if the world is going to end in 2012 "like they say."

The problem was, the question threw me. I believe there are many different worlds in this world. I do not mean only that my world differs from the world of, say, a poor unschooled woman in Gujarat. I mean also that each of us inhabits more than one world. Some of these worlds are very small -- a brother and a sister. Others are larger -- a sewing circle, a volleyball team, a rock band. Still others are larger still: a teacher's union, a factory floor, an alliance of Western powers. As participants in our various worlds, we make decisions about how to behave. Done well, school teaches us how best to participate in many kinds of worlds.

Given our overlapping, interconnected worlds, I believe the world as we know it is always changing, is always, in some sense, coming to an end -- and always, therefore, coming to a beginning. And thank goodness! Who would rather live in a world without a polio vaccine? Or without "The Great Gatsby"?

But what about our particular 21st century American world? It does seem to me that, regardless of the Mayan prediction about 2012, the world reliant upon environmentally costly forms of energy is coming to an end. And the beginning of the one that will follow has not taken shape.

A good friend says this: "A recently landed Martian sees coal-digging Chilean miners trapped in the earth and Appalachian rivers stuffed with the poisoned tops of mountains. He sees the Gulf of Mexico ruined by a deep-well drilling catastrophe. He sees human blood and treasure wasted in the Middle East and Central Asia over the control of oil. He sees a sophisticated nuclear plant in Japan obliterated by a natural disaster everyone has been predicting. The Martian says: 'How come you people don't figure out a way to live that requires less energy?'"

But of course my student was not splitting hairs about which aspects of which worlds are doomed. She meant this: Did I believe that the totality of human life on planet Earth was going to come to an end sometime during her freshman or sophomore year of college? That was an easy one.

"No," I said. "I don't think so."

"Why not?"

"Because people are good at figuring out how to dodge disaster at the last minute. It's what we're wired to do, what adrenaline's for. We're not so good at planning, or preparing, or doing what needs to be done ahead of time, but we're very good on the brink. At least some of us are."

And I told her about the time, back when I was her age, when nuclear plants were melting down, terrorists were ransacking Latin America, Iran held 52 Americans hostage, and our president was saying scary things about using nuclear weapons.

"See?" I said. "And here I am! People have always thought the world was coming to an end."

This seemed to cheer her up. And me, too, kind of.

Inda Schaenen is a writer and teacher in St. Louis. 

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