I awoke to find the world more or less still intact on May 21 and was not surprised, along with many others who were mildly fascinated by Harold Camping’s End Times prediction. Radical religious apocalypse groups are pretty standard in the American national media. The widespread fascination with apocalypse groups itself, however, is fascinating: I saw an intertwining symphony of hope, faith, fear, death, and shared human experience in this bizarre end times campaigns.
For those who haven’t heard, Camping is an 89 year old former engineer turned Christian radio broadcaster whose apparent hobby is predicting the end of the world with Bible verses and a form of numerology he invented. He previously predicted the end of the world to be in September of 1994; I was about 9 at the time and stuck in a parochial school hidden somewhere in the San Fernando Valley and struggling with a deep anxiety about hell-fire. The epic destruction in the book of Revelations has always been a gripping read for me. Camping’s most recent apocalypse date was set for May 21, 2011. He alleged the mayhem would begin with an earthquake in New Zealand around 6 pm and hit each subsequent time zone at the six o’clock hour. A small bunch, around 200 million people, would be raptured up into Jesus’ ever- loving arms while those of us left-behinders would suffer five months of torture until the world finally ended on October 21. So, no Halloween, but we would get out of having to endure family time at Thanksgiving.
Camping recruited a handful of followers who completely changed their lives in anticipation. The New York Times profiled a couple who left their jobs to “sound the trumpet” about the destruction on the horizon. They went on mission trips, stopped saving for college, and forced their teenage children to hand out pamphlets in New York City. The billboards and flyers many of us have seen advertising the end of the world cost exorbitant fees and were paid for with profits from his broadcasting company and donations from his followers, a handful of whom spent their savings.
And yet here we remain, most composed and unimpressed. Why did this little group of people capture the interest of major media outlets and become a talking point for so many people? End times predictions have been documented for centuries. The Huffington Post made a timeline here: Rapture 2011.
This is not new, and yet we can’t get enough. I feel the answer is pretty simple, and lies in most of us to varying degrees. Combine a crippling anxiety about death and a yearning for spiritual awe and you get a fascination for spiritual outliers. Consider Camping himself: he was over 70 when he published his first end- times prediction and is now pushing 90 with his second. Death is a topic close to him.
Actually, death is a topic close to all of us, but I assume it becomes more real as the decades go by. We yearn for insight into death and what comes beyond. Death finds us at some point, whether we have reconciled with it or not. Some of us get taken tragically early from trauma or disease. Others who are fortunate enough to live, essentially get to die slowly. Death claims your body little by little. Time goes by, looks fade, and virility dissipates.
But imagine a way to escape that suffering.
One much anticipated day, your beloved Creator scoops you up to Paradise. In one instant, your fear of death has been relieved and you have been spared the suffering of a gradual decay. This is the allure of the apocalypse groups- they promise their followers freedom from immense suffering. It also explains the average person’s fascination.
Watching others struggle and fall with false prophets on some level gives us a means to understand our own death. Or it protects us from having to reflect on it ourselves Another factor in Apocalypse fascination is a need for spiritual amazement. The daily grind is rough for most of us, and the repetition can be suffocating. I many of the times I feel most hopeless and dead inside are when I’m stuck on the morning commute on the freeway. And so we seek altered states of consciousness on a collective scale. We look for things to “shock” us out of complacency and make life meaningful. There are a whole range of things we can access to alter our state of mind, from volunteer work to hard drugs.
For the Camping folks, it was the apocalypse.
Some of the followers quit their job to pursue a single cause with devotion. Some gave themselves permission to travel, and do things they have never done. And yet we, and they, are still here. Celebrities and bloggers have used this as an opportunity to implore “what would you do if you knew you only had few days left to live,” which I find trite. We still have to support ourselves and our families. We still have to plan for the future in anticipation of supporting the aforementioned gradual decay of our bodies. Some of us still have to contend with shitty jobs and unfulfilling relationships. I still have to pay back my student loans. Life is hard, and finding peace in the daily hustle can be damn near impossible.
I am reminded of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism: 1: Life means suffering 2: The origin of suffering is attachment 3: It is possible to end suffering 4: The path to end suffering is gradual self improvement Obviously this is an EXTREMELY simplified version of a very beautiful spiritual concept I have appropriated to fit this article. The forth truth includes the Eightfold Path, understanding the middle way, a cycle of rebirth, karma, and a whole bunch of other thing many have dedicated their lifetime to practicing and teaching. But in reconciling my recent bout with death anxiety (Thanks Harold Camping, asshole!) it has helped me understand the widespread fascination with apocalypse predictions. Life sucks. Life has sucked for as long as we can remember (see: the generations of previous apocalypse predictions). And then we die, which sucks, and get reborn into another life which can be sucky as or worse than the last one. However, it does not have to be.
And there it is: the hard part. How does one stop creating his or her own suffering? The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was written by Sogyal Rinpoche, and is an attempt by a master of Tibetan Buddhism to make his lifetime of study accessible to the Western reader. In the earliest part of the book, he urges the reader to accept the impermanence of everything in this world. Nothing is eternal: not life, and not death. Accepting impermanence of everything that touches our lives is a key step toward peace. Throughout the book he tells many stories of the deaths of many near to him as a way of reminding us: no one escapes death. We are all in this together.
I was up late on Friday the 20th. Because the Apocalypse was supposed to hit first in New Zealand, I calculated the time difference: 6pm Saturday in New Zealand was 11pm Friday in Los Angeles. At 11:01 pm PST Twitter went ablaze with Kiwis tweeting with a #rapture hashtag: “Still here!” “6:11 and no earthquake” “Damn, no #rapture. work on Monday.” I was strangely touched. In that instant we were all a bit of a community of people, curious about dying and living. And that is one of the many lessons Sogyal Rinpoche teaches. Although we must die alone, we never truly are alone. Death touches all of us, and that is a fact of life. I do not identify as a Christian, but I have several family members who are.
On Sunday, May 22 my mother told me her pastor said in his weekly sermon “Jesus did not ask us to die for him. He died so we could live.” To parallel Sogyal Rinpoche also said “Whatever we have done with our lives makes us what we are when we die. And everything, absolutely everything, counts.” And so, despite the suffering and end- of- days predictions, we live.