Thursday, January 13, 2011

Advice for Apocalyptic Living

Eschatology has always been popular, so it is not possible to say that it's more popular now than any random point in the past. There is not a single thing today that is remarkable in this respect. There are movies now? There were then, too. There are books now? There have always been books. There are people holing up with weapons? Again, no news there.

I have, though, wondered at the birds and fishes dying in unexplainable numbers for mysterious causes. There is no reason I can imagine for the apocalypse starting or finishing in Arkansas, any more than I can think of anything to prove that Louisiana hasn't already been visited by the apocalypse, but the prettiest blackbirds dropping from the skies all at once? Fish all at once bobbing to the surface? Both on the same day? If it's not a sign, one wonders.

When I was young, I read up on the end of days and the end of the world. These are separate things. The end of the world is a question of nuclear weapons. The end of days is when time ceases because of the lack of calendars because God made days and their ending. Some people, in the 1970's, were preparing for the one, some for the other, some for both. As a teen, I was secretly eager for either, I think.

It is not quite thanatopsis, this urge. It is not the inborn swim to the spawning grounds to die, the voice that urges us to the wilderness. Instead, especially as the young love the End, it is a seeking out, I think, of heroism. You see, no one could think of the end as the end. The narrative of the end was always a narrative. The gravest silliness going about now is the "Rapture Rangers" of the Left Behind series. While you might think the end of the world, the judgment of the dead, and the second coming would be fully and adequately described in the Bible -- that it would be, after all, the end of things temporal -- they get sixteen "novels" out of the "end." Nuclear war offered us my favorite, Alas, Babylon (the same author's Stop Time is one of the better things a body can read) as well as the nugget-licious On the Beach and Fail Safe. Since those heady days, nuclear war has given us dozens and dozens of films, novels, and genres of fiction and film -- the nuclear zombie, the nuclear mutant, the nuclear survivor, the nuclear nomad.

Both the end times and the end of the world offer the young believer an opportunity at random heroism. This is important. I could not be a super hero. I would never be bitten by a radioactive spider or bombarded by gamma rays or come from Krypton. However, if The Bomb fell, my innate cleverness might make me a hero, and if the end times came, my virtues could make me a "rapture ranger."

For me, scriptures were too serious for any trivializing with fantasy. God is too ineffable for the horrors of a novel about gaming judgment. God's will is too mysterious and magnificent for anyone to put it into a plot. God's mercy is too divine and superior for any author to create lists for the inferno. Therefore, I never got into a pleasure at the thought of the end, but I did get interested in the signs.

Finding signs and omens is like a Bingo game for the faithful that never ends, but we get to call our own cards.

So... suppose one or the other were to happen. By the time I was sixteen, I realized that, in the event of nuclear war I would be a puff of smoke and that, if I weren't, I would wish I had been. By the time I was thirty, I began to wonder whether that genre of nuclear survival fiction was a sign of national denial and trauma or a sneaky way of getting us all to believe that such wars could be survived by the virtuous, that they might be a good way of getting rid of the undesirables and that they might therefore be a militarist's best friend.

Now, though, I think that either of them is not as described by men. End means end. End means, from the point of view of flesh and time and motion in time, end. There is no tricking of God, no mocking of life, and no restitution one might make to oneself for an end. (Does a person with a week to live who goes to get drunk with a prostitute and a wad of heroin 'make up' for a boring life? Of course not.)

So, if you think there's an apocalypse of any nature coming, I have some advice. You won't be too shocked, I hope, if it echoes what one finds in the Gospels.
1. Don't pay any attention to it.
2. Pay attention to being a good, loving person.
3. Live each day ready for the last, morally.
Climbing on the roof with a bucket or barrel is not required. Buying gold is not helpful. Getting juicy over the prospect of your neighbors dying is almost certainly not to your advantage.

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