Some religious folks are looking forward to the end of time. Some Christians hope that the end will come on the 2,000-year anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion. That’s in about 10 years, depending upon how you date the crucifixion.
All of this might cause you to freak out. But take a breath and adopt a larger perspective. Someone is always predicting the end. One hundred years ago, in 1919, W.B. Yeats wrote, “The Second Coming.” Yeats famously warned of a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. Writing in the aftermath of the first World War, Yeats seemed to predict the further horrors of the 20th Century. “Things fall apart,” he wrote. “The center cannot hold.”
The good news is that even though each generation fears an impending apocalypse, life goes on. Even after the horrors of two world wars, civilization reconstituted itself. The bad news is that things really do fall apart. Civilizations rise and fall. The “new abnormal” is really just the same old thing.
This does not mean we should ignore the warning signs. We need rational discourse and scientific insight. But we also need a philosophical perspective and some ethical guidance for living in the shadow of doomsday.
Let’s first acknowledge that there is nothing special about clocks and calendars. These are human creations. Different people date things in different ways. And there are as many signs of hope as there are of doom — if you just look for them. Poverty and crime are down. Science is discovering new insights. And so on.
But nothing lasts forever. There will be storms, fires, and earthquakes. The Earth is a spinning dynamo. Human beings also rage and rumble. There will be wars and crime and hate. Good people betray their high ideals. Bad people gain power. There is always corruption and rot.
The menace of destruction should teach us compassion. Life is fragile and people suffer. Don’t contribute to that suffering. Try to alleviate it. Our precarious existence shows us the need for care, kindness, and love.
We are born weak and dependent. We struggle and suffer as we learn and grown. At some point in adulthood we develop a sense of a permanent self. But adult independence lasts a few decades. Eventually autonomy fades. Things fall apart. We return to dependence and then to dust.
The same is true of states and empires. New governments rise out of the ashes of old ones. Institutions develop and decay. Societies become senile and senescent. The average lifespan of the empires of history is a few hundred years. Then things fall apart. And the process begins again.
We are often deluded about what is real, substantial, and important. Suffering is real. But the larger structures move and shift. Identities and institutions come and go. Ethical commitment helps us ride through the chaos. Truth is more permanent than an institution. Justice focuses us on what is right. And compassion creates a refuge against the onslaughts of time.
It is natural to fear apocalyptical doomsday predictions. We want things to remain firmly fixed. We resist the inevitability of change. We long for stability. We fear chaos and collapse. And we cling to persons and institutions.
This is normal and understandable. Life is a protest against decay, as the organism fends off dissolution. There is a time for clinging and holding fast. But nothing lasts forever. And there is wisdom in letting go at the right time.
Adopting this larger point of view can help us find calm in the face of calamity. Science, reason, and ethics can help us make progress. But this only works if we are not freaked out by the clicking of the doomsday clock.