As a child I realized I would die, and thought about it often. My parents, now divorced, both like to recount the time I made this sad, if fairly inevitable, discovery. We were driving by a cemetery; I asked if all animals died, then if people were animals, and when I got my answers, was quiet for a long time. In second grade, I realized that looking forward to summer vacation was the same as eating away at the balance of my time on Earth. It was hard to enjoy the tire swing after that. Two years later, it was even worse. My family went to Montreal (again, the summer) and to this day, I associate the Expos with my own flesh gone cold and rotting.
That fall, I came up with a solution. I would devote myself, steadfastly, to the end of the world. That would be my thing.
In the late eighties, it was possible for a nine year-old to confront the end of the world as a purely theoretical problem. Although I grew up in the South, I don’t think I knew what Revelations was until my teens. The Jewish tradition, or at least the education I received, didn’t exactly make a priority of it. It could scarcely be bothered to articulate heaven and hell. My end of the world was a neat, tidy, and reassuring. Everything would be gone. I wouldn’t turn into a fossil or gasoline. My toys wouldn’t belong to someone else. There was no reason to to worry about irrefutable regret. I didn’t even have to bother with God. The sun would swallow up this planet, and then as the grand finale, the entire universe would collapse on itself. Compared to a world without me, or my spending forever marooned in terrible blankness, it was a metaphysical security blanket.
Let me clarify one thing: I wasn’t looking forward to this merciful poof, or interested in working to bring it about as soon as possible. There was nothing dark about this impulse, if you could even call it that. I really just needed a way out of a particularly nasty thought experiment. Also, like most human beings, especially very young ones, I don’t think I could grasp the end of time and space. This was as much a way to short-circuit my brain as it was an appeal to common sense.
But when you find yourself constantly returning to the absolute End of Everything, a funny thing happens—you start to get really bored, really fast. When we think about death, it’s almost always in reference to the world of the living, or some reasonable facsimile of it. We’re drawn to life; the fantasy of watching your own funeral is as much reflex as pathos. It’s certainly easier to situate ourselves there. The allure of the end of the world was that there was no life, no scraps to cry over or clutch at. However, this also meant that, freed from the feeling that human existence was meaningless, I was stuck contemplating absolute zero. There was something vaguely Buddhist about it all, I guess, although there’s a difference between thinking deep thoughts and being sophisticated enough to care. Anyone who has dropped acid can tell you all about that.
Also, while I had turned to eschatology so I could stop worrying about death and destruction—drain The End of all feeling, as it were—it wasn’t long before I realized what an opportunity I had wasted. There’s the cool, rational response to everything going away forever, and then there’s the belief that, if everything goes away forever, something pretty fucking cool had better happen to make it that way. Paul Boyer’s excellent When Time Shall Be No More chronicles the strange way that the narrative of the Apocalypse has been shuffled in order to resonate with the times; the success of Left Behind depends not on the joyous peace of the Messianic age, but rather on the fireworks and bloodshed that precede it.
Today, this shit is everywhere, and the Rapture, when those stuck on Earth must band together to find the Antichrist, is a great time to make friends and build community. It helps that ultimately, all are united in Christ, but prophecy, not doctrine, is the real lesson here—and the source of so much religious fervor today. When the History Channel or A&E runs a program about what we can expect when it all goes down, or people clamor for the end to come so they can start the party, they’re not talking about The End. They’re describing a process that brings all the thrills and chills of complete and total negation, one that at the last minute manages to avoid you-know-what. Even a nine year-old could tell you that.
Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, from Flickr.