“I remember damage, and escape. Then adrift in a stranger’s galaxy for a long time. But I’m safe now. I’ve found it again: my home.”

Miranda Carroll, Station Eleven

I once heard of a woman who thought she had cancer. She anxiously awaited a diagnosis, but it turned out she was cancer-free. She was surprised to find that, alongside her intense relief, she felt a little disappointed—not disappointed to avoid cancer and possibly death, but disappointed because she knew that if she had cancer, then she would be thrust into a new frame of mind that would trigger profound personal change. It was as if there were certain truths she could only know through the trauma. She didn’t miss the cancer: she missed the transformative insight, and there was no other way to get it.

No Vision Without Catastrophe

There’s a word for the ambivalent longing this woman felt, a word newly coined by John Koenig in his book The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows: it’s lachesism (“lahk-uh-siz-uhm”). It means “longing for the clarity of disaster.” In ancient Greek mythology, Lachesis was one of the three Fates who decided how long each person would live. Lachesism refers to that part of you that wants to stop taking life for granted, that imagines the apocalypse just a wee bit wistfully, 

[h]oping the trauma will somehow change you, leaving you hardened, stripped down, with clear eyes and a clear mission, forced to choose the one thing worth saving while everything else burns to ash, or send one final message to the people you love the most. Longing to watch society break down one pillar after the next, so you can find out what’s truly important, and let everything else fall away.

-John Koenig

We don’t crave suffering itself—we crave the epiphanies that follow in its wake. As I’ve written about elsewhere, we often remain stuck in patterns unworthy of us, untransformed and piddling away our time, distracted by a glut of information, entertainment, and internet clickables that tamper with our capacity for attending to what truly matters. Is it really so odd that we might secretly pine for the disruption of this modern hyperlinked life, just so that we could have a moment of clarity—something like a conversion? It’s not incidental that the word “apocalypse,” which we take as synonymous with “the end of the world,” comes from the Greek ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis), which means the unveiling of a hidden reality. You can’t have the vision without the catastrophe: in some strange way, they are the same thing.

Christian ascetic practices, the kind that the early church used as a measured adoption of Greek stoicism, were an ancient method for reliably triggering epiphanies. Christians used to invite “mini-disasters” into their lives on purpose: not starvation, but fasting from a meal; not wholesale sleep deprivation, but an Easter vigil; not homelessness, but pilgrimage; not the total loss of civilization, but the poverty and withdrawal of the monastic.

Station Eleven focuses very little on the global disaster itself, and almost entirely on the clarity that the disaster affords, and the way people re-make their sense of “home” after the damage.

These practices may seem bizarre to us now, partly because they’re so embodied. We seldom enact our mini-disasters in physical rituals today. We tend instead to engage self-disciplines psychologically through stories, both in books and especially on screens (and we’re still borrowing from the Greeks when we do so, employing their drama-induced catharsis). I’m not sure that one form of this “lachesist practice” is necessarily better than another: they both have their place, and they both speak to our need for disruption as a necessary precursor for insight—whether that’s disruption of the body or of the mind.

Station Eleven Shows Us Life After Tragedy and Trauma

This desire for disruptive insight and transformation is part of the appeal of post-apocalyptic stories—not morally questionable “disaster porn” which revels in destruction—but stories of post-disaster renewal. The novel-based series Station Eleven, newly released on HBO Max, opens on a world in which a flu kills 99% of humanity in the span of a few weeks. For most of the people in this story (unlike our current COVID experience), hearing about the pandemic and then dying from it occurs just days—even hours—apart. Human society doesn’t slowly break down: it disappears overnight. The story jumps back and forth between the normal “pre-pan” world (known by survivors as “Before”), the first hundred days or so of the world’s collapse with the scramble for survival, and then twenty years after the crisis, when human life is beginning to find its footing again in small settlements and nomadic bands. Flashbacks form an essential component of the story, showing how the past is never dead: when it comes to trauma, the body keeps score. “The Before” is buried deep inside the characters living in “the Now,” and it’s available for remembrance, re-enactment, rejection, and reinterpretation. 

The novel Station Eleven was written in 2014, and filming began before COVID-19 hit. Our real-life pandemic put the cast and crew on a six-month hiatus, and when they returned to work it was with a felt sense of the stakes and suffering involved in such a crisis, along with a slew of new safety protocols. So while there was no intention to capitalize on current tragic events, the story certainly lands in a culturally tender spot. And in case you’re thinking, no thanks, I’ve got plenty of real-life pandemic horror stories and quarantine frustrations troubling me at the moment; the last thing I need is for my entertainment to turn viral—then I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. 

You need Station Eleven because it will not only clear your eyes, it will teach you how to heal your heart. Station Eleven focuses very little on the global disaster itself, and almost entirely on the clarity that the disaster affords, and the way people re-make their sense of “home” after the damage. “We weren’t making a show about a pandemic,” says main actor Mackenzie Davis. “We were making a show about life after tragedy and trauma.” Davis plays the adult version of Kirsten (Matilda Lawler), a young girl who is orphaned by the flu and would have died herself if not for the concern of a well-meaning stranger named Jeevan (Himesh Patel) who takes her under his wing. Twenty years later, Kirsten is a member of The Traveling Symphony, a troupe of Shakespearean actors and musicians who circle Lake Michigan, bringing joy, memory, and meaning to the scattered communities on the shore.

Mackenzie Davis in Station Eleven
The Traveling Symphony, Photograph by Ian Watson/HBO Max

According to Davis, Station Eleven is about “finding ways to survive exuberantly and abundantly, not just eke out a tiny little corner of the world, but to do fantastic, big, bold, beautiful things after chaos.” The ten-episode series explores the possibility that “trauma can be regenerative, and quite a beautiful tool,” she says. The story’s post-pandemic world is one in which “the humanities survive, not just humans,” Davis explains, which “is missing from a lot of apocalyptic stories, where I can never quite understand why people keep fighting, because it seems like a living hell to be there.” In other words, Station Eleven isn’t Contagion, The Stand, or The Road. The creator and showrunner for Station Eleven, Patrick Somerville, put it this way: “The apocalypse itself is not good, but what it brings out in people is good.” 

When the World Ends, We Need Homemakers 

I’ve read and watched enough post-apocalyptic storytelling to be aware that feminine strengths are often considered weaknesses when the world ends. It’s typically men (or women who act like men) who are regarded as the heroes: muscle, weapons, mechanical expertise, and brutal hierarchies are the order of the day when civilization collapses (think Mad Max: Fury Road). But when I consider the epiphanies of Station Eleven’s apocalypse, it strikes me that what shines brightest are traditionally feminine virtues, which both men and women embody throughout the series: the cultivation of heart-healing beauty, the art of courageous hospitality, and the attitude of “hidden helpfulness”—just showing up and pitching in without regard for status, credentials, recognition, or remuneration.

Station Eleven shows us the path beyond mere survival—the path we must take to make the ruined world a home again. Brave, creative, intuitive, and emotionally intelligent women (and a pair of generous brothers) form the beating heart of this story. Apparently homemaking is “women’s work” after all—and it’s men’s work too. It’s just that “home” isn’t limited to four walls, or to “blood and soil.” 

Home is a state of being-in-relationship in which you are safe, connected, and loved, and where your participation is vital (even if it’s messy, even if you’re fighting). Home can be forged between strangers of different ages, races, and interests, as we see between Kirsten, Jeevan, and his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan). Home can form roots even in a nomadic “rootless” lifestyle, as we see in The Traveling Symphony. Home can be born in the simple act of giving or receiving a surprise hug (as both Kirsten and Jeevan do on multiple occasions). Home can even be an inner state of peace in which you finally come to terms with the tragedy of your life and accept your brokenness, as we see in the artist Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler), who creates the series’ eponymous graphic novel Station Eleven as a way of stitching herself back together.  

Home is a lot larger and deeper—more complex and necessary—than we ever knew. The pandemic (the real and the storied) unveils the truth about the absolute necessity of home, and about the kind of people we need to be for our homes (whatever they may look like) to thrive. When it comes to recreating home after tragedy, we need all hands on deck. Everyone has a part to play in renewing the “post-pan” world—including you. 

Kirsten and Jeevan, Photograph by Ian Watson/HBO Max

Stay tuned for the next article on the first of Station Eleven’s epiphanies (that’s when the spoilers begin—so you’ve still got time to binge watch!).

1 Comment

  1. This is really a thoughtfully written review with a lot of layers to explore. I am a two time breast cancer survivor who has dealt with a great deal of health issues in its wake. The first diagnosis was when I was 34 and pregnant with my daughter Faith. Always a believer that things happen for a reason, I looked for the epiphany. I’m still on the journey.

    Clarity doesn’t appear to everyone. Sometimes self-doubt upsets the focus. I threw myself into creating a home for my husband and daughter, one in which I could be remembered long after I was gone. But death was delayed, though illness was ever present. EVERYTHING became important; thus, the pressure to be Ma Ingall’s was an unattainable goal feeding the self-doubt more.

    Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I loved this piece and it got me thinking. My plan is to start writing on SubStack soon. This piece will surely be mentioned when I get going.

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