Friday, August 31, 2012

The End of the World? Apocalypse and the mythic imagination (August 26, 2012)

It has become a frequent turn of conversation at our house:
“Should we be putting more away for our son’s college tuition?”
“It doesn’t matter because the world is going to end in 2012.”
“We should go visit our cousins in North Dakota some day”
“Sure, if the world doesn’t end in 2012.”
We don’t really believe that the world will end on December 21, 2012, but all the hype about 2012 causes me to wonder: “how long can things go on as they are? Is there a radical or catastrophic change on the horizon? Could society come apart in our life time?

By now most of you have heard 2012 spoken of  as a metaphysical or historic turning point. On December 21, 2012, the  5,125-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar  comes to an end. In honor of this auspicious moment in history I thought we should take a moment this morning to talk about the “end of the world.” The number of Facebook posts and web sites imagining what this coming winter solstice might portend shows us that the “end of days” is on our minds right now, as a culture. As an avid reader of Sci-Fi, I’ve read many stories over the past few decades that are imagined visions of what the end might look like- it’s a favorite theme of Sci-fi authors. But Sci-Fi authors are by vocation at the far edge of imaginative thought. So what interests me is that right now in our culture you don’t have to go to the Sci-Fi channel to find the stories of the apocalypse and what comes after. Look at the success of the Hunger Games- the young  adult novels about a dystopian post-apocalyptic world. Television is filled with shows set in a post-apocalyptic world like “Falling Skies” about the remnant of humanity trying to survive after an alien invasion, or “The Walking Dead” about a world ravaged by a zombie epidemic or this new show they are pumping up for the fall “Revolution” about life after an electromagnetic attack disables our plugged-in society.

And whether you watch TV or not, I know you have heard the apocalyptic stories told by politicians and preachers. Both the right and the left have these stories- have you noticed? The story the right tells is about the rapture, when all good Christians will be raptured to heaven, and the rest will be left to experience the end of the earth. The story the left tells is about an environmental catastrophe which will be the results of global warming, or the end of fossil fuels, or the collapse of the global food market. In this version of the end days, the size of the human population shrinks back to that of Neolithic times, and without fossil fuels the surviving remnant of humanity must grow their own food from depleted soils without the aid of trucks or tractors or petroleum based fertilizers. In other more dire versions, we come to the extinction of the human race all together, as the earth heals herself and new species evolve that can survive in the mess we’ve made of our biosphere. Right now, the imagination of our culture is captivated by these apocalyptic stories. Why?

I want to approach this question today not from a political or stewardship or justice perspective. I want to look at this as a story, a dream, a not-yet speech ripe emergence from our collective unconscious. Lets call it a figment of our collective imagination. Imagination uses different language than journalism or science. It must combine the known with the unknown, it must use symbols and broad artistic license to leave room  for what-might-be.  Sometimes folks look at imaginative stories with too much literalism,  and so miss all the richness, all the wisdom, all the truth that the imagination has to offer in it’s strange, elusive way.

For the past couple of years a small group of us has been meeting to talk about our dreams, believing that there is something in not only our own dreams but in one anothers' dreams which is valuable, which may not be available in the normal ways of looking at our lives and at our world.  What if we looked stories of the apocalypse this way? What if we looked at them as nightmares? I studied projective dreamwork with Rev. Jeremy Taylor, a Unitarian Universalist community minister, and he tells us that:
“For millions of years, the ability to pay immediate and focused attention to nasty, threatening stuff has been a primary survival test. The creatures who pay effective attention to threats tend to survive, and the ones who don't tend not to survive. In this way, we have been shaped by natural selection to be inherently predisposed to pay attention to ugly, scary, and menacing experiences.
As a consequence, when the deep source within (from which all dreams spring, spontaneously and unbidden) has potentially important information to convey to the waking consciousness, it is very likely to dress that material up in the form of a "nightmare," simply to get our attention.”

