I am 12, lying in a sleeping bag on the floor of a friend’s house. It’s dark. It’s late. My friend and I are talking, not about girls or ghosts or standard middle school matters, but about the end of the world. The End.
As young evangelicals in the 1970s, we’d been raised in this language, steeped in the scenarios of all hell breaking loose, war, famine, the rise of the Antichrist, the return of Jesus, suffering, and the millennial reign. The stories were told in Sunday school, in the movies we watched, even in the “nonfiction” books lying around our families’ houses. It wasn’t a matter of if but when, and we both agreed The End would arrive in our lifetimes. Maybe even before the end of the school year.
In those moments of camaraderie with a good friend, The End felt tantalizing as it sparked our survivalist predilections. He and I and our Red Ryder BB-guns, ducking in and out of abandoned stores for supplies, making a fire in the fields beyond our neighborhood, sleeping under the stars. In the midst of the Cold War, just after Ronald Reagan had stepped down as governor of our home state of California, The End was about nuclear weaponry, the clash of superpowers, the invasion of the Commies. And we would survive, budding young men that we were.
But there were other moments, instants when The End cast shadows on my developing psyche. Not long after our apocalyptic sleepover, I came home from school and found no one at home. That wasn’t unusual for my generation, but it felt strange on this day. Something seemed off. After checking through the house and realizing things were a little quieter than usual, I began to panic. I began to wonder if the rapture—the time when Jesus returns and all the Christians ascend to heaven—had come, and I was one of those left behind. My mind flooded with dread. I had survived, but this wasn’t the survival I had been hoping for. A ringing phone snapped me out of my rapt anxiety, though it wasn’t until the familiar voice on the line began speaking that my pulse steadied.
As a child for whom the apocalypse was real, there were but two options for my future: left behind, or suffering torture and possibly martyrdom. This all sort of depended on whether one believed Jesus was coming first, followed by a period of “tribulation,” or whether Jesus would come after that time of testing and mayhem. Both mythologies (dressed up as doctrines) had me by the throat.
Forty years later my throat still itches. An empty house still gives me pause. Or any time I walk into a room in which I expect an event to be in process—a party, a conference, a meeting—and because of some miscommunication I find no one, a creeping feeling of loss hollows out a space in my chest. Not just disappointment, not confusion, and not an “Oh no, I messed up the date,” but a deep unease that brings me back to my empty house during middle school, a sense that the absence in the room is an eternal one.
As for the other option, the torture-filled one, last year I read Flor Edwards’ memoir Apocalypse Child, a recounting of her life growing up in the apocalypse cult “The Family.” I paused at her mentions of the term “martyr.” I felt a familiar chill when she described the “nights I cried myself to sleep because I was never going to live to see adulthood and I was going to die a martyr.” My mind quickly conjured the image of a guillotine at the climax of the evangelical horror film A Distant Thunder, which I had been forced to watch in my fundamentalist middle school—the guillotine was reserved for the faithful Christians who refused the “mark of the beast.” Reading Edwards reminded me of the ways the thoughts of my future self had been filled with such images, as I knew I too would have to suffer.
The End never came, at least not as my little-boy-self imagined it would, but I survived the apocalypse nonetheless. That is, part of my coming of age involved learning how to stop believing the totalizing mythology of The End. I continue to learn that The End is always only a myth, a story. The real future is not predetermined. Myths are real, true, and they guide us, but they are not reality. I began to wonder if The End might not just be an abusive fantasy.
Call this fantasized thinking apocalyptabuse: the demoralizing mythic-psychic warfare that deprives people of hope, makes us fear that The End is near, and thereby cuts off our aspirations of any earthly life to come. The apocalypse was so real and near to me that I would often pray The End would come before my next math test that I hadn’t studied for. Which may sound quaint, but the imminent nature of apocalyptabuse infects every part of one’s life, from math tests to fears of abandonment in romantic relationships to the abandoning of attitudes like hope.
