Here’s a theory: Most people, these days, have a deep sense that things have gone wrong, in a big way, worldwide. You might call it the “Apocalyptic intuition.” As Yeats put it in his poem, “The Second Coming”:
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world / … Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”
Have you noticed all the films, books and (I’m told) video games involving post-apocalyptic scenarios? Makes you wonder if we’re having some sort of collective premonition.
But what if the Apocalypse has already taken place?
No Grand Apocalypse has occurred (not yet anyway). No nuclear annihilation. No global climate catastrophe, No asteroid hurtling toward Earth. No global epidemic wiping out two-thirds of the world’s population. Yet people keep making films and writing books that envision The End or The Aftermath. And judging by their popularity, many consumers find them irresistible.
But perhaps it already happened.
Maybe World War I — whose centennial we’re currently observing — was Part I, and World War II was Part II. Maybe this is a stealth, slow-motion Apocalypse.
In most apocalyptic scenarios, all of civilization’s institutions are destroyed, and we’re left to start over. Which feels very familiar. Looking back at my six-decade, post-WWII lifetime, all of the pillars, the institutions that undergirded my “foundation” growing up, seem to have faltered or faded. Seems as if we can’t count on any of the things we used to rely on: Religion, government, banks, public education, marriage, family, voting, homeownership, the middle class, the Internet, corporations, food, health care, public safety, professional sports, the very climate itself. We grew up being told, “You can’t do anything about the weather.” Turns out even that was wrong.
Look what we’ve been through the last 50 years: The Kennedys and King assassinations, Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, the Iran Contra scandal, the AIDS epidemic, the 2000 election, 9/11 and worldwide terrorism, the steroid scandal in Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal, the Penn State scandal, torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, NSA surveillance of American citizens, computer hacking, the 2008 financial meltdown, the subsequent mortgage crisis, myriad mass murders by the deranged with easy access to guns.
How could we not be disillusioned? Some just look lost, dazed and confused. Others take refuge in their bunkers of ideological certainty.
As Yeats put it in his (apocalyptic) poem, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” It was written almost a hundred years ago, but it applies today. “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” No country for old men indeed.
And no firm ground to stand on, just flux – lots of flux. Uncertainty is the new certainty.
Then again, there is another current to consider …
If the Apocalypse has already happened, it might be liberating. This may be our Great Opportunity. If we accept the fact, we don’t have to expend so much time and anxiety trying to save what can’t be saved. We can devote our energies to seeking a newer world. It’s not too late, Tennyson said.
The stealth Apocalypse wasn’t a terminus, in other words. It was an ending followed by a beginning, which is in the process of unfolding. As an old song says, “Every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.”
We’re in the no man’s land between world orders. One has ended. The other has not yet begun. You can find signs of it if you’re looking, but most aren’t looking or don’t know what to look for. They’re too busy desperately trying to prop up the old pillars. But Humpty Dumpty has had his great fall, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put Humpty together again.
The old pillars are lying in ruins, but just because “Family” is in ruins doesn’t mean your family is in ruins. We’re talking about the big picture. “Family,” indeed all institutions, are being reinvented, re-imagined, redefined. We’re just not finished yet.
Faith remains essential during this extended, decades-long (perhaps century-long) transition. We have to let go of faith in old certainties that were never certain anyway. The Great Threshing process has been set in motion, separating wheat from chaff.
But we still need a reasonable belief that all of this will sort itself out somehow, and that “what comes next” — though imperfect like every “world” has been and containing the seeds of its own destruction as all “worlds” do — will nonetheless move us forward along this mysterious path we’re on.
Faith says we will survive and, in many ways, be better off. So the bad news is we’re already living in a post-apocalyptic world. The good news is, something new is just beginning.
As the young hotel manager says to his aging, anxious, post-apocalyptic clientele in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be all right in the end. If everything is not all right, it is not yet the end.”
What this apocalypse has destroyed, first and foremost, is certainty. What you think is true is never entirely true, at least not in the way you thought. And the new and improved “truths” will not be entirely true either. We haven’t evolved enough to know the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
One thing seems clear (to me anyway): We’re heading somewhere. Our notions of God and Truth are evolving, and human beings are evolving. The only thing that doesn’t evolve is certainty. The only thing we can’t afford is certainty. Unchanging certainty. Absolute certainty. The new world requires of us a healthy, humbling dose of uncertainty. Those who can embrace that will be best suited to navigate what comes next.
All those pillars haven’t really crumbled. It’s just that our exalted view of them has changed. They weren’t what we thought. It’s our inability to see the world without illusions that is the real problem. We’re not good at seeing what is. We see the world we think should be. The difference between those two causes us great distress. When the gap gets great enough, we experience an apocalyptic crisis. Our illusions evaporate. What’s left after the fog clears is the new world.
May we all live to see it.