This is not the first time we as a culture have had nightmares about apocalypse. There is a whole group of writings called “apocalyptic” in our Judeo-Christian scriptures. The first such books was Daniel, written around 164 BCE, and the last was Revelations written around 90 years into the christen era.  And it makes me wonder – why is this recurring nightmare coming back to humankind right now?

When we moved from the east coast to California almost 20 years ago, one of the first events Eric and I went to was to see was a talk by a fellow called TerenceMcKenna, an author and pop icon,  at our local book store. The place was packed. He believed that time unfolded not in a steady line, but like a sine wave. Periods of great novelty arose in history, he said, and in 2012 we were headed for a period of tremendous novelty- where anything was possible the likes of which had not been seen in history since the time of Jesus. My husband and I immediately dismissed this because it was an idea that came to him while he was on one of those psychtropic vision inducing drugs that anthropologists are always taking while working on their studies in the Amazon. But my husband and I have been paying attention to that date, especially when we noticed it coincided with the end of the Mayan calendar on the winter equinox in 2012.

Reporters on a recent show on public radio talked to some actual Mayans about this, and to scholars of Mayan history and found that in Mayan culture the date is no more important than having a really big New Years Celebration. But it has captured our imagination in a huge way. If we look at the 2012 phenomenon as rationalists, this report gave us all the information we needed to dismiss the whole business. No one should stop investing in our children’s college fund, or stop brushing our teeth.  Just as when we wake from a nightmare, we can easily say “oh, what a relief, it was just a dream!” and think no more about it.

When the year 2000 came, many were expecting an apocalypse, or at least a major collapse of our technology. Folks use the Y2K scare an example of how it is silly to pay attention to such things. I think it’s useful to note, however that there were folks working overtime for months in response to the fear of that nightmare, to make sure that data transition was smooth. We will never know what constructive steps our anxiety about Y2K compelled us to take. If our apocalyptic nightmares are trying to wake us up to pressing danger, maybe the Y2K nightmares did their job.

The symbolic thinker in me wonders if maybe we are looking at the millennial drama too literally. Since zombies do not currently roam the streets, and the internet did not collapse throwing us back to the stone age, our literal minds skip right over the MASSIVE changes that did take place over the past decade. In the year 2000 many members of my congregation did not even have e-mail, and almost no one had their own cell phone. We were in the middle of one of the biggest housing bubbles the country had ever seen. Technology stocks were like helium balloons floating off into the stratosphere. This was a world before 9-11, back when you could wear your shoes or carry a water bottle through airport security. This was a world before the Patriot Act, before Citizens United.

But our apocalyptic nightmares didn’t go away after New Years Eve 2000 came and went. We see them changing form and gaining in frequency. If this were my dream as an individual, it would mean that there is something important in my life that I am ignoring. Some threat to the wholeness of my psyche, to my unfolding as a person. And this dream we dream as a culture will not stop appearing until we have addressed the underlying concerns. Rev. Taylor suggests that when our lives are threatened in a dream, this usually symbolizes a threat to our identity, a threat to our sense of self. It shows us that we are on the verge of a change so huge that it feels like dying. That part of our self will have to die in order to allow the transformation that is needed. And as one of the dreamers of this apocalyptic dream, that notion rings true for me.

We know, all of us, deep inside, that the world we are living in cannot continue in this way; It is heading for transformation one way or another. Some folks say that we have passed peak oil, even the oil companies agree that it is coming though they project it further into the future. Change is coming. Maybe that change is a technological breakthrough. Maybe it is a leap in the evolution of the consciousness of our species. Maybe that change is societal collapse where only the rich can afford to drive cars and eat food shipped from across the continent while the rest of us struggle to feed our families. I am not going to list all the ways our culture feels like it is at the brink of either collapse or radical change, because you all will never come back to church if I do. But I think part of the reason that images of a post-collapse zombie-filled world are swirling around us is because we look into the future and we are having more and more trouble imagining that things will go on just as they are.

