Repent! The end is near!
Of course, it always is. We are constantly ending things and beginning new ones. Sometimes the new thing looks a lot like the old thing, but it never is completely. So did the thing evolve, or end and re-begin?
There’s a word in the field of religious study with a funny sound to it. Eschatology. It comes from the Greek éschatos, meaning “last” and -logy meaning “the study of.” It originated in the mid-1800s as a theological term regarding the ending of time. In addition to considering how various cultures predict the end of the world, it also provided a contrast point for discussions on the immortality of the soul.
It’s funny how difficult change is for us when we recognize that change occurs constantly. The ephemeral occurs against a backdrop of the eternal constantly. But that again makes me want to ask the question: Does a thing evolve, or end and re-begin? If a city is destroyed by a natural disaster and then rebuilt from the ground up, does the city change its name? Or does the natural disaster become part of its long and continuing history?
There will come a time, due to increasing climate change, when some cities can no longer support a community and must be abandoned. The prediction of that and the considerations around it would be considered eschatological in nature.
What kind of time are we in now? Are we ending things or are we evolving them? In politics, neither major party is in danger of immediate end, but both are in need of adjustment, as has and always will be the case. But then, we often refer to things in terms of their former version’s demise, using phrases like, “the end of the old ways.”
That makes me wonder whether or not we need to consider a thing that has naturally evolved more in terms of the death of its former version than openly recognize a continuation. Do we need a death? It seems we do. It appears we need a cutoff. A threshold, beyond which the tabula rasa awaits. The clean slate. In hindsight, we look back on the older versions of our society as a separate era. That’s exactly what we need. A bit of emotional and evaluative distance.
It’s the difference between ripping off a bandage and waiting until it falls off on its own. Both reveal a healing has taken place, but one tends to have sticky residue and sagging old bandages hanging around for a while, long after the healing has actually occurred. One represents an acceptance of change, the other knows deep down it has already happened but has yet avoided dealing with it. All in good time. Guide these struggling souls with compassion and gentleness.
Both of these ideas represent the duality we are experiencing in our modern culture. Some are comfortable with the progressive changes that have already occurred in human society; some are resisting them steadfastly. Their dirty bandages are showing.
Consider the period of time we are presently in as the end of something. Consider whether or not the prophets have left us with prophecies of the “end times” so that we might always consider ourselves to be in them. What would you like to end today?
Study the old words and ideas with new eyes. Wonder if they are teaching us how to end something that no longer serves us with dignity, how to remain faithful during a change, and how to look forward to that which comes next. That’s what I think the purpose of apocalyptic prophecies has always been. To help us recognize that catastrophic change frequently occurs, and it is our attitude during it that determines our individual movement as it unfolds. The tide comes. Will you be surfboard or driftwood?
What is your attitude about the current apocalypse we are experiencing? I’m not just talking about the pandemic here. I’m talking about the last 20 years, the last 50, the last 100 years. There could have been no predicting what we are experiencing right now — not to the detail, which might have been useful. We are in the period of tabula rasa. We can put anything on it we wish. Does that comfort you or scare you?
Of course, this is entirely debatable. One could just as easily argue a trove of details against the idea that we are now in a new age. So much of what we see on the news looks just like we saw before, sometimes even worse. But since it’s all a matter of perspective anyway, which perspective would you like? What is true will be true no matter what we believe. But our attitude about it is malleable, the hope we carry is useful, as are the results of maintaining a flexible mindset. If you keep your knees slightly bent, a sudden shift in the ground beneath your feet won’t knock you over. Hope gets us through the period of time just before. Hope is the coping skill for the as-yet-unknown.
I remember, as a child, hearing people talk about the end of the world in religious terms. In the ’80s, I saw the genesis of films depicting these impending end times occurring in one way or another. Nuclear fallout, meteors, self-annihilation, various acts of God. The stories were less about how the world ended, however, as much as they were narratives on the hope for survival, which always existed, and never proved to be unfounded.
Is that our attitude now? Have we been as prophets to ourselves, through our stories and television and films, to encourage us in advance of the times about which we have been most afraid of arriving? How much hope do you have right now? Any? None? Lots? Something in between? Cautious optimism? Hopeful apprehension?
My favorite advice comes from Mr. Rogers’ mother: In times of tragedy, look for the helpers. Attend to them. Give them your attention. Allow yourself to become inspired by them and their actions. Give your power to that which heals. That is the overall advice inherent within all apocalyptic prophecies and admonitions. See the hope. Add to it. All shall be well in time.
If that advice was never meant for a specific date, it was meant for all of them. I suggest we use it now. Consider that prophecies of the end times were not about destruction as much as reinvention. We do not have to die. And most of the deaths we are currently experiencing would be avoidable in direct proportion to our ability to work together. Look to the helpers. Do what they’re doing. Encourage collaboration.
The first step is to recognize that we are actually experiencing a death right now. We are slowly crossing the deep threshold of a new time. We can never go back now. We wouldn’t want to if rationally given the chance. Seeing that, and looking change directly in the eye, is half the battle.Comfort the old bandages. Send them love and thanks in your prayers. Even through their denials and obstructions, they have ultimately served our forward momentum nonetheless. There was never anything they could do to prevent it. Our collective divine spark will always win in the end.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster. He is also the founding director of the Tribe Mentorship Project. Email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His weekly column and blog on optimistic spirituality in the Information Age, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.