One day, after class, a student I’ll call Cathy approached me in the hallway.
“Professor,” she said tentatively, “do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“No, go right ahead,” I replied.
“What do you think of all this End of the World stuff? I mean, do you really think the world is going to end?” she asked.
I was stunned.
Cathy couldn’t have known that I had just resumed work on this book after a long hiatus. Nor could she have known that, in a recent e-mail to a friend, I confessed how strange it was that suddenly all sorts of individuals I was encountering in my everyday life were bringing up the subject of apocalypse. I’d joked that I was becoming some sort of “doom magnet.”
But I could tell from the look on Cathy‘s face that, to her, the subject was no joke. She was serious — deadly serious. I knew that I had to choose my next words very carefully. I didn’t want her to think that I was belittling her or her concerns.
Is the World Going to End?
“No, I don’t think that the world is going to end,” I replied. “Since you’ve asked me a question, is it all right if I turn around and ask you something? If you really thought that the world were going to end, what would you do differently?”
Cathy paused, her face scrunched up in thought. “I think I’d just stay here in Brooklyn, with my family,” she answered.
“And if you didn’t believe that the world were about to end?”
“I’d transfer to another school — somewhere else, out of state, to finish my degree,” she stated firmly, without missing a beat. “I want to go into politics. You know, make the world a better place, and all that. If it doesn’t sound too corny.”
“Not at all,” I replied. “Don’t worry. Do what you really want to do. Don’t act out of fear. The meaning of ‘the end of the world’ — it’s not what you may think.”
A look of relief washed over Cathy’s face. She thanked me profusely as we said our hasty goodbyes and went our separate ways.
Lingering Doomsday Doubts & Fears
But as I trudged down the stairwell toward my office, I wondered: Was Cathy really convinced by my hearty reassurances? Or would her doubts — and fears — linger? How many of her generation were like her? How many more out there were living with an unchecked, and perhaps unexpressed, anxiety over a prospective cosmic cataclysm?
The mere thought of it boggled my mind.
It's a Wake-Up Call
Plato’s great teacher, Socrates, famously stated that a philosopher must be annoying to be effective — like a buzzing gadfly that wakes up a sluggish horse catching a nap on a hot summer’s afternoon. A society requires an irritant to wake itself up, to become aware of its destructive patterns, and to initiate a change.
The task at hand is not merely to “speak truth to power,” but to question the core beliefs and values of our culture. Not only the attitudes of the elite, but also the prejudices and assumptions of the average person, are fair game. Most of us, as Socrates well knew, operate according to custom, habit, and tradition most of the time — that is, unthinkingly, with little or no critical reflection. Autopilot is our default position. We don’t even know who set the controls, or where we’re going.
It's A Myth: True And False
And so, Cathy, this is what I would have said to you, that day in the stairwell, in answer to your question about the End of the World. It’s a myth. And that means it’s true and powerful, but also false and weak. It depends on how you look at it. The world may end, but only if you make it happen
The Myth of the Great Ending is not really about the future; it is a distorted echo of the distant past, and the catastrophic end of our once harmonious relationship to nature. But it also serves as a coded reminder of the true magic that is still available in the present moment when we choose to align ourselves with nature, and with our own true, deepest nature.
As for the future — well, you must make it for yourself. It’s up to you. Of course, you can always give away your authority, or passively wait on the sidelines for a Day of Judgment or Terminal Doom. But that, too, is your choice.
Be Who You Want to Be
But, when you boil it all down, it comes to this: Do whatever it is that you — the real you — truly want to do. Don’t be afraid of the future. And whatever you do, don’t take the Myth of the Great Ending at face value. In fact, you’d be better off ignoring it altogether. Go out and buy yourself a notebook. Then write down your nightly dreams. On my view, that would be time and money well spent.
Now, I grant you that all this may seem like simple advice — maybe too simple. However, I remind you that, in order to discover who and what you really are, and what it is that you actually desire, you must ask yourself some hard and uncomfortable questions.
Don’t be afraid of this, either. For who you really are and what you really want are the very things that nature has given you as her finest gifts.
Trust the Process
Years ago, when I was in a difficult place myself, a friend offered me some well-meaning advice: “Trust the process,” she said gently.
At first, I was miffed. I thought my friend was just trying to soothe me with some banal catchphrase. It took me a good long while — years, in fact — to realize how wrong I was. For what she told me then was profound, and perhaps the wisest thing that anyone can ever say.
Trust the process.
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
The Myth of the Great Ending: Why We've Been Longing for the End of Days Since the Beginning of Time
by Joseph M. Felser.
This excerpt was reprinted with permission of the publisher, Hampton Roads Publishing. ©2011. www.redwheelweiser.com
About the Author
Joseph M. Felser, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Chicago and is an associate professor at Kingsborough Community College/CUNY in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of The Way Back to Paradise: Restoring the Balance between Magic and Reason. His work appears regularly in scholarly journals and he was invited to give the Keynote Address at the world-renowned Monroe Institute’s 20th Professional Seminar in March 2006. Visit his website at www.magicandreason.com and/or www.everythingtriestoberound.com.