When you hear people talk about doom, you’re pretty sure you know what they mean. In fact almost everyone has an instinctive feeling about what doom is, and how to recognize it, and very often they are right. Unless they’re speaking figuratively and are only talking about the stock market or declining test scores or the fortunes of a sports team or having to care for elderly parents, you’ll hear the words warming, or starvation, or asteroid, or incoming. If they are hysterical types, you might also hear of some sort of virus or contagion, or that the birth rate is too high or too low, or that we’re running low on uranium. But you fairly well know what people think doom is: it’s that event, or one of those events, that, when it occurs, results in all of us dying, or in so many of us dying that the others will lose heart, or at a very minimum means that life will change for the worse, just as it has on other planets.
Now, the number of those who are going to die is an important factor in doom. There have to be at least some who aren’t going to make it for doom to be genuine. If you live in one of those areas of the Pacific west that catches on fire every year, or you live on one of those islands, again Pacifically located, where periodically your foursome is slowed by flows of lava and rains of ash, it isn’t appropriate to say you’re doomed if there’s a good chance you’re going to pull through. And frankly, almost everyone seems to survive those conflagrations, although many acres are consumed and many roadways dissolved. In fact it is usually only the firefighters who seem at risk in those flare-ups, along with the insurance companies. So it simply isn’t fair to say you’re doomed if the only price you pay is that you have to run away to safety, or if you merely lose a home you were stupid to build in that area to begin with, or if you have to dodge a few waterfowl flambé while teeing off.
If, on the other hand, you can’t escape, and you and your neighbors can only stand and watch helplessly as the flames or lava climb toward you, then yes, it is all right to say you are doomed. You needn’t feel foolish about saying it under those conditions, particularly if your clothes are on fire and your town is starting to resemble ancient Pompeii. At the same time, you should definitely try to save yourselves, especially if you are able to jump into a body of water or crawl into a deep, cool cave. In such circumstances you are entitled to say you were doomed even if you survive, provided you really had to haul butt to reach safety.
A question that the doomed often ask is this: what kind of doom are we experiencing? Right off, the time factor comes into play. There is an important distinction between eventual doom, which is scheduled to take place in the future, and imminent doom, which is happening to you right now. To know we are doomed because eventually there will be no drinkable water is all well and good. But who really cares that people will die of thirst in 150 years, with death rattles issuing from their dry throats, or that the sun will explode in three billion years, incinerating our world and all who live in it — all those, that is, who haven’t already died of thirst? That kind of doom is enough to put you to sleep. But to know that there is no drinking water starting today, or that the sun exploded eight minutes ago and we just haven’t felt it yet, but we will any second now, is quite different. That’s imminent doom. The other, much slower type of decimation, we may call come-as-it may doom, or as I have already called it, eventual doom, if we aren’t too bored to call it anything at all, it’s so remote.
That leaves us with two types of doom: eventual, which is laughably slow, and imminent, which is when it’s really time to panic. And we note here that it is completely inappropriate to react to eventual doom as if it were imminent doom. Unless you are a prophet or an oracle, you shouldn’t go around crying “We’re doomed! We’re doomed!” without any evidence. You only make yourself look foolish if you start hyperventilating and perspiring, and race around screaming at the top of your lungs, “O my god, the universe will reach final entropy, or heat death, in roughly 100 billion years, I’m not kidding!” You appear equally idiotic if you start chanting, “We must leave the planet now, robots are coming!” While this may be true, our mechanical overlords won’t actually begin to rule over us fleshy mortals for likely another century or two, so we can take a deep breath and relax. The various kinds of come-as-it-may doom, while truly inevitable and one hundred percent lethal, are so far off that it’s hard to take them seriously. You can, and should, laugh them off, an act that requires only the merest speck of bravery. Distant doom is always somewhat risible, even to complete cowards.
That may leave you wondering what actions are appropriate to take when you are aware that doom is upon you now, not coming in a preposterous number of years, but knocking on your door this instant. First off, realize that whatever activity someone in a position of authority has told you to perform in a case of imminent doom has no chance of saving you, but is only to occupy you so that the authoritarians look good and in control when the bodies are tabulated. For example, if the cabin is filling with smoke and the plane is clearly in a nosedive, don’t bother to grab that dangling oxygen mask or floatation cushion. You’re going down, and nothing else matters. Those trinkets the stewards are taunting you with have as much chance of saving you as hunching down under your desk has of protecting you from a thermonuclear bomb.
Secondly, screaming and panic are of no use whatever, and will only irritate those fatalists who wish to expire with a minimum of fuss. I am one of these, so please be considerate of my feelings.
The absolute best thing to do, when facing imminent doom, is to pretend that it’s only eventual doom. That is, react with cool sangfroid when your jetliner begins its final, sickening descent. Merely smile stoically when the lava begins to fill your shoes, or when your roller-coaster car leaps off the track at 80 mph; suppress a snicker when the lake rushes in your car window, and chortle ironically when you encounter that bear in the wilderness, the one with a taste for the meat that wears clothes. That shows dignity, and is the finest way to confront any kind of doom. Your children, if any survive, will be proud of you.