But as dream guru Taylor offers as one of his primary assumptions for dream work- dreams never come to tell you something you already know. They never come just to say “nya nya – you are running out of fossil fuel.” Every dream (especially the nightmares) has a gift in it.

Here is one of the most important gifts of our apocalyptic nightmare. In every story of collapse, there are those who act with ethical integrity, and those who abandon ethics. There are those who believe that once society collapses it’s every person for themselves, and there are those who believe, that in this time more than any other, our values will serve as the pillars that support life and culture. If this is my dream, I need to know who I am and what I stand for, and I need to know that there are those around me who will help me support and sustain those values. When the erosions of democracy I notice in my daily life remind me of any number of Sci-Fi novels, this is a sign to me that NOW is the moment when I need to ground myself in what I know to be ethical and compassionate, and hold fast to these pillars as the rivers of history unfolding swirl around us.

Another gift of this nightmare is that when we project our selves into a future so radically different from our ordinary lives today we wake in a sweat asking, “what do I need to do to prepare for such a future?” When Eric and I moved from California to Ithaca, we were thinking not only of our son’s future, which we wanted to support with an excellent public school system, but I confess to you that we also had a lingering nightmare in our minds which informed our choices. If we were going to put down roots for a time  beyond peak oil, we wanted to live in a pedestrian centered community. We wanted to be near fertile farm land and plenty of fresh water. No matter what the future holds, we are going to need to eat, and drink, and rely on a community of neighbors. Thinking about the kinds of dramatic changes history brings helps us make choices that not only support a lifestyle that we can enjoy now, but 7 generations into the future. And how can we really know what 7 generations into the future looks like when we don’t even know what tropical storm Isaac will look like when it hits Florida tonight or tomorrow?  As James A.Dewar of the Rand Corporation said “in long term planning we need to shore up our load-bearing assumptions.” And we are putting a lot of our load right now on fossil fuels, for example, which folks on all sides of the issue agree is  a finite resource.

I believe that this church, this beloved community could be such a pillar 7 generations in the future, no matter how different that future might be. It has, indeed, served this community for 7 generations already, and as we saw during the flood, we know that together we have the capacity to respond to the unexpected with compassion and integrity. I think Project Grow is another such endeavor. The goal of Project Grow, as I understand it, is to bring people of the Valley together in a web of mutuality to support our local food system, and to teach one another the skills needed to make sure that,  no matter what happens, we and our children can grow our own food. Because although the Valley still has more family farms than anywhere I’ve ever lived, we also know that it takes only a generation for a community to lose all its family farms, and to forget the complex techniques it takes to grow the food a community needs. This is the vision John Doscher has been holding out for us, of a community that can feed itself, sustain itself when dramatic change comes. Hopefully life in the valley will continue just as it is now, and the skills of growing carrots and milking goats will be just a wholesome hobby for our children and grandchildren. But just in case…

By imagining the collapse of society as we know it, we must also either resign ourselves to despair, or ask, as Ebenezer scrooge did “Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?” When we remember this nightmare we can ask ourselves “is it too late to save our society, our planet, or is there something I can do to help change our course?”  This is the work our Green sanctuary committee is doing. Later this fall I will preach a sermon on the “great turning” and we can think together in more detail about a more hopeful dream, one where we turn away from societal collapse, and create something new together.

The next time you are overwhelmed by visions of impending doom, or you are just flipping past the zombie show on your television, I encourage you to think of these apocalyptic visions as a dream our culture is dreaming. And to remember that as Rev. Taylor explains “In my experience, all dreams (and particularly nightmares) come in the service of health and wholeness…The very fact that a dream is remembered in the first place means that the dreamer actually has at his or her disposal all the courage, creativity, strength, and wisdom necessary to respond creatively and transformatively to even the worst "problem" that the dream presents.”