Thursday, July 19, 2007

End Game

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot “The Hollow Men”

In recent weeks, the universe of end-times prophecies has been very busy. According to an AP wire report posted in June, “three-century-old manuscripts by Isaac Newton calculating the exact date of the apocalypse, detailing the precise dimensions of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and interpreting passages of the Bible…lay bare the little-known religious intensity of a man many consider history’s greatest scientist.”

Separately, in a piece in the July 1, 2007 New York Times Magazine, we learned that the ancient Mayans of southern Mexico and Central America formulated the exact date of the end of the world as December 21, 2012.

Newton used the “cryptic Book of Daniel to calculate the date for the Apocalypse” as no earlier than 2060. The Mayans did not so much believe that the date they computed indicated the end of the world as much as the end of a cycle and the beginning of another. According to the article written by Benjamin Anastas, the Mayans “conceived of history not as the linear passage of time but as a series of cycles…that would repeat over and over.” As proof of their accuracy, Anastas offers that these ancient “calendar keepers are known to have charted the cycles of the moon, the sun, Mars and Venus with an accuracy that wouldn’t be duplicated until the modern era.”

Speculation about the end of the world has always been with us, but picked up speculative intensity at the end of the Second World War. This coincides with the arrival of the atomic bomb, which gave us, in most people’s minds, the ability to complete the task of world destruction. With the Cold War, we immersed ourselves in end of the world propaganda. I remember clearly receiving a print out in high school of the number of atomic and nuclear weapons the United States possessed, compared graphically to those in the Soviet Union’s arsenal, and running both tallies against what it would take to blow up the world many times over. Of course, both nations had the ability to destroy the world. That is what led to philosophies like the assurance of mutual destruction that kept each country from launching the weapons during those tense years.

The fact is, as the film Testament made clear, usage of these weapons would not have resulted in the immediate demise of the world. Most likely, the bombs would fall where they fell—either in the targeted areas, or off course—and the resulting explosions would kill some people. More dangerous would be the nuclear fallout from the explosions, or even the debris in the atmosphere that would bring about a “nuclear winter” blocking out the sun’s rays and causing catastrophic environmental changes that would slowly kill off life across the planet.

In the film, we watched as a family, isolated by explosions far away, are left to die, one by one, from the unseen but lethal radiation that slowly poisons them. It remains a poignant, powerful film, if a bit dated.

The millennium launched a new round of end of times speculation. Dire predictions were made about the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999. Our computers were supposed to go mad, and the world would grind to a halt. Somehow, weapons and the anti-Christ would be set loose on the earth. The reality: it was a rather peaceful New Year’s Eve. At 12:01 AM my computer shuffled the date back to 1982. It kept right on running without any crash and burn. I did have to upgrade, though, which made me wonder if the whole fantasy was cooked up by IBM and Microsoft.

September 11th added another chapter to the end of times prophecy. May be it was not the year 2000 that was the actual millennium, but 2001. People turned to the Bible. The anti-Christ, according to some reports, was supposed to arise from the Middle East. Baghdad was the Fertile Crescent which was the supposed location of the mythical Garden of Eden. How poetic: the world ends where it all began.

The fact is, as Thomas Stearns Eliot puts it in his poem, “The Hollow Men,” the world will most likely end as a result of a long, slow decline. One man, or one country, even with a storehouse full of nuclear weapons, could not end it instantly. A rock hurtling through space could strike the earth, causing catastrophe, but life would die out slowly, and probably not completely. We have been hit before, and certainly, the resulting changes eliminated some species, but life persists.

A few years ago, National Geographic Magazine did a spread on the town of Chernobyl in Russia, where a nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown on April 16, 1986. The catastrophe radiated the city. The population evacuated, leaving everything behind. When the magazine’s scientists, writers and photographers arrived, they found rusting cars in parking lots, apartments with food still on the tables, clothes hung in closets, and personal belongings untouched since evacuation day. But most intriguing was the growth of nature. The city was teeming with wildlife. Birds sang in the trees; deer roamed playgrounds and parking lots. Human beings were absent, but nature prevailed. Of course, we are probably only beginning to see the damage to the animal and plant life from the radiation, but somehow, life survives.

Human beings are resilient creatures, as is much of life on earth. Much has been made of global warming and disappearing species, but change is a fact of life. Certainly, we should not poison ourselves, nor continue to be addicted to a substance that is finite in supply, and damaging to use, like oil. But the world will not end now, or even later.

The Mayan prophecy is big in the harmonic convergence set, but they have missed the point. It is the cyclical idea that the Mayans happened upon that is key. The earth does follow cycles. Life itself is a cycle. Walt Whitman knew it; the Buddhists incorporated it into their religion. The movie, The Lion King, called it the Circle of Life. The Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is littered with life cycle discussions. “What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun? One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays.” Or the classic lines, “There is an appointed time for everything…A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build…”

The larger lesson in all of this is the need for an active life of the mind. Newton had it. The Mayans had it. The world will end when, and how, it will, but are you alive? Are you a thinking person? What have you learned about this life, this existence, about the human condition? Why are you here? These questions are what we should focus on. It is the mystery of life that calls us, that makes us marvel at the stars, and weep when we hear Mozart’s Requiem. It is not about the end of times, but the roads we travel and the adventures we find on our way.