The meaning of apocalypse

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m obsessed with the apocalypse. It’s hard not to think about it these days, what with all the apocalyptic movies out – The Road, 2012, The Book of Eli, Legion, etc. – and all the books and media interest in the Mayan calendar ending in 2012, not to mention large-scale disasters, which used to come along once in a lifetime, now happening every few years.

History is thick with cultures and religions that believed in apocalypse, and not just us wacky westerners (google Hopi Prophecy if you’re into that kind of thing). Doesn’t that make it something ingrained in us, perhaps something genetic?

I don’t believe in an apocalypse gene (though I might be persuaded to endorse an apocalypse virus or bacteria). To me, it’s common sense. Many feel that the end is near because the end is near. There have been many ends, many communities and whole civilizations that have been utterly destroyed or so changed as to be unrecognizable. It may not be about to happen, but the possibility is always close by. Plague, natural disasters, nuclear devastation, invasion, genocide. Now that so many of us crowded into cities, with mass food production and nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, the unknown threat of climate change, viruses able to mutate faster than we can keep up with them, the end is no further off than it ever has been.

If there is something biological going on, the rationale for it might be something like this: isn’t it better to be prepared for the worst? Those who trip blithely on, believing that all of this – this culture, this life, whatever it is – will last forever are perhaps doomed not to survive to reproduce, or at least not in such great numbers as those of us who are peering at the sky and stockpiling food and water. Disaster research shows that the people who do best in an emergency situation – a plane crash, an earthquake – are the ones who’ve spent time picturing themselves doing what needs to be done. That’s why I always pay attention during the safety announcement on the airplane; it might not be enough to save me, but ignoring it sure isn’t going to help. Talking and thinking about the apocalypse lets us all practice for disaster.

This interpretation of apocalypse leads me inevitably to that most personal of end times, one’s own death. We’re all going to die. Isn’t that also, in a way, the end of the world? Maybe the more we believe that death, as the end of ego, is a terrible devastation, the more interested we are as a people in the idea of global apocalypse. Doesn’t it feel better to imagine that the world might end with you, or vice versa? Sometimes I just hate the idea of dying simply because I’ll miss the rest of the story. If only the world, the story, and I could all end at the same time.

So many religions portray death as an apocalypse in the biblical sense of a “revelation,” a difficult and painful process succeeded by eternity in paradise, but only if you deserve it. This, of course, has been abused by many people throughout history, as “prophets” claiming insider knowledge of God’s plans have convinced people to follow them in order to be “saved.” This is just an example of man’s propensity to exploit the fears of others for his own advantage. Obviously it works, or there wouldn’t be so many religions based on it – including all the varieties of Christianity.

Perhaps apocalypse myths are humanity’s collective way of contemplating its own death – or its suicide. The way we live now, for example, cannot last. It’s not sustainable. This lifestyle is engendering changes that will bring about an environmental apocalypse for mankind.

This writer equates Christian “prophets” and modern day climate change scientists, as if studying objective evidence that anyone can see if they just look, were just the same as some guy telling you that God spoke to him and gave him the date of the Last Day. It’s just another way to deny the big lifestyle changes that are coming, that are necessary. But maybe we should be taking another look at the original meaning of revelation.

God is coming, and He’s pissed.

We know we’re guilty. I can accept that interpretation. We are guilty. Environmentally guilty, anyway. God is coming, and She’s pissed.

And culturally guilty? Sure. There’s always someone being exploited, or neglected, or abused, and are we doing enough – or indeed, anything – to change or prevent that?

I believe the perpetuation of religions that anticipate apocalypse is cultural, not biological. We yearn for an easier life. Maybe everything will be better after we get through this mess we’re in.

That, to me, is the essence of the apocalypse obsession: The reset. Starting over. To hell with all this, let’s do something else. Surely everyone on earth has felt that way at one time or another.

I know I’ve been fantasizing about The End since I was about thirteen years old, when I first began to apprehend the kind of world I was living in, and the kind of life in front of me. Particularly lately, I’m ready for a big change in my life, and there’s a lot of anxiety about what that’s going to look like. I’d rather do it without the devastation of apocalypse, but one way or another it might not be up to me. I hope that, whatever happens, I can make something good out of it.

