May We Live in Fleeting Times

Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức's self-immolation during the Buddhist crisis in Vietnam (1963)
Image credit: Photographer Malcolm Browne | Description: Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức's self-immolation during the Buddhist crisis in Vietnam (1963)

On Earth Day (April 22) 2022, a significant incident occurred interrupting the usual corporate-driven eco-posturing that characterizes this day.

Climate activist Wynn Alan Bruce set himself on fire on the steps of the United States Supreme Court. While engulfed in flames, for a brief moment, Bruce sat upright in complete silence. He was on fire for 60 seconds until he was doused in water and airlifted to a hospital to be treated for his injuries. He died the next day. Four years prior, environmental activist David Buckel took his life in the same way in Brooklyn.

You likely haven’t heard of either of these incidents.

Both Buckel and Bruce committed the ultimate act of self-sacrifice to bring attention to the climate crisis—and both stories barely registered on the mainstream media’s radar.

The few outlets that did report Bruce’s self-immolation quickly caricaturized him as a mentally unstable recluse suffering from a lifelong brain injury. While it’s unclear to what degree his brain injury impacted him in the long-term, it was nonetheless used as a weapon to call into question the mental state of an otherwise complex, compassionate, and selfless man who was deeply troubled by the climate crisis and lack of action surrounding it.

He was someone with a strong sense of conviction whose integrity could not be swayed. But he was posthumously not treated as such.

This narrative of a selfish and deranged man was uncritically parroted online by a merciless peanut gallery of professional opinion-havers and outrage commentators who must-have-their-opinions-heard-on-every-single-issue.

Several weeks following Bruce’s death, some media outlets revisited the story, once again finding ways to discredit Bruce and undermine his actions. One Guardian article characterizes Bruce’s self-immolation as a radical example of ‘doomerism’—which they frame as an ineffective, irrational phenomenon that “robs us of agency . . . and leads us down the path of inaction, or worse.” The article then quotes experts who suggest alternative, more “effective” ways of taking climate action, once again completely misrepresenting Bruce. Despite claiming otherwise, Bruce did make an impact—he ignited his physical body, turning it into a flame with which to shine a light on a dying planet—this act had an arguably far greater impact than someone turning off their lights for a day.

Self-immolation as a form of protest is not new. For years, dissidents have chosen this method to bring attention to the world’s most brutal atrocities—including Vietnamese monk—Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire in protest against the persecution of Buddhists. This act is rooted in an unshakeable conviction. Bruce knew this, being a practicing Buddhist himself.

Bruce was an anomaly—an outlier in a decaying society composed of people with ever-changing belief systems who don’t hold any deep attachments or strong convictions to anything. He committed the ultimate sin, not of suicide, but of transgressing societal norms. But it is not Bruce’s action that should be questioned—it is our subsequent inaction that must be scrutinized.

Modern society demands us to be malleable, to dispense of emotional attachments and principles. We must seek external fulfillment through the acquisition of material attachments in lieu of personal growth. The modern human life is composed of fleeting moments, fleeting ideas, fleeting causes, fleeting trends, fleeting beliefs. And now, fleeting illnesses. It’s no wonder why so many of us are left feeling emotionally, mentally, and spiritually depleted.

Bruce was not unlike other historical figures who gave up their lives to do the right thing.

Consider Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy.

In 399 B.C., Socrates was charged with impiety, introducing new divinities, and corrupting the youth. He was found guilty by an unsympathetic jury—his punishment would be death. Closer to his execution date, Socrates’ friends offered to help him escape (going into exile was a common Athenian practice), but he refused. He accepted the death penalty. Socrates was willing to die rather than renounce his beliefs—beliefs that were not well received in Athenian society.

Not even Socrates could escape the consequences of having conviction.

There are others today who risked their lives because of their deep sense of conviction to do the right thing.

Edward Snowden knowingly risked his life to expose the biggest intelligence leak to date; Julian Assange continues to languish in prison, punished for informing a public about government wrongdoing and corruption; Chelsea Manning was imprisoned for exposing the true atrocities of war before finally being pardoned. (Years later, Manning was once again jailed for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Julian Assange).

These individuals were punished for falling out of line. Most people did not understand them. Many even went as far as to label them ‘treasonous’ (a perception perpetuated by an administration hell bent on punishing whistleblowers). But instead of condemning those who risk their livelihoods to better society, we must redirect this critique towards the majority whose beliefs sway wherever the wind blows. Those with a fleeting sense of self have no hardline beliefs about any issue; they are culture vultures, though this also extends to their moral and ethical beliefs. They live on the surface, dipping their toes in the water, never daring to stick their feet in, because if they do, they may get pulled underwater and drown under the weight of their own cowardice. So they remain as they are, participating only when it is convenient and allowable to do so. They leave hardly a trace, save for the occasional prayer, well wishes, and self-indulgent commentary. They are also more susceptible to herd mentality. They are manic, restless, perpetually neurotic, and completely consumed by the next Current Thing to care about. These people are the dangerous ones, not the few outliers that challenge the way we think and live.

With no common framework in which we can navigate the world, we become untethered—disassociated from ourselves and each other. In doing so, we seek out guidance from others with malevolent intent; we become more prepared to believe anything, clinging to anything that will offer us temporary fulfillment. And we legitimize institutions that want to keep us distracted and divided. This is hugely advantageous for the establishment.

Certainly, part of our societal malaise can be attributed to conviction scarcity.

Those who lack conviction exist in the in-between. When we have no convictions, no strong beliefs, anything is then acceptable. Fetishes must be accepted and affirmed. Morally questionable lifestyles are validated. Mental illnesses must not only be normalized, but celebrated. We’re told that truth is subjective. There is no capital ‘T’ truth, only small lower case ‘t’ truths. And everyone’s truths must be affirmed. But how are we to develop a framework in which all of us can co-exist if everyone is simultaneously correct in their truth?

Alternatively, if nourished in a healthy way, a strong sense of conviction can help us resist groupthink, propaganda, and the pressure to conform in a world that does not serve us. It can also help form a strong sense of self, inner fulfillment, and liberate us from the institutions that keep us enslaved.

Convictions are an antidote to alienation. They allow us to take personal responsibility for our own actions and to regain agency over our lives.

Stories like Bruce’s are confronting.

They force us to reflect on what gives our lives meaning. They can either make us retreat further into ourselves, or they can help free us from our shackles to the Wasteland.

We must attempt to create a new framework, to develop a strong foundation that does not wobble at the slightest interference of propaganda. With deep-rooted belief systems we can engage in more productive discourse, and we might even be able to co-exist in a way that benefits us all.

Without conviction, we allow nihilism to breed unencumbered, a sickness that leaves us only with fleeting moments to barely sustain us. In allowing this way of life to continue, we risk societal collapse.

We must be more like Bruce. We must act boldly, with courage, and the conviction to stand firm in our beliefs, because conviction might be our last opportunity to change course on a decaying planet.