The End of the World did not come yesterday, as 15% of respondents in a worldwide Reuters/Ipsos poll believed would happen. Add those who watched, heard, and retold 2012 myths as entertainment and most of us took part at some level. Why? (More)

Ends of the World, Part III: The Ends are Near (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature explores the human fascination with doomsday myths. Thursday we discussed the current buzz on how the Mayan calendar supposedly predicts that the world will end tomorrow. Yesterday we looked at some previous apocalyptic myths and how their study contributed to modern psychology. Today we conclude with theories on why we find doomsday myths so attractive.

“She shoots! She scores!”

As a child I played basketball and soccer and, like most young athletes, my solitary practice sessions were often filled with fantasy. As I moved and dribbled and shot, I heard and, yes, sometimes spoke aloud the play-by-play … just as groundskeeper Carl Spackler, brilliantly played by Bill Murray, did in this scene from the comedy classic Caddyshack:

The setting for Spackler’s fantasy was the final hole during the final round of the Masters, one of golf’s most prestigious tournaments. Similarly, my practice myths were never set in a driveway pickup game or sandlot kick-about, nor even in a high school match up. There were no preseason tuneups in my “The clock is ticking! She shoots! She scores!” stories. They were all set in the final game of the NBA Finals – there was no WNBA then – or the championship match of the World Cup.

None of my fantasies involved first-half plays, nor were we ever comfortably ahead. We were always behind, with time running out, needing one score, one act of heroic greatness, to snatch glorious victory from the jaws of defeat. In those solitary practice myths, the Ends were always Near.

“To live more intensely”

So it is with many of our shared myths. Whether it’s Dudley Do-Right rescuing Nell Fenwick from the railroad tracks and clutches of Snidely Whiplash, or Neytiri saving Jake Sully from Colonel Miles Quaritch, or Danny O’Shea’s Little Giants needing a last-second score to earn his brother’s respect, we tell myths whose ends would not be fully satisfying unless the Ends were Near. We do that, Karen Armstrong argues in A Short History of Myth, “to live more intensely.”

Yes, I could have imagined dribbling out the clock as my team protected a safe lead. Yes, Dudley Do-Right could have jailed Snidely Whiplash in the first minute of the cartoon and spent the remaining frames wondering why Nell is so interested in her horse. Yes, Neytiri and Jake could have driven away Quaritch and the miners and spent the rest of Avatar soaring in delight aboard their ikrans. Yes, Danny’s team could have jumped out to a big, early lead and spent the film’s last minutes running out the clock. And none of those myths would have satisfied. To “live more intensely,” we need the Ends to be Near.

“The fears behind the myth”

And the Ends are indeed Near, as University of Tasmania sociology professor Douglas Ezzy writes:

The 2012 doomsday phenomenon tells us that people are uncertain about their futures. The world as we know it is changing – global warming is changing our ecology, the economy seems more precarious, we feel less certain. The myth is a way for people to express their fear about these changes and the uncertainty they bring.

Even without those added stressors, at some level we know that our personal Ends, if not Near, are certain. We will all die. Before that, more likely than not, we will lose parents, spouses, siblings, or friends. As last Friday’s horror in Newtown proved yet again, we may even lose our children.

Each death we experience both tears at our hearts and reminds us that there are always Ends lurking Near. However ordinary our lives, for each of us that life is The Big Game. The clock is ticking, and we look around at problems and challenges that seem to cry for one score – one more moment of heroic greatness – to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

We channel that anxiety in many ways. Some of us become politically active through parties, candidates, or issue groups. Others engage with our communities, stocking the shelves at a food pantry or picking up litter beside the road.

No one left to grieve

A deadly few – and thankfully only a few – decide their heroic act must involve a semi-automatic rifle, a high-capacity magazine, and creating a Doomsday they seem to feel helpless to avoid. Often their first targets are immediate family, perhaps to ensure that neither they nor their loved ones will have to grieve.

For at their core, that is what apocalyptic myths spare us. If a solar explosion, asteroid, flood, supervolcano, or nuclear winter – or the cataclysmic return of a vengeful deity – extinguishes life as we know it … then at least we will not die alone, and no one will be left to grieve.

We share these myths as religious tenets, as profitable scams, and as entertainment. Only one-in-seven people admitted they believed the 2012 myths, but most of us took part in them at some level. We may tell ourselves we listened to and discussed them only to mock their absurdity. But beneath the hard veneer of calm reason, we share these very human fears. However much we try to pretend otherwise, we know the Ends are Near.

As Dr. Ezzy concludes:

When nothing happens today, there will simply be another revelation, another turning point, another intimation of apocalypse. But it is also an opportunity to start a discussion about the changes that are taking place in our society and address the fears the behind the myth.

That is truth of the 2012 myth, both sobering and hopeful. If we share our fears, openly and without shame, we can be like the child taking that last-second shot to win the imagined championship. We can help each other “to live more intensely,” and to achieve truly heroic acts.

You have the ball. The clock is ticking….


Happy Saturday!