Apocalypse as a metaphor for compassion

This morning I woke up cranky and started thinking about apocalyptic stories, particularly the one in Mass Effect 3, and wondering if there’s a way in which they allow us to deal with our own sadness for the suffering we can’t fix in the world, and therefore open a path for us to become more compassionate.

The game starts with Earth under attack from an alien machine race known as the Reapers, who have come to wipe out all sentient, organic life in the galaxy. Massive robots rain down from the sky. Billions are killed.

In the midst of my bad mood, that felt comforting. I thought of Commander Shepard in the opening sequence standing in the open door of the Normandy and watching a small fraction of the evacuation, only to see the evacuation shuttles shot down a moment later. She must turn away from the destruction and go look for help for Earth.

Here’s a short video of it (even if you’re not into games, I think you’ll find it moving).

This scene reminded me of a quote from the Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa: “Hold the sadness and pain of samsara in your heart and at the same time the power and vision of the Great Eastern Sun. Then the warrior can make a proper cup of tea.”

Later in the game, you even play Shepard’s nightmares and see that boy again and again. It makes for an interesting reflection on her feelings of powerlessness and frustration even as she’s out saving the galaxy. And it reminds me of times in my own life when I’ve felt powerless in the face of all the tremendous suffering in the world. There are so many global issues I can’t just go out and solve — and most of the time I can’t even prevent suffering when it happens to my friends. The quote from Chogyam Trungpa suggests that I can just let that sadness be, without turning away from it, and still have a vision that I’m following.

This got me wondering how often the appeal of an apocalyptic story, particularly one where the destruction is ongoing, is that it allows us to experience a sadness that is always there under the surface, whether that sadness is from the lives we can’t save or from the people closer to home that we can’t stop from suffering. When I see Shepard’s sadness on the screen, there is something in me that says, “Yes, I feel that too.” Do stories like this give us a map for being able to look at destruction and continue to act? Do we sometimes long to see massive disasters in which thousands or millions of fictional lives are lost because we already feel that going on around us?

Or am I just cranky and wanting to see my own bad mood writ large? Either way, I’m off to play some Mass Effect 3 and then we’ll see if I can make a proper cup of tea.