Several years ago, I was talking to a college friend about retirement, and he told me that his retirement plan was to assume climate change would get us all before he had to worry about it. “I figure the oceans will rise, chaos will reign, and money will no longer have any meaning by the time I’m ready to ‘retire,’” he told me.
The worry my friend is expressing isn't just about climate change, but also his own money skills. It may feel easier to plan for an awful inevitability than navigate a complex, opaque, and unfair system like American finance. There is a sense that we are going to be screwed no matter what, so all you can do is quip about it.
But he's not alone in making these kinds of jokes. I see many fellow GenXers expressing these kinds of thoughts. I think that's partially because our generation loves to assume an aura of ironic and darkly amused detachment. There is great comfort in resorting to gallows humor when you feel powerless, and joking in the face of potential awfulness is a skill we have collectively honed to a fine point.
But even though I’m a card-carrying member of this most sardonic of generations, I am far more of a Pollyanna “everything will work out” optimist than Daria, Max Headroom, or the lyrics “Oh well, whatever, never mind” that served as our rallying cry, could countenance.
At the risk of alienating my generational fellows, I’d argue that giving in to hopelessness, even if you’re able to be funny about it, is irresponsible. Hope is a form of power, and it’s in our best interests to wield that power. Not only does it feel better, but it will give us a better future.
And that’s not just my unbridled optimism talking.
Planning to Fail
Chris Stevens, DJ on KBHR in tiny Cicely, Alaska on the TV show Northern Exposure, was played by John Corbett as a pretty carefree guy. Not much rattled him…until the day he learned that medication for hypertension could allow him to live a long and healthy life.
Chris always assumed that, like his grandfather, father, and uncle, he would never live much past age 40. Learning he could easily reach 80 or 90 threw this easy going guy for a loop.
While you’d think that learning you get to have at least twice as much life as you planned for would be good news, Chris never lived his life in a way that allowed for a future. Learning he’ll be around to enjoy old age caused Chris to have an identity crisis. All of a sudden, he had to live with the consequences of his actions.
He wouldn’t die before the law caught up with him!
He has to actually pay taxes!
Worst of all, he has to learn how to floss!
Living his life as if there were no tomorrow was not the freeing exercise in hedonism Chris thought it was. Because the only way to “win” at such a life was to die young.
By having no hope for his future, Chris did nothing to prepare for that future. When the future came knocking and he could enjoy decades more life, he felt disappointed and lost. Having some hope that he could find a way to live longer than the rest of the men in his family would have prepared him much better for his life, and he may have had fewer regrets about how he spent his youth.
Yes, Chris had very good reason to believe his life was not destined to be long. The “silent killer” of high blood pressure took the men in his family far too soon. But planning for a similar foreshortened life just meant living in a way that was unsustainable and irresponsible. And he wouldn’t have lived that way if he’d had hope that he could avoid the fate of the Stevens men.
Failing to Plan
One of my bizarre interests that I tend not to mention at cocktail parties (unless I meet another enthusiast) is religious zealotry. I find cults and insular religious groups fascinating, and I’m especially interested in hearing from individuals who have escaped these kinds of groups.
A common thread I’ve noticed in all my podcast-listening, YouTube-bingeing, and documentary-watching, is the prevalent conviction that the imminent end of the world is a net positive occurrence and that it should please get here already. (I’ve also noticed that about every decade or so, there is a relatively widespread belief that we are facing the actual end of the world, no, really, we mean it this time!)
But here’s what happens if you truly believe that the world will be destroyed in your lifetime, ushering in a better world:
You don’t do anything to improve your own lot in life or make the world a better place. It’s out of your hands. The major upheavals that will right all the wrongs are being taken care of by someone else.
I have read and listened to many stories of former cult members whose parents never saved money or planned ahead financially or even worried about educating their children in how the world currently works, since all of that would be useless once the Almighty started fixing things in a grand way.
To me, this sounds a little like buying a coffin to sleep in instead of a bed, since the bed will be useless to you eventually and you will definitely use the coffin longer.
There’s nothing wrong with hoping for, believing in, and praying for a promised divine change to the world. Ha Shem knows that our world is imperfect beyond humanity’s ability to fix it. But failing to plan for a future because divine intervention is on its way doesn’t prove your devotion to your faith. It simply leaves you vulnerable.
Hopelessness is Abdication
The world is a mess, as is humanity. And these messes ultimately cannot be fixed. I believe this to be true in my bones.
And yet, I’m still hopeful. I still put money into a 401(k), plan for my kids’ college educations, recycle, and even pretend to floss when my dentist asks about it.
That’s not to say I’m wearing rose-colored glasses. The reports of irreversible climate change, unending social injustice, warmongering, and daily tragedies hit me in the gut—hard. I still lie awake some nights worried that it was unfair of me to bring kids into such a world.
But I hold onto my hope. Because hope is what makes us effective and powerful.
Even if the world cannot be fixed, it can be improved.
Even if perfection is impossible in any human endeavor, we can always strive for progress.
Even if our destruction is inevitable—which it is, because the sun will eventually die—we have a responsibility to hope for better and do what we can to make it happen.
Ultimately, succumbing to hopelessness is an abdication of responsibility. Just as Chris on Northern Exposure lived his life as if he’d never have to face the consequences and cult members live as if divine intervention will take care of the details they refuse to consider, deciding to live as though your future choices will be taken out of your hands is a way of ceding your responsibility.
My pessimistic friend may be right that climate change will affect us in ways that make retirement planning useless. But treating a future catastrophe as inevitable means letting go of your power—your power to help avert a climate crisis as well as your own personal financial crisis.
The Power of Hope
We may have a lot of reasons to feel hopeless, and far be it from me to keep anyone from making dark jokes when they feel powerless. But we are not powerless. We can always hope.
It’s not juvenile or naïve to hope. It’s the responsible thing to do, because it is the only way we can effect any change.
So, keep planning for the future.
Learn what you need to do to set aside money for retirement and the kids’ education.
Recycle, reduce your consumption, and reuse your goods.
Demand better from our leaders.
And most of all, don’t give up your hope. It’s what will get us through the darkest of times.
Hope is our power. Let's use it.