Saturday, May 21, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Rapture That Wasn't

Why is it that we seem so enthralled by the idea of total destruction? After all, aren't all the jokes and media coverage and Facebook comments about the so-called rapture today really hiding a half-wish that maybe it will really happen, that maybe after today life will be non-stop exciting, even if that excitement is also terrifying?

I can't even count all the movies and television shows that get off on the imagined destruction of major American cities: there's the History Channel's Life Without People, movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day and Battle L.A. and so on. Even the Weather Channel gets into the genre with It Could Happen Tomorrow.

I had thought after September 11 that we would have had enough of seeing landmarks leveled and the dead, burned bodies and grief that necessarily accompany such events. But apparently not -- the real carnage caused barely a temporary let-up in the imagined carnage.

Some pundits say it's because we can't find much meaning in our time or even in ourselves: we don't seem capable of being the Greatest Generation; maybe all we can be good at is being the last. If that's the case, then this popular desire to witness our own destruction is linked to the modern epidemic of depression -- co-incidence becomes correlation.

Is it Thanatos, the Freudian death drive? In that explanation, the death drive is the necessary opposite of Eros, the sex/survival instinct. Sex is so hyped and over-ripe in our culture that I suppose it makes sense that there would emerge an equally hyped, equally overblown desire for oblivion. Then all those glossy magazine ads of perfect boobs, using sex to sell everything, have found their fitting partner.

Is it a desire to return to a pre-modern Eden, a world less choked by cheap plastic crap, and a sense that the only way to do that will have to be a catastrophic break with modernity? Say hello to the environmental movement.

Hell, is it just boredom? Are we so jaded and bored with this entire amazing, beautiful world that we love to see it destroyed?

I think it's all of these and more. Ideas become successful because they tap something deep within us, and this temporary obsession with the rapture draws on links with all of these ideas. I think it also draws on fear. We rehearse mentally the things that most scare us, so that if they ever happen, we'll know exactly how to react (at least that's what we tell ourselves). We're rehearsing this rapture mentally for the same reason we see horror movies and watch the TV shows and movies about destruction -- we're rehearsing our own deaths. We have so removed real, intimate, grief-filled death from our culture that we're terrified of one thing that will happen to all of us. What is Christianity about, ultimately, but finding a back door way to avoid death? We'll all live forever, raptured so as to avoid that whole messy dying business, and spend eternity -- it doesn't really matter how we spend eternity. The worship and communion with God part isn't the point, psychologically speaking. The point is that we'll exist, forever, without having to die.

But, as a scholar studying the religions of India noted, death isn't the opposite of life. It's merely the opposite of birth. I don't literally believe in the Hindu/Buddhist idea of reincarnation, but the idea of it pleases me aesthetically. We die over and over and over -- no big deal. Death is merely the opening to another incarnation, another chance to get it right, another chance to get smarter and kinder.

Our interest in today's bogus rapture, and in our conflicted but seemingly unquenchable thirst for annihilation, is linked to everything in our modern culture: sex, plastic crap, depression and a kind of generational low self-esteem, movies that feed and shape our obsessions even as they reflect them back to us, boredom, and ultimately death.

Susan Sontag said, "The fear of becoming old" [and I would say that the fear of death is even truer here] "is born of the recognition that one is not living now the life that one wishes. It is equivalent to a sense of abusing the present." So stop worrying about (or hoping for) the rapture. Start living the life you wish, and maybe if we all do that then destruction will start to look a lot less attractive.