“You could be forgiven for thinking apocalyptic thoughts,” writes The New York Times in response to recent disasters.
With multiple earthquakes, successive hurricanes, fires raging in the Northwest and California, as well as escalating tensions with North Korea, the last few months have brought an onslaught of natural and man-made chaos.
The less obvious threat for Americans is the vulnerability of our electrical grid—which, in the opinion of some experts, is imminently hackable.
Vanity Fair publishes regularly on the topic (see Michael Lewis’s latest story). Even Ted Koppel, the calm, unflappable former news anchor, says it’s a matter of if, not when the electrical grid goes down and leaves us suspended in a strange, uneasy darkness.
This “confluence of disastrous events” brings out our most basic instinct: the urge to survive.
The “prepping” trend has grown in response, from basic emergency preparedness (extra water and bags of dried beans) to fully furnished underground bunkers packed with freeze-dried rations. (Costco offers options for both groups.) According to Google Trends, searches for “prepper” and “survivalism” have reached record highs in the last few months.
At a deeper level, these dangers and disasters bring us face to face with the fragility of human life. Lurking beneath our well-socialized exteriors is an intense, primitive need to protect ourselves and those around us from existential threats. Parents fear the possibility that one day we’ll wake up and find ourselves unable to keep our kids safe from famine or fire. One way or another, we all have to contend with the fundamental tension between readiness and relinquishment: When do we accept our mortality, when do we fight against it, and when do we give it up to God’s providence?
Existential dread comes easily to me—although I fear disaster more than death. By some standards, I’m a doomsday prepper in waiting. If I had a more fragile, paranoid psyche, there’s a good chance I’d be living “off the grid” in an abandoned brick warehouse with a small herd of cats and a stack of canned food. I’d hunker down with a ham radio while my children scuttle around like Dickensian street urchins.
As it is, I sublimate my anxieties into more socially acceptable form by skimming prepper websites and organizing canned food and water in the back of my pantry. After the recent Harvey hurricane, I sent a donation to a Houston-based nonprofit and then joined my fellow Austinites lined up at fueling stations to fill portable gas cans in case of a shortage. (The cans now sit in two neat rows on a shelf in my garage.)
My fears range from infrastructure disaster to global war: I read with macabre fascination about zero-day exploits that could collapse the internet and nuclear-tipped ICBMs that might eventually be equipped to split California off the western coast of the United States (a possibility that inspires true doomsday prepping).
Other people’s stories, too, contribute to my existential dread. A few months ago while I was standing in my front doorway, the man who reroofed our house revealed that he was orphaned as an infant when a small commercial airplane sailed out of the sky and slammed into his house. His father was killed instantly and his mother, in a fit of maternal foresight, threw her son under the crib and then died in the flames.
As I leaned on the doorframe listening, I heard his story not as a discreet, anomalous tragedy but as a compounded part of the human condition—a sample of the suffering we encounter everywhere, up close and at a distance.
Setting aside the sobering fact that I have yet to experience a major catastrophe, I’m too much of a pessimist to believe it won’t happen to me or to someone I love. It’s simply a matter of time. In the interim, I line up cans of refried beans, fill up the water jugs, and wait.
Irvin Yalom, the 86-year-old existential psychotherapist recently profiled in The Atlantic, might diagnose me with existential anxiety—just another prepper coping with the “unresolvable dilemmas of human existence,” as writer Jordan Michael Smith puts it. In biblical terms, however, I’m at risk of following the rich fool found in Luke 12: I might trust too much in my barns and storehouses.
Forget about earthly possessions, I can relinquish those. Survival is the thing I cling to; it’s my idol. But I have to let it go, too. Not because preparedness is problematic—Proverbs tell us it’s wise—but because in excess, it threatens to undermine my belief in God’s omnipotence. My prepper tendencies reinforce the delusion that I can control my fate and future.
Quite frankly, I don’t always trust God to provide. I believe in the power of evil to overcome, and I’m determined to do everything I can to fend it off on my own. However, in the face of true suffering—mine or others—trying to survive is not sufficient. I have to balance readiness with relinquishment, and I have to do it the context of both community (the here and now) and eternity (the not yet).
First, I’m called to pivot outward, toward my neighbors. Although I have a moral and ethical responsibility to protect my children, I also have a duty to care for those around me: my undocumented neighbor who fears deportation with kids underfoot and needs the legal counsel of someone I know, or the divorcee down the street who needed meals and hospital visits after she survived a life-threatening car accident. Their hardships are small on a global scale, but they’re the only disasters I can help mitigate at the moment—the only ones within my reach.
As David Taylor wrote in response to the Houston floods, “the only reasonable thing for us to do as God’s people is to somehow, someway become Christ’s wounded healers to a hurting world.”
Second, as I keep my neighbors in sight, I also have to look way beyond to the often-inscrutable plans of Providence. Although I might always be prone to indulging in self-preservation, as a Christian, I’m freed, in theory, from the burden of trying to avoid death and suffering at all cost because death is not the end.
I’m also commanded to trust that—despite the cataclysms I see destroying lives near and far—God’s purposes are still fully in play, even if I can’t discern them. Somehow or another, I have to commit to the hard-won promise that we find in Psalm 46:
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
I grew up hearing this psalm in the form of a song. It was composed and sung by Ugandan friends who fled the genocidal dictator Idi Amin—forging a river at night while their kids clung to their backs. If they can sing it, so can I.
Although I now live a continent away from them, we still share the same commonly held belief that someday, when we cast off the burdens of this fallen world, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4).
In the meantime, I’m holding on to the hope of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
As a hardened pessimist, that’s something I need to prep for.
Andrea Palpant Dilley is a contributing editor for Christianity Today. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaPalpant.