The world is going to end tomorrow, May 21. I know this because I was in MIA coming back to the US from Costa Rica, and I saw this endearing couple.
They were handing out pamphlets discussing their dire prediction, and I agreed to take them if they would let me take a picture of them in return. Now, the meme of the end of the world is a common and ancient one, expressed throughout recorded history, whether it be through Nostradamus, the Mayans, or the Kooky Xtians, to name but a few. It is a compelling one, the biological certainty of our own deaths being reconstructed as Simultaneous Death For All, with the important caveat that the True Believers will not die but be allowed to dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven; everybody else will not only perish, but be tortured for Eternity as well. Call it the ne plus ultra of Death, brought to you by your (sometimes loving, mostly wrathful) G-d. At least the Xtian version of the apocalypse has an escape hatch; in the Mayan version, we all die, in the Nuclear Holocaust version most of us die quickly, the rest later, and horribly, and in the Scientific version, everything everywhere dies (albeit some many millions of years from right now, which frankly makes for rather lackluster T-shirt sales).
What intrigued me about this couple, however, was not their bold prediction or questionable fashion sense, it was that on the back of the man’s shirt, there was a different date altogether:
I demanded an explanation.
“Well, said the man,”—he did all the talking, while the woman remained smiling and mute—“Judgment day starts May 21. The end of the world is on October 21.” Ah, I see. Why, I wondered, did it take 5 months for G-d to sort it all out? Had He not created the universe and all therein in a mere 6 days? Was there some sort of divine cruelty at work, drawing out a process that one imagines could be rendered in a lightning bolt of an instant? Or was it, as I suspected, a chance for those on the good side of G-d to gloat while the sinners got an appetizer version of what Eternity would be like?
Sadly, he did not have a good answer for that.
I left the two immediately after we cleared customs; they had more baggage than I did. Yet, as I wandered into the humid Miami night, I wondered at the zealotry that could convince people to print up such t-shirts, wear them, and proselytize accordingly. Was it not just unwavering belief, but the innate attractiveness of such a terrible possibility? I mean, when Y2K was looming, I must admit, I saw logic in the premise, and still believe to this day that the work done to fix all that crap code helped avert—not the end of the world—but some rather unpleasant complications that could have arisen from various computers not knowing what to do once they reached the end of their data range. I didn’t stockpile supplies, but I did remove myself to a chill beach location on Dec. 31, with a bunch of fishing rods and a well, just in case things got messy for a bit. Most tellingly, in the years before it was on everybody’s lips, I had a sly feeling of superiority, that I was aware of something that others were not, and that this information would help me. There was also a noticeable tendency to warn others that, hey, maybe they too should plan on being somewhere slightly less chaotic than Times Sq. when midnight struck.
Interestingly, even though my concern was based on facts, with a high quotient of the unknown thrown in, I was viewed as bat shit crazy by pretty much everybody, no different from had I been saying, like these two, that it was going to rain fire and brimstone for five months, burning all sinners with hell’s fury until G-d decided to flip the oblivion switch.
One of my friends is comforted by the idea of all of us going at once. “As long as everybody dies together, that would be kinda cool.” Armageddon, in his mind, is a global tie in the race to make it the longest. He finds solace in knowing that he wasn’t going to be missing out on any cool shit happening without him. I can relate to this sentiment, as one of the worst aspects of death is thinking of all you won’t get to do or see. Granted, you will most likely not give a shit, but to the engaged human, that level of future loss is staggering.
There are, then, competing, compelling reasons for this meme of the end of the world: An escape route from certain death based on greater faith or technology or hoarding ability; a solidarity in meeting our maker with everybody else at once; a vehicle for the often unacknowledged undercurrent of nihilism tugging at many of us; a chance to say, “I told you so,” to all those who snickered at our predictions (see climate change); a general, latent fear of the Unknowable, and the solace in being able to fix that moment in time; a distraction to divert us from the pressing points of this reality. That last bit is probably the scariest, and ties into the mind control component of organized religion. “How can I worry about what the plutocrats are doing to us right now when G-d is going to be showing up Saturday? I need to pray, pray, pray!!!” If religion is the opiate of the people, religious apocalypse is uncut China White stuck in your jugular.
Tomorrow is May 21, 2011. Do I think the world is going to end as advertised? (And it is literally advertised in a $100mm billboard campaign.) Absolutely not. Do I think the world is going to end, eventually? Absolutely. Our own world will end with our deaths, be they from an asteroid, a nuclear meltdown or strike, the withering of our planet through pollution and mismanagement, or a mundane, sausage inspired heart attack. The Earth itself will one day be subsumed by a black hole as our Sun implodes, or destroyed by some other universal event beyond our ken. Yes, I grow increasingly depressed as I see climate change obviously effecting the Earth, and know that, despite what I do individually, I can’t effect the policies of multinational corporations and governments who focus on profit ahead of sustainability. The consensus is we’re fucked, and in a perverse way, this offers some freedom from accountability for our (in)actions. Pass me some more bacon, because we’re doomed, dontcha know?
This meme appears to me, paradoxically, as a quest for order amidst chaos, an anthropomorphizing of the natural world with its inherent uncertainty (as far as we are concerned), and an attempt to quell the continual existential crisis by positing a crisis so vast that we are all enraptured by it, funneled together towards the unknown. It is a uniquely human conceit, and one which ignores three fundamental truths, to wit:
The world will not end as you think it will.
We are all doomed to die. Beyond that, nobody knows.
We all die alone.
Cheerful news, to be sure, but the salient point is that one should not be preoccupied with these portents of cataclysm. It’s the opposite, and doubtless still cliche position, that the world (your world at least) could end anytime, so live life fully invested in the now. If that means being pious, meditating on your mat, practicing emptiness, or doing blow off a hooker’s tits, so be it. Find your own truth, your own reasons for being. The yogic teaching about the once rich man, now a beggar, who spends his life dreaming of the past, and escapes his unhappiness through fantasy, is apt. The dream of the end of the world, like any dream, is not real, and ultimately, as you dumpster dive and think of four star meals gone by, it disappoints.
Death, on the other hand, never does.