Monday, December 21, 2009

Not the End of the World

Not the End of the World

In the late sixties, in my late teens, I was staying with my parents at their summer house on Cape Cod (those were the days). Some friends from across the cove were over for cocktails—that’s what people did in those days, came for cocktails. I said to this older woman that I didn’t think the world was going to survive because things were so bad in the environment and nuclear weapons were poised to destroy us all. She looked at me over her bourbon on the rocks and said, “Everybody thinks the world is going to end in their lifetime.”

A few nights ago I was reminded of this statement when I was sitting in a restaurant with a group of longtime Buddhist activists, artists, and teachers. The topic of politics and more generally the state of the world took over the conversation. I sat quietly and listened as these 60’s survivors lamented that “the system was broken,” and how they didn’t want to be around to watch the world fall apart, that, basically, the best years of the planet Earth are over.

Weren’t we actually in more danger of extinction when the USSR and the US were one button-push away from nuclear war? I mean, clearly global warming is a disaster in the making, but worse than an ice age? The planet’s survived some pretty hairy situations—although loads of species have been wiped out. But, all of this is beside the point. My question is, why does each generation think that it will be the last on earth?

This stuff goes back at least to the Bible, right? Revelations and the Apocalypse. The word “armageddon” derives from the name of the site of a battle fought in ancient Israel. People have been predicting the end of the world since they realized that things had beginnings and endings.

I think there’s a simple reason for is: We can’t imagine the world going on without us. It’s much easier to think that it’s all going to end, that everyone else is going to die along with us than it is to think that we’re going to have to leave on our own and everyone else will go merrily along.

But that’s the way it is. We die and the world goes on. And, really, how selfish is it of us to prefer that everyone die so we don’t have to do it alone?

No, it’s not the end of the world, not now and not anytime soon. The lack of universal health care, the obscene bonuses on Wall Street, the horror of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the rest is no worse than what’s been happening since humans first picked up rocks and started clubbing each other over the head. Humans are violent, greedy, and selfish. They are also loving, generous, and wise. Are things really getting worse? Maybe. But things have been pretty bad before. Not long ago people in this country owned other people. In my lifetime, African-American’s couldn’t go into certain restaurants or ride at the front of a bus. Until recently homosexuality was classified as a mental illness by psychologists.

Look, the world is full of bad stuff and good stuff. The pessimists think the bad stuff is dominant, and the optimists think the good stuff is winning out. Are we evolving towards higher consciousness or descending into chaos? Who knows? But let’s not confuse our own ambivalence about our mortality with the end of the world. It’s not here.