Making Peace With Apocalypse
May 27, 2020
When you read that word, what emotions does it elicit? What imagery comes to mind?
In common use today, apocalypse refers to any event marked by catastrophe, cataclysm, or destruction on a vast scale. Some warned of impending financial apocalypse even before the coronavirus pandemic forced governments around the world to shut their economies down. Others have warned of climate and ecological apocalypse for decades, and fear a global tipping point may not be far off.
Not only do we fear apocalypse, we also fetishize it. From I Am Legend and Mad Max to The Road, Parable of the Sower, and beyond, apocalyptic themes score big at bookstores and at the box office. In the realm of fiction, apocalypse is a billion-dollar industry. It may well be that at no other time in history have so many people been so fascinated with the conditions of their own demise.
Apocalypse has more to offer than visions of catastrophe and cataclysm, though. The modern English word traces its roots to the ancient Greek word apokalyptein, where its roots apo- (off, away from) and kalyptein (to cover, to conceal) hint at its original meaning: to uncover, to reveal, or to disclose. The word migrated into Latin as apocalypsis where it featured prominently in the Bible’s New Testament. At that time it was used synonymously with the word revelation: the uncovering of truth in a surprising or dramatic way.
I uplift the original meaning of apocalypse because it is every bit as relevant as the modern one. When the social and environmental systems we depend on meet our needs, few feel inspired to investigate their deeper workings. If there are plenty of trees, keep cutting. If there are more fish, keep catching. If there is oil to be found, however costly it might be to extract, keep drilling. Only when our support systems show signs of failure do we look at them more critically. Research inspired by rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, for example, has revealed much about the workings of Earth’s climate system. Catastrophe and revelation are deeply intertwined.
Perhaps one reason we fear apocalypse is that it often portends endings. We might fear the end of a flavor of normalcy we have grown accustomed to, or the end of a social or political institution we hold dear. We might fear the end of blissful ignorance and the ensuing shifts in priorities that demands, or the end of a worldview with which we identify. These endings intimidate us because few of us have invested the time learning to navigate them. Our lives, rooted in the ongoing cycle of birth and death, present myriad opportunities to hone this skill, but few embrace them. This carries profound consequence with respect to how we show up in the world.
My initiation in the practice of navigating endings began in earnest in February of 1999. I was a senior in college, and after struggling for years with mental health issues I hit rock bottom. I will spare you the details of my downward spiral and suicide attempt, but years of reflection have taught me that it ultimately resulted from my inability to let go of certain patterns I internalized during childhood that no longer served me. Those patterns needed to end, but I lacked the tools to orchestrate those endings in anything resembling a graceful manner.
Some traditional societies recognize the importance of teaching young people to navigate endings and use rites of passage to accomplish the task. The particulars of these rites vary, but many involve ushering young people through ritualized, often dangerous ordeals. Success is not guaranteed. To get through, participants are forced to relinquish their youthful behavior patterns and even their understanding of who they are. Guides fill the void left in the wake of the initiatory experience with new patterns and new ways of thinking that will allow participants to integrate into their communities as adults.
Learning to navigate endings does more than help us transition from one life stage to another. It demonstrates that, as individuals, we are capable of changing, of adapting to new circumstances, to new expectations. This realization is particularly potent as we face larger social transitions. Over shorter timespans the norms of societies shift, governance models evolve, economies develop. Over longer timespans another pattern becomes clear: just as individual people are born, mature, grow frail, and die, so too do societies writ large. In his classic book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter writes of nearly two dozen civilizations that expanded for long stretches of time before diminishing returns, among other catalyzing forces, conspired to reverse those trends. The coronavirus pandemic that began in late 2019 could well act as a catalyst on this scale, for individual countries and perhaps even globally.
Many today invest such moral weight in the ideology of perpetual growth—as applied to human population, economic productivity, and technological advancement, among other realms—that they cannot imagine that ideal’s end as anything but catastrophic. This creative failure underlies many post-apocalyptic books and films. It is as if no dignified life could be lived without more spending, consumption of ever more goods and services, and a quickening rate of technical advance and planned obsolescence.
While social transitions like those Tainter described can indeed be disastrous if people succumb to fear, self-centeredness, and the poor decision-making they engender, this need not be the case. In truth, large-scale social transitions can be navigated gracefully provided people look critically at their social arrangements, discern what must be relinquished, and act decisively. When navigated skillfully, endings create space for experimentation, for the emergence of new ideas and innovations. To paraphrase from Ugo Bardi’s The Seneca Effect, endings are not a bug, they are a feature. They are the tool the universe uses to get rid of the old and make space for the new. Endings are woven into the fabric of existence at all scales. New cells are born when parent cells divide, and they eventually die. Individual organisms are born and die. Entire species emerge to fill a novel niche, and either go extinct or change so radically it no longer makes sense to view them as the same species anymore. Planets come and go, stars burn out, and even the universe as a whole may well collapse in on itself, ready to burst forth again when the time comes.
My mental health crisis during college illuminated for me the importance of embracing endings. By forcing me to slow down and look inward, it set me on a path towards liberation from the maladaptive behavioral patterns that hindered me for years. As harrowing and tumultuous as that experience was, I could not have become the person I am today without it. Those endings set me free.
If Homo sapiens is to persevere over the longer term, we must learn to let aspects of ourselves and our societies end. The coronavirus pandemic will force our hand in this regard. Climate change will do the same, and for some the tension from this process has already begun. Time and circumstance may compel us to let go of social and political institutions, expectations, and ideologies we have come to cherish. What will it mean for us, as individuals and as societies, to face and even embrace these endings? Will this be something of a global rite of passage, where many of us, as individuals, must relinquish who we were to make space for who we must be? Who will the post-pandemic world need us to be? Who will a world defined by widespread climate catastrophe need us to be?
Catastrophe is part of our lives. Our species has persevered through more of it than we, collectively, can even remember. Revelation is also part of our lives, and those who see through the mayhem it emerges from earn the wisdom they glean. The coronavirus pandemic we are contending with will not end the world. Climate change will not end the world either, though it will change it in profound ways we cannot yet imagine. Apocalypse itself is not the end of the world, but a turning point that leads a society down a new path. We would do well to question any claim to the contrary. Such notions deaden the imagination and turn a navigable transition into an unconscionable collapse.
I occasionally wonder what the lives of people living 1,000 years from now will be like. I know that whoever is here then will have persevered through centuries of climate change, political turmoil, famines, pandemics, and other challenges I have not yet thought to worry about. Of these ordeals they will tell rich stories that impart the many lessons they and their ancestors learned. They will value the ritualized ordeals that train their youth to navigate endings and to adapt to the changing world in which they live. They will have faced apocalypse many, many times, and will have made peace with it.
I began this essay by asking what emotions and imagery came up for you when you read the word apocalypse. I invite you to revisit that question. Has your reaction changed? If so, what inspired that change, as best you can discern? You might benefit from carrying these questions with you as you continue your day. I hope they serve you as well as they have served me.
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I am grateful for editorial comments offered by several friends on earlier versions of this essay. Those who wish to listen to an audio version of this essay or download it as a PDF can access both on my Patreon page. Readers can find me on the web at EricGarza.info.