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Doomerism is a dangerous mindset, and Dune's "Box of Pain" scene shows us why.
Climate change’s impacts are now impossible to ignore. There are significantly more extreme weather events. Massive wildfires and horrendous storms have quickly become the new normal. Many see this as a reason to give up hope that the world can be saved — that it is just a matter of time until it is all over. This simply is not true. This mentality is often called “doomerism,” and it is dangerous.
Much of the internet is abuzz about the recently-released Dune, starring Timothée Chalamet. In it, his character Paul Atreides, is made to put his hand in a box by Reverend Mother Mohiam of the secretive Bene Gesserit order. If Paul removes his hand from the box, she will prick him with a poisoned needle that will kill him. Though this version features the character Jessica reciting it, a unique spin for this adaptation, all versions of this scene, book or adaptation, feature the “Litany Against Fear”:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
You have had your hand put in this box — not just with climate change but with the pandemic and Trump and January 6th and all the other many things going on in the world that are, frankly, a bit terrifying. However, humanity’s end is still not set in stone. What will doom us is metaphorically withdrawing our hand from that “box of pain.”
In many ways, fear is natural. Fear is inevitable. But fear is something we have to fight back against — to keep at bay within ourselves so that it may not prevent us from being able to do what we need. Fear prevents rational thought from winning out. What we must strive to do is let the fear pass over us, rather than through us.
This is a deep challenge for me, as someone with a bad anxiety disorder who had surgery that was delayed repeatedly for over a year. At this point, finally getting it done is proving challenging from the standpoint of overcoming fear that built up and built up to the point where at so many points I did not feel like I could ever handle any more — and then it got even worse.
Recognizing fear in yourself is good, letting it control you is not, and that is one of the many things in life that is far easier to say than do, but it is an important ideal to uphold. To solve climate change, having fear of what will come is inevitable, but letting that sway us into giving up will be what turns these doomerist mentalities into self-fulling prophecies.
The antithesis of this style of thought can perhaps be best embodied by an unironic embracing of a passage in The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky:
Is it true, prince, that you once declared that ‘beauty would save the world’? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love!
What stirs people to act best is not despair but inspiration. Give people hope — a vision of a brighter future that is possible to work towards building — and we can save ourselves from this. But the more people hear, even if flippantly, that the world is ending, the more they internalize that idea.
The world is not ending. A brighter future awaits. Our hand is still in the box of pain, but if we can remember what is possible if we can get through this darkness, we can attain it. Letting fear that it is already too late — which it is not — it is what will doom us.
Fear is the mind-killer. Beauty all save the world.