What do you think about when you envision the end of the world? Buildings in rubble? Nuclear fall-out? Desert wastelands? The Earth reclaiming shopping malls and office buildings with vines growing up escalators and trees taking over elevator shafts?
Are there people in your version of the end of the world? Dictators? Victims? Police? Families? Terrorists? Doctors? Aliens from Outer Space? Or is your version empty of sentient life?
Pop culture frequently depicts the end of the world as a wind-swept techno-wasteland, with small, armed gangs of bandits who lord over a decimated post-apocalyptic society. There's usually a hero. He's usually a white guy. This is not even close to reality.
For many, the end of the world has already come and gone, and it looks eerily like everywhere else.
In Rwanda, the end of the world came in 1994, and looked like 800,000 people being murdered within the span of 100 days by their countrymen. Many who survived the massacre can hardly explain what they witnessed and how they survived, yet they still live on, with jobs and homes and families. They are traumatized, to put it mildly. Yet, according to a 2016 study, Rwanda is now the 5th best place in the world for women's equality.
In Tibet, the end of the world came in 1959, when the 8th century prediction of Guru Padmasambhava Rinpoche came to life: "When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth." Today, though millions of Tibetans survived and escaped as refugees, many of them will never see their homeland again. Everything they knew in the world came to an end, and yet they still live, breathe, and thrive in new landscapes.
In Laos, the end of the world came between 1964 and 1973 as the United States dropped an unprecedented number of bombs there: the equivalent of a TON of explosives PER PERSON in the country. To this day, faulty bombs that did not explode 40 years ago are still killing an average of 50 people per year in Laos. My family sponsored a Laotian refugee family to come to US in the 70s. They arrived with a mother, a father, his brother, and a daughter. The men carried the 8-months pregnant mother over a river to escape widespread civil war. Their daughter was born in a refugee camp. They now live somewhere in upstate New York. It has not been easy for them, yet they adapted and found the things they needed here to rebuild their lives. I'll never forget when they discovered they could buy very, very hot peppers here. That was a huge relief for the whole family after months of bland American food. Sometimes, comfort burns a little.
For modern Jews, the end of the world was the Holocaust. Yet, Jewish people still live all over the earth and thrive, creating secure lives, passing on their traditions, cooking nourishing food, observing the Sabbath, and defending their rights. Truth be told, the end of the world has come and gone more than once for the Jewish people throughout history, yet they survive and continue their journey onward in the name of their culture and religion.
Many of us in the United States are experiencing increased anxiety about the end of the world. We have wild and terrifying imaginings about what might happen. Yet these imaginings are still often rooted in Hollywood ideas, rather than simply looking to history for the facts about what the end of the world has looked like when it has already happened thousands of times.
The end of the world will not be total global decimation. It will not be one sudden bright light followed by 10,000 years of lifeless nuclear wind. It will not resemble anything like Mad Max. The end of the world is actually not going to look like a cinematic worst case scenario. Rather, it is something that has already happened for millions of people in their own ways, and still happens daily in places like Syria.
The end of the world still has people in it, trying their best to live their lives: drinking coffee and making love and working or salvaging scraps, having babies and making art and suffering and getting by. The end of the world truly just looks like everywhere else, but with catastrophic loss as part of the picture. Bearing the weight of that loss, people still find ways to continue.
What hubris hides behind western anxiety about the end of the world? Our fear is no mere worry about "what if I die?" though that is one part of it. Rather, our fear is heightened and becomes phantasmagoric because it includes our presumption that what we have already seen happen over and over elsewhere cannot possibly happen in our country. We look for more fantastical outcomes in our own end of the world visions, rather than noting the grim realities of history that are already present.
We feel especially fearful because deep down, beneath our hubris, we know it actually COULD happen here, just as it has happened in countless other places to millions of other people. What could possibly make us think we are exempt from the same tyranny, the same violence, the same greed that has hunted and driven humanity for thousands of years of wars and conflict already?
We are not exempt. We are not protected from the most base aspects of human nature by our constitution, our government, or our military. We are not protected from the worst that could happen by donating to causes or by attending marches (though these things are still very important acts of dissent and collective power). We are not protected by our religions, religious leaders, beliefs, or religious debates. We are not protected from the worst of humanity's acts by our ideals or our ideas, and certainly not by white Hollywood fantasy heroes.
The one thing, the only thing, that can actually protect anyone from the worst of humanity's acts is each individual's deliberate choice to actualize the potential of the decency of humanity (we're not even expecting humanity's best! Just basic decency is all that's required!), and frankly, even that cannot be widely counted upon as reliable.
This is why it is so important that we carefully examine the history of all of the times that the world has already ended, and ask ourselves how we can individually and collectively diverge from previous patterns of violence, escalation, war-mongering, fear-mongering, strategic avoidance of the truth, the promotion of lies and "alternative facts", enlistment in extremist attitudes, addiction to intensity, bandwagon-jumping, and other fruitless and caustic tactics that only serve to keep us part of the system of human greed, hate, and base selfishness. Instead, we need to reach for something different.
It is imperative, right now, that we learn to be as humane and compassionate as possible, and that our compassion become our force for change. It is imperative, right now, that we learn to root out attitudes of supremacy and intolerance in ourselves, even when we think we are "the good guys." It is imperative, right now, that we stop bashing potential allies and start find ways to creatively disagree while still honoring the sovereignty of human life and culture. It is imperative, right now, that we learn how to identify the signs of aggression in ourselves and look at how we are at risk for adopting the tactics of our oppressors in times of duress and fear.
The end of the world looks like everywhere else. It's already happening. It's been happening for a long time, but it's not too late to change. We do not want to wake up 6 months from now and realize that our horrified compulsion of our post-apocalyptic fantasy has blinded us to the reality of what is possible right here, right now. We have history and the capacity to learn. We have history and the capacity to love. We have history and the capacity to create new outcomes. Let's try something different, for once.