August 2015
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A Handbook for Dawn

by Jonathan Wallace

This is the first of a series of letters I am contemplating to an intelligent young woman who will be born about 1000 years from now.

Dear Dawn:

I have imagined you: a twelve year old girl who lives about a thousand years after my death. Maybe more. You live in a time when the human race is beginning to emerge from a collapse, from a dark age, the worst of which has endured to your memory as legends merely, because there was no-one there able to write it down. You live in a time when people, at least in your area, can live somewhat stably and safely in houses, without being in constant danger of being killed or ransacked by bands of violent people. You attend a school, and can read English, and you have found this book.

You are smart, and lonely, and know you are a little different than everyone else. Maybe at times you even look at the people who are running things, the adults who constitute the town council or board or the person who is the mayor or who commands the local militia, and think you might do a better job. You find yourself thinking about things no-one discusses, why you and everyone else are here, how to make life meaningful, what will happen after you.

You may not be named Dawn, or even be a girl, but I know you are coming, because I know the new Dark Age which precedes you is inevitable. I too am smart and lonely, though I am sixty-one years old. I believe a few things: that any reasonably intelligent person today necessarily knows that civilization will soon fall, that human vanity and self deception and a quality I call Bloodymindedness will cause it, that the ways to avoid it are obvious but will not be carried out by those who have the means.

I know something you may not, that many human civilizations have risen and fallen, that great empires with well-developed art and technology have existed in the Far East, the Middle East, in Latin America, in North America, have fallen and been replaced by raiding parties, subsistence agriculture, illiteracy and grotesque violence. Many of these we know about only through obscure Biblical references or other old texts or through archaeology (digging up and studying the ruins and remains). But, in the civilization which we believe ourselves part of, the only one that has a sort of through-line directly to us, an empire called Rome dominated most of the world, and fell, and was followed by a thousand-year dark age. Ours is declining now for many of the same reasons Rome did. What I don't know is whether there were Roman people like me, who saw what was coming. If they did, and any of them wrote me a letter, a handbook for Jonathan, I never got it.

Even quite mature, intelligent people can't bear certain kinds of knowledge. I attended a gathering twice which purported to be of the most intelligent and progressive humans around. Asked to address one group on a topic which concerned me, I said: "There are twice as many people on earth as when I was a child. How many more doublings of population can the earth sustain?" And they all went silent, and started talking about something else.

If we don't talk about these things, though, how will we ever face them? I would hate to think that the human future is a series of rises and falls, reiterated endlessly til the sun goes out. Because you are young and smart and have an open mind, and a chance of affecting the future of your world, I want to start a conversation with you (a one sided one, I'm sorry) about the problems my civilization couldn't face. In fact, I would like to chat about as many elements of human life as I can think of, including humility, tolerance, optimism, money, the relationships between women and men, politics, self-governance, democracy, free speech, and most of all, the importance of compassion. I will write you as many letters as I can, as many as I have time for.

It occurred to me one day that every novel, every story, every book, every play and song and article and writing of almost any kind, is really a letter to the future. Letters that are obvious, even boring, to the people of our own time, acquire a certain power, an aura, for people in the future. When I read the letters of Cicero, a Roman, though not written to me, I am fascinated by both the elements of his life that are close to mine, and those which are completely alien. The ordinary and extraordinary switch places. I also have this experience in another way, when I buy or find old books and letters or notes fall out: a man writes to a woman friend that he is lonely in Florida and hasn't found work yet; an older woman writes a college recommendation letter for a teenager, who was grown with teenage children of her own when I found the letter (and who went to the school for which the letter was written). In the back of a book are a list of fascinating topics for--what? Essays I suppose; ideas I might have had, or wish I could.

Though I will never hear your voice or see your face, you are my friend. I want you to be safe and even happy, and live, like me, as if you were an optimist (I will explain). In fact, I love you (yes, you can love someone you never met). I don't demand or expect it, but if you are so minded, you can write me back; but you must send the letters to, or leave them for, someone else.

Your good friend,