Apocalyptabuse is a future tense dragged down by a history that quashes the here and now. Apocalyptic narratives masquerade as being about the future, but they are always written in the past and comprehended in the present. Their eschatology—literally, their “logic of the end”—traumatizes the future, lets us know that even if we are fine now, we won’t be later. Apocalyptabuse wavers between our fear of being left behind—vehemently secularized in HBO’s The Leftovers—and our fear of being caught up in the ultimate catastrophe. Either way, we will suffer. And I have never fully shaken that premonition.
Today, hunkered down in rural Central New York, as gun sales are at an all-time high and I anxiously refresh my screen for updated body counts from the coronavirus, I find my mind drifting back to this survivalist way of thinking. The temptation is to summon the myth of a coming near-total catastrophe, as survival transforms into some masculinist scavenging, guarding the property, protecting the family. One day, very recently, I caught myself searching online for 12-gauge shotguns.
In the face of the storied power of apocalyptabuse, I strain to remind myself of another kind of survival, one that keeps me socially distant and grieving for the loss of life, but which reorients me spiritually and psychically through a retelling of the future-oriented tales. Among other things, good stories provide ways of dealing with our past, present, and future lives, their possibilities and perils.
Apocalypse, I am reminded, is not equivalent to The End, but its Greek roots allude to an un-veiling, or as the Latin would have it, a “revelation.” The apocalypse is a story about ending worlds that reveal something to us for the here and now.
I find refuge in the writings of D.H. Lawrence who, as he was dying in the late 1920s, turned his attention to the biblical book of Revelation. Facing his own mortality, he began to see what the ancient story was actually revealing:
But the Apocalypse shows, by its very resistance, the things that the human heart secretly yearns after. . . . What man most passionately wants is his living wholeness and his living unison, not his own isolate salvation of his “soul.” . . . [T]he magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. (from Apocalypse)
Lawrence inverts the generally accepted mythologic that leads to apocalyptabuse. Namely, we’ve been taught to believe that the story of apocalypse is about the destruction of “the sun and the stars, the world, and all kings and rulers,” and the question is whether we will survive this future. Under Lawrence’s gaze, the story testifies to how in reality it is not about the destruction of these things, but rather the “yearning for the sun and the stars and the earth and the waters of the earth.”
Lawrence’s story of apocalypse is an even more primordial story of desire for connection, set not in the future but in the present. He realizes that “I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me.” The here and now is the magnificent center, not leading to a time of trauma, but a present celebration. The rapture is not survived; it is danced. This story of apocalypse, like all good myths, is social. Its primary function, alongside imparting morals for ways of living, is to bind people together, to work toward something as a collective.
In a similar vein, the scholar of religion Timothy Beal has recently suggested that when we label events as apocalyptic, “we project our own finality onto the world.” Beal’s study, The Book of Revelation, guides readers through the myriad ways this ancient literature has been retold and interpreted over the ages, from Saint Augustine to what he calls “evangelical rapture horror culture,” from Hildegard of Bingen to the self-taught artist James Hampton’s “Throne Room.”
Beal calls the biblical book of Revelation a “multimedia constellation of images, stories, and story-shaped images.” Its mythology is firmly rooted in history, just as it pretends to transcend it. The past, present, and future get scrambled into a “generative incomprehensibility,” the kind of story-shaped images that are just graspable enough to make sense of and even interpret in sometimes straightforward ways—think William Miller’s predictions of the Second Coming of Christ in 1843 and 1844, or Harold Camping’s predictions of the same for 2011. These are the historical moments when we are most vulnerable to apocalyptabuse. Yet, the story is always vague and incomprehensible enough so that no one can ever pin it down for once and all, and of course the world goes on after 1843, 1844, and 2011. The story itself also survives, beyond all the “ends,” and is interpreted again and again (thus, “generative”).
