The End of the World

By Sally Dougherty

We are storytellers. From our memories we each fashion a story with ourselves as the protagonist – and it becomes our identity. If people ask, “Who are you?” we tell them parts of this story. People who can no longer make such a narrative of past and present extending into the future, as with Alzheimer’s, are said to have lost their identity. But are we really this story?

Collectively we tell stories about our species, and these stories lie at the heart of our belief systems. Perhaps this is why are people so fascinated with endings, one of the bookends of individual and collective stories. It’s as though life’s meaning is found in its conclusion rather than its process. Most of us have a strong habit of being caught up in our goals -- in achieving something, in getting somewhere – while dismissing the steps we take to get there, which form the very substance of our lives. Picturing the end of our life as revealing no “greater” meaning than the individual events seems unsatisfying. Think how pessimistic the tone of intellectual life was when the theory of entropy was widely accepted, which held that the universe would run down to static uniformity, a whimper and not a bang -- no divine plan, no overarching meaning, no progress. Though a hypothetical event millions of years in the future, it left many people depressed.

We’ve been hearing quite a bit lately about end times, whether of trying to hasten the Second Coming or looking forward to being raptured. Most traditions picture human history beginning in a golden age, then declining through ages of silver and bronze into a degenerate age which includes the present. When human life reaches its most materialistic and wicked point, they hold, the world will experience a paroxysm where the evil are destroyed and the good are saved. Generally this “ending” marks the start of a new golden age, and the cycle begins again. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita: “I produce myself among creatures whenever there is a decline of virtue and an insurrection of vice and injustice in the world; and thus I incarnate from age to age for the preservation of the just, the destruction of the wicked, and the establishment of righteousness.”

Unusual among ancient teachers, Zoroaster posited a linear, one-time span of history. Norman Cohn in his Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come brings together convincing evidence that this Persian tradition was a main source of the apocalyptic beliefs that appeared in Judaism, carried over into its offshoots Christianity and Islam, and then into secular Western ideas like the Marxist theory of history, some scientific cosmologies, and even New Age interpretations of the ending of the Mayan calendar. Whatever the origin, the coming of a dramatic ending continues to attract and intrigue people.

Of course, most people looking forward to the end of the world believe they are among the elect who will be saved. They feel that the besieged faithful (people like themselves) are suffering in a world dominated by powerful forces of evil – but soon the tables will be turned. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” and the Lord with wreak an awful but satisfying vengeance on sinners and unbelievers. Then the saved will dwell triumphant and blissful, whether in heaven or heaven on earth. This is a polarized and polarizing view.

Desire for an apocalypse is also about justice. It expresses the wish to see selfishness called to account, good rewarded, and the righteous triumphant -- in the hereafter because there seems no hope of humanity bringing this about. How do we come to terms with injustice and suffering, exploitation, oppression, and predatory greed that seem unpunished when not outright rewarded? Can we be satisfied with finding meaning in each moment, rather than looking forward to some ultimate bliss, reward, justification, or achievement? What can we do here and now to renew present conditions and ourselves, rather than waiting and hoping for divine forces and “end times” to make all things as we would wish? And if we believe that we are right, how can we accept and respect those who believe and behave differently than we do?

As beings whose identity consists mainly of stories we tell ourselves, what we believe about why human life is the way it is, how it began, and how it will end are important. They form our attitudes and inform our actions. We might ask ourselves: what are the practical effects of our own stories of cosmic and world history, of the purpose and end of human existence, of who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, and why? (Talk delivered October 2008)

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