Fears of the end have been with us from the very beginning. Endings and beginnings are mythic moments par excellence; they depict the extremes of existence and are the bookends of creation. There are countless stories of how it all began, and tales of apocalyptic endings can be found in many cultures. Humans are naturally myth-makers and storytellers. We find our way by "storying" the world around us. We turn everything into a news story or a dramatic tale that helps make sense of the ever-changing, often threatening events of the world. Whether it is a major storm, a horrifying massacre, a new scandal or the threat of war, we look for elements of the story that can help us understand what is happening to us.
To be alive at this time means to be exposed to great uncertainty and to feel the raw forces of nature as well as the rough edges and sharp divisions of culture. It is not simply that the air has become dangerously polluted and overheated, or that the political atmosphere is increasingly poisonous and destructive. We live amidst rapid changes, increasing fears and devastating tragedies. We suffer increasing extremes that include extreme weather patterns as well as religious and political extremists. The world is awash with profound problems and puzzling changes. Anyone can become an extremist at any moment as everyone becomes increasingly exposed to all kinds of irrational influences, raw emotions, archaic energies, and disturbing fantasies.
Periods of radical change and instability stir our deepest forebodings and awaken the darkest corners of our souls, where fears of catastrophe and apocalyptic endings reside and have always resided. When the balance of the world slips towards chaos, nightmare stories of apocalypse rise from the unconscious and can affect even the most rational people. Amidst uncertainty in financial markets, the failing of social systems, and lack of genuine internal stability, it can seem as if everything might come to a screaming end, that it might happen at any moment, and that it could happen from a mistake of culture or from a catastrophe of nature.
Given the radical changes and extreme events currently affecting both culture and nature, it is easy to understand how fears of cataclysm and stories of apocalyptic endings might intensify. Yet, there is more than abominations and inevitable destruction to the story of apocalypse.
Even a word that seems to announce the end of everything has to have a beginning and "apocalypse" begins with ancient Greek terms like "apocalypsis," meaning "to reveal, to uncover; to lift the veil." The ancient notion of apocalypsis refers to what happens when the web of life loosens, when the veils lift and the underlying tensions and oppositions of life become more evident and transparent. Apocalyptic conditions tend to involve of revelations of the underside of creation and a "return of the repressed," as raw emotions and ancient energies erupt and can overwhelm the rational mind. Things become revelatory, but in more ways than one.
While the raw energies of life may become uncovered and the troubles of the world may intensify, there is a simultaneous possibility that hidden meanings might become revealed and new ways of proceeding become discovered. Part of the revelation of the end-times is that things do not actually end altogether. The "world as we know it" may come to an end; that has happened many times before. Yet the fiery conclusion of all of creation, so greatly feared and seemingly near at hand, never quite arrives. The final judgment keeps being postponed and the literal end of time remains an unfulfilled prediction.
There is a tendency to take the end-times literally, as many are doing with the supposed predictions of the Mayan calendar and with the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelations. Yet, in the ongoing story of the world, the end leads back to the beginning and, from the remains of 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. 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.
Despite the increasing intensity of natural disasters and the growing threat of cultural catastrophes, the real issue is not the literal end of the world. In mythic terms, ends and beginnings are essentially connected and one keeps leading to the other as the eternal drama and ongoing mystery of life continues to unfold and the world keeps renewing itself. In the bible story the fires of apocalypse eventually lead to a time of renewal. As with most systems of timekeeping, the ancient Mayan calendar comes to an end and time turns over and it begins to count the days again.
The point is not to become nihilistic or cynical, not to be overly fearful or believe in one or another end-time scenario. The point is to recognize the archetypal ground of extremes, the surprising and unpredictable territory where things both end and begin again. To be alive at this time is to enter a "liminal" state, a betwixt and between condition that occurs when an era comes to an end, when many things are ending and everything seems about to fall apart. Yet, it is in the middle of the darkest times when things secretly begin again. In many ways, the "world as we know it" has already ended and we are standing unsteadily on the threshold of a world just beginning to be revealed.
These are truly dark times and the problems we face are real and pressing. The onslaught of enormous storms and the effects of global warming tell us that. The slaughter of innocents and the continuing threat of nuclear holocaust tell us that. It is the darkest time of the year, the extreme season when the light seems in danger of being swallowed by darkness. Tragic stories and intractable conflicts dominate the news and the internet is awash with apocalyptic fears that have grown around the supposed predictions of an ancient Mayan calendar. There is an ironic twist and a hidden light amidst all the foreboding.
The end of time is predicted to occur on the same date that marks the winter solstice on contemporary calendars. It is the longest night of the year and was often called "midwinter." There would be more darkness and cold to come; yet from the darkest point of the year the light begins to grow again. The very night now believed by some to mark the actual end of the world is also the time of renewal that used to be marked with great bonfires and festivals of light. Humans have always marked the return of the light from the depths of darkness and thereby celebrated the inherent capacity of this world to renew itself from the ashes of time and the weight of history.
In addition to the solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's Eve are all linked to the deeply human instinct to celebrate the return of the light from the extremes of darkness. Such holy days and holidays also reflect the deep sense that, here on earth, the light of love and imagination and the capacity for renewal return after times of disaster, tragedy and loss. Whenever the end seems near, the beginning is also close at hand. From the extremes of negation things begin to turn around and life on earth begins anew.
In the old stories, humans were considered to be the "makeweights" in the scales between time and eternity. Human consciousness could be another kind of light amidst the darkness. In addition, gratitude for the gift of life, even in the face of tragedy, was thought to be the extra element in creation that was able at times to help tip the scales towards renewal. In the troubled times the human instinct to gather together grows stronger. This season, when the darkness seems to grow deeper around us, may be the time to gather often with candles marking prayers for the future and help tip the scales towards peace and greater understanding.