The idea of apocalypse, and the resultant apocalyptabuse that might stem from its story, gains its power because of its generative incomprehensibility, and continues to be retold because of the personal way that it seems to affect me, and each of us. An apocalyptic story’s real power is that it is social: it’s not just my mortality, but everyone’s.
In other words, as Lawrence and Beal intimate, the stories we tend to tell ourselves in these times enact a confusion between the end of the world and the end of a world. Worlds are always plural. They are the environments—physical, political, social, and spiritual—that give us a sense of order and normalcy, but they can be threatened not only by war, virus, or political regimes, but also by abusive spouses, negligent employers, or even traffic accidents.
From within these worlds, my survival skills become honed not by being a better prepper, getting a shotgun and storing up canned goods, but oftentimes by learning to be a better reader, and possibly storyteller. I am still learning the language of the plural, mourning the end of worlds, and finding ways of surviving The End. Apocalypse is “now and then,” as theologian Catherine Keller once put it. They occur occasionally, not once and for all. Their focus is the present, not the future.
Not long after World War I, after Europe had faced its most violent and destructive event to that point, poet T.S. Eliot said that the world will end “not with a bang but a whimper.” But a whimper does not a Hollywood blockbuster make. As mass media has proliferated in the decades since Eliot’s poem, we have a proliferation of visions about how the world will end. The bangs blast at us via asteroids and aliens, contagion and cataclysmic climate change, smart technology and savage terrorists.
Maybe it’s all just good escapism, but it creates a collective consciousness that keeps the future traumatized. It is not only charismatic preachers and cult leaders on the religious fringes that ideologically decimate us; secular culture is doing just fine. As long as the future is traumatized, there will be charlatan theo-political leaders, to say nothing of mass media moguls and screenwriters, who will stand up to lead their lost consumers, pseudo-prophetically revealing where we are headed.
So, when Covid-19 strikes, our imaginations get infected. Unless we have an epidemiologists’ expertise, our reference points for making sense of it are the movies, video games, television series, and dystopian young adult novels, our grand secular mythologies. Yes, we need to realize that if we don’t stay sheltered in place, wear masks, and avoid contact, our future will be devasted. A focus on consequences is an important, future-oriented motivator. Humans have evolved, surviving through the millennia because we have been able to learn relations between present cause and future effect.
But we also need to beware the apocalyptabuse, the viral ideologies that attack our healthy cells and instead of helping us survive, work to shut down the future. As Mark O’Connell confesses in his recently released book, Notes from an Apocalypse, “I was obsessed with the future, an obsession that manifested as an inability to conceive of there being any kind of future at all.” This is no longer cause and effect in a beneficial way. It is a harmful mutation.
Apocalyptabuse is not inevitable. We can read (and tell) other stories, future-oriented plots that imaginatively transform the foundational myths from within. We can rethink what survival means in the face of these stories, who it harms, who it helps, and how to have hope in a future with a lessened sense of trauma.
As much as I believe in literature and cinema as great shapers of society and, more importantly, shapers of selves, stories are not panaceas for pandemics. But neither are they disconnected from reality. There is a reason Albert Camus’ The Plague, Ling Ma’s Severance, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and Lawrence Wright’s The End of October have all been in the news this past month. They provide imaginative ways of coping, confronting, and caring.
And so we turn to these other stories—large and small, political and personal—and other ways of reading the old stories that allow us to see through apocalyptabuse to find a future seeping into our present. These are the stories in which The End is not a catastrophic cutting off of possibility, but a hopeful reopening and reimagining of our lives in the here and now. They are tales of survival, of moving toward a future that may be at first disoriented and then reoriented, but do not necessitate a traumatized life to come.
In the final pages of his book, Beal coaxes us to think of Revelation as a “this-worldly text,” because it “envision[s] the ultimate renewal or recreation of this world.” The End is not a wall we hit, but a door to another world. The deep revelation is that the stories about the future reveal multiple secrets about, as Lawrence put it, the “living incarnate cosmos.”