So this is the last post on Nonstop Karate.
I feel strange being the one writing it. I’ve only been contributing to the blog for a short while, and it would seem more fitting for Matt or Chad to pen the closing chapter. Still, if the world has got to end, it might as well end in Action Movie May, right?
Or it could be the case that the world will as in times before go right on spinning through prophecy and doom. Facebook events for post-rapture looting and Atheists offering post-rapture pet rescue notwithstanding, the end of all days seems to be compelling for quite a number of people. Having been a front-page story on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC Guardian for the past week, believers and detractors alike seem to be fixated on May 21st, 2011- Judgment Day.
What interests me so much about this call to Rapture is not so much that there is a fringe group of people who believe in something crazy. But rather, that apparently reasonable people seem so fascinated by the whole thing, whether as open detractors or as spectators.
Harold Camping, head of Family Radio and chief architect of the doomsday predictions, was born in 1921. This was four years before the first short-run publishing of The Great Gatsby. He will (hopefully) be turning 90 in July. My point?
This is an old, old man who believes something that is fairly silly. He’s not an adversary to grapple with. He’s not a symbol who should rightfully worry rational people who are secure in their rational beliefs. He’s a grandpa. He’s got 24 grandchildren and some funny ideas about mapping numerology onto Biblical passages. It is every bit as irrational to treat him as some kind of legitimate threat to our rationality both as individuals and as a society, as it is to treat him as a genuine prophet.
And yet, we do feel threatened.
The front pages of major news outlets. The angry calls into Family Radio. The impassioned arguments and petty trolling on the Politics and Atheism sub-reddits. People, reasonable people, are freaking out towards one extreme or the other when they should just be allowing the guy the eccentricity of age and moving on with our day.
People seem to like the idea of the world coming to an end.
Normal, sane, mostly rational people seem to have a fascination with the destruction of the world, of life as we know it. I know I do. Call me crazy if you will, but a nontrivial part of me lives for Z-day, the day that the first Zombies rise that marks the beginning of mankind’s losing war against the walking dead. I have an intricate four-stage plan which I alter twice a year based on weather, personal finances, and the members of my would-be survivor group who are still living in or near Bloomington.
During the daylight hours when I’m at my lab, doing science, I understand intellecutally and emphatically that flesh-eating zombies are physiologically impossible. But, when the sun goes down, why take that chance? Why end up down the gullet of a blood-frenzied ghoul when I can inherit the fucking world one machete stroke at a time?
There are a few reasons for this.
First, the only way humans are able to make sense of anything is by building a narrative. Early belief in gods, spirits, and the supernatural demonstrates this tendency, which began when the first hunter-gatherer groups of homo sapiens attempted to explain thunder in the sky. To them, the most reasonable cause was a god, a god who looked like a man and was motivated by the same things that motivated men, living in the sky and causing the thunder to roar. Confronted with a mystery, they told a story to explain it.
Over the eons our stories became more elaborate and abstract. God went from a literal man in the literal clouds to a figurative man in the figurative clouds, from resembling man to being by definition unknowable. Even science and mathematics axiomatically impose human rationality on physical reality, on the assumption that our faculty of reason that developed out of the messy process of evolution for the purposes of eating well, fucking a lot, and avoiding tigers is compatible with understanding reality on a fundamental level. Which is just about as unsubstantiated as earnest belief in Zeus or whatever.
Our tendency to view the world in terms of stories relates to our obsession with the end of the world by virtue of the fact that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When we look at the story of the world as a whole, we see a beginning, we see a middle, and we are conditioned by our thinking to wonder- where is the end?
I think another big part of what fascinates people about the end of the world is the idea of a fresh start. A big part of what it comes down to is choice.
See, there’s this funny paradox about choice and choosing, one with which Western civilization is most familiar. In general, the more options a person has when they come to a choice, the less satisfied they tend to be when they finally settle on just one option. When we are faced with choice, we are essentially faced with the question of
“What if?”. When we make a choice, choosing one option while rejecting another, we are forever haunted by the attractive features, the possibility, of the choice we rejected. And this will forever color how we feel about the choice we did make, even if the choice we made was the right choice, the best possible choice.
So because of human beings’ somewhat wretched relationship to their own faculty of free-will, one can see why a big reset button on human civilization might hold some appeal. Because no matter how good or bad the countless human choices leading up to where the world is today, we are haunted by the possibility that maybe it could have turned out better, that it ought to have turned out better. We are haunted by the question of “What if?”.
Which has largely been an academic question until the 20th Century. Sure, there was good hysteria over the 1000 AD, 1844, 1914, 1918, and 1925. But there is one world event that drastically changed mankind’s reflection upon it’s place in the universe and turned the question of our imminent annihilation from an academic question into an earnest one.
The question of being, the most basic question of whether we want to continue or whether we do not, is the root of this hysteria, this fascination with the End. We do seem to want to continue living, being conscious, and yet we are drawn to the specter like moths to a flame.
And when we live in a world where our own destruction is at our fingertips, we should take instances like Harold Camping’s predictions of God’s judgment on the shriven masses as an opportunity for reflection upon ourselves and the world.
Who are we?
Where are we going?
And how did an old man convince so many otherwise reasonable people that the world was coming to an end without those people, on some level, wanting to believe it was true?
If there was a joke somewhere in all of this, I must have missed it. But that’s no excuse for not laughing.