Given the radical changes affecting both culture and nature in contemporary life, it is easy to understand how fears of cataclysm and images of apocalyptic nightmares might intensify. It is not simply that the air has become dangerously polluted and overheated or that the political atmosphere is increasingly poisonous and self-destructive. We live amidst radical changes and increasing extremes that include extreme weather patterns as well as religious and political extremists. The world as we know it is awash with profound problems and puzzling changes and beset with seemingly endless conflicts.
To be alive at this time means to be exposed to the raw forces of nature as well as the rough edges of culture. Increasingly, it does seem that everything might come to a screaming end, that it could happen at any moment, and that it might happen from a mistake of culture or from a catastrophe of nature. When the balance of the world slips towards chaos, nightmares of apocalypse can rise to the surface and affect even the most rational of people. Periods of great uncertainty and radical change can stir our deepest forebodings and awaken the darkest corners of our souls, where fears of catastrophe and apocalyptic endings reside and have always resided. For fears of the end have been with us from the very beginning.
Tales of apocalyptic endings can be found in most cultures; like stories of creation they are part of the human inheritance of myth and imagination. Endings and beginnings are mythic moments par excellence; they depict the extremities of existence and are the bookends of cosmology. Whereas creation stories tend to gather the potentials of life and establish the elegant orders of nature, end-time dramas feature violent storms and monstrous beasts as the underside of creation erupts and chaos threatens to undermine all levels of order.
Yet there is more to the story of apocalypse; even a word that seems to announce the very end of everything has to have a beginning. “Apocalypse” begins with ancient Greek roots like apokalypsis that means “to reveal, to uncover; to lift the veil.” Apocalyptic times are revelatory, but in more ways than one. While raw energies of life may become uncovered and the trouble in the world may intensify, there is also a greater possibility that hidden meanings might become revealed and new ways of proceeding become discovered. When not taken literally or religiously, the archetypal dynamic of apocalypsis refers to what happens when the web of life loosens, when the veils lift and the underlying forces of life become more evident and transparent. Old structures may collapse and once vital systems may fall apart; yet other patterns and barely imagined designs are on the verge of being revealed.
Ends and beginnings may be polar opposites, but like most opposed things, they are secretly connected. Part of the revelation of the end-times is that things do not actually end altogether. In the great drama of the world, the end leads back to the beginning and, from what went before, things begin again. No one can say for sure, but The End that has been feared since the beginning and has been predicted many times before has never quite come. The “world as we know it” may come to an end; that has happened many times before. Yet the fiery conclusion of all creation, so greatly feared and seemingly close at hand, never quite arrives. The final judgment keeps being postponed and the literal end of time remains an unfulfilled prediction. The overwhelming problems and massive threats are real enough, but they also function as a cosmic wake-up call intended to awaken us from the sleep of so-called “reality.”
At the mythic level, ends and beginnings are essentially connected and one keeps leading to the other as the eternal drama of life continues to unfold. When the end seems near, something old and lasting, something deep and meaningful, is trying to catch up to us. Something subtle and enduring about the world is trying to be remembered and rediscovered, and it seems to take some big trouble to awaken to it. When everything goes out of balance and seems about to fall apart, the issue is not the actual end of the world as much as what to do when it seems about to end.
The archetype of apocalypsis describes a state of necessary confusion and disorientation that occurs in the time and space between collapse and renewal.
Apocalypsis presents the psychic condition of being betwixt and between; especially between the ending of one era and the beginning of another. It is what the ancient Kalahari Bushmen called a ja-ni, or a “yes-no,” situation. Is the world going to end? Yes, for the world as we know it has already ended in many ways. Is it the end of the world altogether? Not likely, as what we call the “real world” is secretly connected to what people used to call the “world behind the world.” The common world grows old at times; it suffers varying levels of dissolution and collapse, yet it regenerates again from the eternal world that has been behind it all along.
When it seems that everything might end, the point is not to believe in one or another final catastrophe or end-time scenario; rather, the point is to recognize the archetypal ground of extremes, the surprising territory where things both end and begin again. For those willing to peek behind the veil, for those who are able to be resilient in the midst of turbulent times, apocalypsis can mean a time of revelation on many levels. Life reaches not a final end but a vital edge of revelation rippling with sudden disclosures and pregnant with surprising insights.
The world around us is a place of mystery and wonder and revelation waiting to happen; it is always more than it seems to be. In mythic terms the issue is not simply the end of the planet, but the loss of the earth as a place of mystery and wonder where the ends of time are secretly connected to the roots of eternity. Planet means “wandering star” and what we call the world is a reckless, wondrous story, a wild, star-crossed narration being told through the breathing green garment of Nature and revealing itself continually in both the tragedies and comedies of earthly life. Life always hangs by a thread and all events of history are loosely stitched on the “loom of eternity.” The great hubris of creation and the terrible and grand gestures of death, all played out again and again, pulled on by an imperishable tide.
As the endless story of the world reaches another cosmological turning point and the fabric of life loosens, the veil between this world and the Otherworld becomes more transparent. Things become both impossible and more possible at the same time. Just as time seems to be running out, the sense of the eternal tries to slip back into awareness. That is what the old stories say, and the old stories have survived the ages and all the previous stages that seemed surely to be the last act of creation. The wonder of creation is that it continues to create; it is the ongoing story that starts over again each time it reaches the End.
The world, despite its disasters, tragedies and villainies, cannot end unless it runs out of stories. This world may be made of atoms, but it is held together by stories, and it cannot end unless all the stories come to an end at the same time. Even then, there would be some remnant of some tale from which it could all begin again. Ends and beginnings are secretly connected, but it takes a mythical mind and a metaphorical sense to see how one might lead to the other. Whenever the end seems near, the beginning is also close at hand. The mystics know that, but so do the nuclear physicists. At the mystical, mythical, and metaphysical level of life, the world is ending and beginning every moment. The “next world” is right next to this world and the two intersect in little moments of redemption and re-creation. In many ways, the world as we knew it has already ended and we are already standing on the threshold of the next world.
Excerpted from Why the World Doesn’t End, Tales of Renewal in Times of Loss
©2012 GreenFire Press