Apocalypse—from the Greek (apocalypsis): To uncover, disclose.
According to Webster’s in 1913, apocalypse didn’t mean “end times” but these two things:
a. the revelation delivered to St. John on the Isle of Patmos; or
b. anything viewed as a revelation or a disclosure.
Today, the word means the end of the world, but it’s also become a convenient shorthand for anything tragic, anything foreboding, and a descriptor for about 75% of all new TV shows.
And it’s fair, our present obsession with the word. The past few years have felt very much like The End Times: a global pandemic (with no definitive “end” in sight), a steadily worsening climate crisis, a horrific war in Ukraine, among many others. A hellish litany of injustice and oppression unfolds daily, in all corners of the world. This month, in particular, I’ve seen many sad articles from large media outlets that all say, more or less, the same thing: This isn’t a “vibe shift.” This is the beginning of the end. We are doomed.
My blood pressure spikes slightly when I read these headlines. I start to take them to heart. When I consider the news, these pronouncements certainly feel true.
But in my healthier, clearer moments, I am able to consider the past and the great human community who came before me. And this is what I have realized:
It has always been the end of the world. We have always been living in the End Times.
Since human beings have been writing down thoughts and predictions, we’ve been convinced that we were living in the last days, enduring the moments right before it all finally exploded in a fiery blast of extinction. It felt true to us 2,000 years ago, and it feels true to us today.
Death is always right around the corner. We’re primed to watch and wait for it, the sensitive, conscious animals that we are. We’re watchful and interpretive, capable of spinning every moment of dread into a fearful tapestry. It’s human nature to take a sunny day and weigh it down with a whisper that from dust you came and to dust you shall return. We know it’s true; we have always known it’s true: Sudden destruction will come on us like labor pains for a pregnant woman (source).
And this is where we’re living out of the original meaning of the word apocalypse. The taxing experience of our modern lives has been a perpetual uncovering of our fears. Every day, we disclose our anxieties and broadcast them. It is not wrong to do so, perhaps, but I suspect that it isn’t all that helpful, in terms of living.
Distraction may seem helpful. But I’m not sure that’s right either. For those of us who live in a fabulous empire, in our great country of money (source), it’s easy to feel, from time to time, that the End is far away. How could all this go up in flames? Look at how many things we have! We suffer from our outrageous wealth and our outrageous comfort.
The end of the world has always felt much nearer to certain people than to others. The last days were very close to the people who lived through the super-volcano and worldwide famines in 536 A.D. The last days were very close to the people who watched the bubonic plague take a third of the known world. The last days were very close to the families in Ghana who were torn apart by the international slave trade. The last days were very close to the men, women, and children walking the Trail of Tears. The last days were very close to the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And today, the last days are very close to the families scattered across Ukraine and Afghanistan, among other war-ravaged places.
What are we to do?
I don’t know. I suppose we will do what we have always done: Weep and wring our hands and feed our babies and work and find cherry blossoms in our hair and weep some more and pray. And pray. And pray.
I’ve been thinking so much about this poem. It is copied below for further reflection.
By Ilya Kaminsky
If I speak for the dead, I must leave this animal of my body, I must write the same poem over and over, for an empty page is the white flag of their surrender. If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge of myself, I must live as a blind man who runs through rooms without touching the furniture. Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking “What year is it?” I can dance in my sleep and laugh in front of the mirror. Even sleep is a prayer, Lord, I will praise your madness, and in a language not mine, speak of music that wakes us, music in which we move. For whatever I say is a kind of petition, and the darkest days must I praise.
— From Dancing in Odessa (2004)
What a beautiful poem and what encouragement for us still-earthly mortals!