Josiah Neufeld, author of "The Temple at the End of the Universe: A Search for Spirituality in the Anthropocene" sitting on a park bench.
Josiah Neufeld, author of "The Temple at the End of the Universe: A Search for Spirituality in the Anthropocene." (Photo courtesy of Josiah Neufeld)

Topics: Ethical Living | Environment

How to deal with the end of the world

Josiah Neufeld's new memoir explores personal responsibility in an age of climate disaster

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A despondent young man once sought my advice during the audience question period after I performed my play Sea Sick at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival the summer before the pandemic. The play is about how the carbon load in the atmosphere is disrupting the life-support force of the ocean. It’s a bit grim.

The young man was grimmer. He sat there, limp with agony, explaining that three years earlier, he had quit his job, given up his apartment and devoted himself fully to the climate action group Extinction Rebellion. And yet, the planet was still in peril. His actions had not fixed it. What should he do next?


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I’ve thought of him often in the years since. I don’t remember what I actually said to him. But what I wish I had said was this: Set the burden down. You’ve done enough for now. Let others take up the load.

His anguished earnestness was much on my mind as I read The Temple at the End of the Universe: A Search for Spirituality in the Anthropocene by Josiah Neufeld. Much of Neufeld’s writing, both fiction and non-fiction, grapples with his upbringing in a Manitoba Mennonite family so evangelical that his parents served as missionaries in Burkina Faso. Neufeld has since moved away from their faith but is locked in a long reckoning with it.

Book cover for Josiah Neufeld's "The Temple at the End of the Universe: A Search for Spirituality in the Anthropocene"
“The Temple at the End of the Universe: A Search for Spirituality in the Anthropocene” by Josiah Neufeld. (Photo courtesy of House of Anansi Press)

The climate part of his internal wrestling struck in the summer of 2019 when, he writes, the apocalypse finally became real to him. Nearing 40, fearing the end of the world, he decided to go on a quest to find a new story “equal to our moment.”

This book recounts the quest. It’s peripatetic. It’s tormented. It’s fascinating. Having abandoned the institutional God of his childhood who could heal any wound, spiritual or planetary, he comes to believe that he alone must avert the crisis. He is collapsing under the weight of it.

Finally, he finds a spiritual director, telling her, “I have a moral obligation to move reality in the right direction.” She laughs at him: “You might want to write that sentence down to see what it looks like on paper.”


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Of course, she’s right. His belief is absurd. It is utter hubris. Like the young man who came to my play, Neufeld, I fear, mistakes striving for outcome. It’s a disease of our times. How do you measure the impact of things so intangible as despair and good intentions and righteous self-sacrifice?

In the end, Neufeld has an epiphany. It brings him to a place he doesn’t expect and that I won’t reveal. But I was glad he had taken me there with him.

And in the final pages, I felt a gentle truth emerge: we do what we can and set the burden down when we need to. But it must all be done in joy, not despair, or else we fail to honour the wonders that this world has to offer.

***

Alanna Mitchell is a journalist, author and playwright in Toronto.

This story first appears in Broadview’s July/August 2023 issue with the original title “A Quest to Meet the Moment.”


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