It’s Not The End Of The World

December 20, 2012

Some people think the world will end on December 21st, 2012. More people, I think, don’t think it will end, and I’m inclined to go with the majority, partly because I don’t know what the end of the world would even look like. I’ve heard it will involve dogs and cats living together and mass hysteria, which doesn’t sound different from any other day. People who think the world will end are also basing their predictions on the end of the Mayan long count calendar, and aside from the fact that the Mayans didn’t expect the world to end and intended to replace their old calendar with one featuring kittens they didn’t know everything. The Mayans were, as a group, pretty smart people who built fantastic cities, had brilliant astronomers and a complex culture, but when things got bad they threw their jewelry in a giant sunken lake. And when things got really bad they threw each other in, which didn’t help anything and only hurt jewelry sales. What I don’t understand is why some people want the world to end, even though I think I understand the source of the impulse. We’ve all had fleeting moments when we’ve felt like we just can’t go on, when we want whatever we’re going through to end, and sometimes these feelings can be so overwhelming it seems like it would be better if everything ended. If you’ve experienced these feelings and they’re more than fleeting, by the way, if you’re dwelling on them and even making plans based on them please stop reading and talk to someone now. I promise I’ll still be here when you get back.

Anyway, I also realize predictions of the end of the world don’t always come out of suicidal tendencies. They can also come from our desire to be in control, which comes from a desire for order, a desire to understand our world. Without order, without control, without rules the universe is chaos, and chaos is terrifying, even if you’re Maxwell Smart. Well, chaos isn’t not always terrifying. I was once in a lecture on Greek mythology and the speaker kept talking about the early universe being full of “chowse”, and none of us knew what “chowse” was, until someone a few seats down from me whispered “He means ‘chaos’” and then we couldn’t stop laughing, but that’s another story. The knowledge that we live in a chaotic universe is terrifying, so we look for order. We name the constellations, we track the movements of the stars. We know that every December we’ll see shooting stars from or near the constellation Gemini. The Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun said that when he saw shooting stars he’d think, “What, was that a world in convulsions? A world disintegrating before my very eyes? And to think that I, in my life, have been granted the spectacle of a shooting star.” It’s a lovely thought, but it easily leads to wondering whether we are standing on a world in convulsions, or maybe even whether we ourselves are shooting stars. It takes on special significance given that for almost seventy years now we’ve had the technological capability of ending our world with the same process that creates real stars, that keeps our sun burning. And that, I understand, is what terrifies people. No matter how rational we may be it’s still disconcerting that we may be nothing more than exceptionally complicated machines that only need to eat, shit, reproduce, and die. It may be that we’re not privileged, and not special except for large neocortexes that have made our lives infinitely more complicated than they need to be. Evolution has made us smart, but it hasn’t made us wise. We may destroy ourselves or we may be destroyed. Extinction is a fact of life and a constant threat in a fallible and chaotic universe. I keep saying “may” not because I’m hedging my bets, but because I really don’t know. Maybe we are special, maybe we are more than the sum of our parts. Maybe it doesn’t matter. The one thing I’m certain of is that I want to survive, I want all of us to survive, and for that we need each other.

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