The world itself is in dire need of a big change. The whole system needs a major overhaul, and while I’m not eager for massive death and destruction, I also know that major change won’t happen unless it has to. People don’t like change and they won’t do it unless they don’t have a choice. So we basically have to follow our current course of action to its logical conclusion, and I do think that’s what’s happening. It’s not going to be pretty.

And that’s the lesson of apocalypse. It’s the worst-case scenario, the warning. The big or else. It’s the threat that’s always there, and the hope that’s right behind it. The knowledge that we’re really not doing our best, the guilt that goes along with that, and the determination to do better.

When will we ever learn? Maybe the next time around.

6 Responses to “The meaning of apocalypse”

  1. freida Says:

    good stuff

  2. HauntedHarpsichord Says:

    Very well put.
    It’s almost as if the world needs a “kickstart” or some type of revolution, one where we (re-)recognize that the planet and its inhabitants (man and all life) are important, and that there is so much more to happiness and success than just financial gain and wealth.
    Why do people not like change? People are almost encouraged to be “afraid” of new things and change. Especially in America, being a fairly young nation, we have a lot of change to go through, much of that change having already been accomplished by many of our elder neighbors/allies.
    How do we convince people to not be afraid and to embrace change (while also realizing that death is inevitable in the end)?
    By the way, damn, did we already miss the Rapture? Barreling toward the Apocalypse, I would hate to miss the wondrous sight of the Rapture! :>

  3. absurdbeats Says:

    We’ve talked about this once or twenty times, so you know I share your interest.

    Still, I don’t anything *has* to happen.Yeah, there have been apocalypsi? apocalypses [flaming dots exploding into the abyss]? throughout human history, some of which wiped out large portions of the human population. But the catastrophes seem to be precisely that: the emergence of a killer microbe or the appearance of a wayward meteor in a manner almost completely unforeseen.

    As to the killer microbes, yes, existing social conditions may have allowed for an easier spread, but the Spanish flu killed everyone, everywhere. That says more about the microbe than the condition.

    I tend to think that things will deteriorate, and that social, economic, and political life will become more brutal, more exploitative, and even cheaper than it already is. And here I swing back around toward semi-agreement with you: a lot of this deterioration is down to us, to the short-term and in-denial kind of decisions we have made and continue to make.

    But this doesn’t mean, I think, that anything fundamental has to change: I think we humans are quite capable of continuing in our selfish ways, consequences to others be damned. I’m not even sure that less-than-catastrophic consequences to ourselves will lead us to change anything about how we relate to the natural world and to one another.

    In short, I think FutureWorld is more likely to look like China (corporate-authoritarian) than ‘The Road.’

    That said, I have thought that a fine place to meet the End of the World would be at the Cathedral of St John the Divine—all of those high and sturdy columns tumbling down. And that St John the Divine is credited as the author of ‘Revelations’ makes it even more perfect. . . .

  4. soundofrain Says:

    @absurdbeats – When I talk about major change and what *has* to happen, I’m talking about the shift away from a world based on non-renewable energy. It’s going to be rocky. Whether it happens before we’re ready for it, whether we handle it the way we want or are forced to play catch-up, depends on us, which is not a good thing since, as we all know, humans aren’t great at long-term responsibility and taking care of each other.

    In a weird way, looking forward to a worldwide apocalypse is really optimistic on my part. It’s the only hope we have to switch to a completely different paradigm. And overall, it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll get our collective act together, whatever happens – but if we’re allowed to follow the path of inertia, we will.

    As to whether we’re looking at corporatocracy or The Road, well, time will tell.

  5. soundofrain Says:

    Oh, and regarding killer microbes – their devastation can *only* happen under the conditions we have now – worldwide urban crowding and lots and lots of high speed travel. Spanish flu only had something like a 2.5% kill rate, it’s just that it infected almost half of everyone on earth.

    Most viruses come from animals, and are an animal-human adaptation on the part of the virus. That’s why so many of them come from China, where people live very closely with poultry and pigs. The way we live brings about our catastrophes – that’s my favorite thing of all. 🙂

  6. soundofrain Says:

    @HauntedHarpsichord (god I love that name) – it must be something innate to human psychology – “this is working (even if only sort of), therefore any change is bad.” Part of the problem with the changes that need to happen is that people can’t imagine them, can’t imagine what life would look like. It’ll help a lot when some good marketing minds start working on that.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if we did miss the Rapture, given that I don’t think most of the people who believe they qualify for it, actually do. 🙂

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