I recently sat down (or ran/walked on the treadmill) to watch an HBO show called Station Eleven. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a 10-part miniseries about…. well, a global pandemic. Yes, that’s right, I was watching a show about a global pandemic in a global pandemic. I have to admit, I’m kind of a sucker for post-apocalyptic books and movies. I ask myself a lot of questions about my survival skills and my moral compass. What choices would I make if society just melted away? Unfortunately, I’m honest with myself, so I put my odds at survival at slim to none and recognize that I would do pretty much whatever it takes to survive (which I wouldn’t).
The show was very good. Instead of doing the global look at a pandemic it took a very small view on the lives of just a few people. It didn’t have the kind of trope that many post-apocalyptic shows do in which the protagonists are trying to get to some far-off utopian city, or cure the zombie apocalypse, instead, the story centers around a Shakespearean acting company who never leaves the Great Lakes region in the Midwest.
The exploration of Shakespeare over the course of the episodes was wonderful. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen people do scenes from Hamlet or King Lear, so it was nice to revisit and spend time with those amazing stories. As some of you know, I was an actor for many years before becoming a rabbi, and if I could have made a living doing Shakespeare, I don’t know that I would’ve quit. On Station Eleven, the eloquence of Hamlet’s questions, and the complexity of the characters around him mirrored what the characters of the show were going through in their own lives, and the plots were entwined beautifully.
A central question posed in Hamlet, “whether tis nobler to take arms against a sea of troubles, or by opposing end them,” is a question about the need and purpose of survival. Hamlet is asking, if the world is horrible, if our lives are populated by troubles and tragedies, is it not a better idea to just stop resisting and let ourselves go? These are questions with which the characters of Station Eleven are grappling, and their answer is a perfectly defiant one. They say, “survival is insufficient.” What a poetic response to all the difficulties we see in this world.
Our lives are not about survival. Our purpose is not a Darwinian one, to merely pass down our genes and then “to die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream.” No, our lives are about more than survival. This is one of the core reasons I love post apocolyptic movies. Without all the external markers and goals of a society, we ask different questions about the purpose of our lives. If the apocalypse were coming and we knew it, would we take that business trip, or stay with our families? If the world were ending and we need to barricade ourselves in an apartment, with whom would we want to hide out?
While thankfully, in spite of the actions of some individual global tyrants, our world continues to spin, these are questions we shouldn’t wait for the zombie apocalypse to busy ourselves with. We should be asking these questions about survival and purpose not only when the world stops spinning, but while we’re on this merry go round. If you’re having trouble answering these important questions, know that it’s easy to find what you really believe. If you want to know our true priorities, we need to look at two things; our banks statements and our calendars. Those will tell us where we spend our time and money and therefore what priorities we set for ourselves. Not only is it easy to come up with the answer to these questions, but if we don’t like the answer we see, it’s even easy to change. If we don’t feel like our lives, calendars and bank statements truly reflect our values and priorities, then all we need to do is change it. And the best part? We don’t even need for the zombies to be beating down our door to do so.
Andrea Lieber…I’m passing the popcorn to you.