Apocalypse Versus Apocalypse

(excerpted from the revised and expanded edition of
Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia)

The chauvinism I suffer from is a peculiar variety. I don't have delusions of grandeur about my religion, country, or football team, but rather of the era I live in. I fantasize that our moment in history is more important than all the others. Those of us alive today are on the cusp of a radical turning point in the evolution of humanity. Or so I like to imagine.

It's embarrassing. It associates me with wacky millenarians of all stripes, from histrionic New Age prophets to fundamentalist Christians who fanatically anticipate the "end times." And as much as I would like to imagine my views are subtler and more rational than those of the superstitious extremists, I must admit that I sometimes catch myself dreaming of how deliriously interesting it would be if the mass hallucination that is mistakenly referred to as "reality" really did mutate "in the twinkling of an eye," as the Bible ­insinuates.

Did I scoff at the scaremongers who shivered at the approach of Y2K? Well, yeah, I mostly did. But there was also a Drama King in a dark corner of my psyche who indulged in perversely thrilling chimeras about the possibility that the melodramatic doomsayers might be right. A similar reflex put me in alignment with the Nostradamus wannabes who forecast "earth changes" and a global economic depression in the face of the massive conjunction of planets in the astrological sign of Taurus in May 2000.

In recent years, a month rarely goes by when my inner Drama King doesn't pounce on some new sign of imminent upheaval. Endgame scenarios are no longer solely the province of certifiable cranks and paranoids. Scientists speculate on the odds of the earth getting blasted by an asteroid similar to the one that apparently wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Medical researchers raise the specter of novel strains of the flu turning into out-­of-control pandemics. Seemingly sane politicians and journalists insist on cramming our imaginations full of visions of terrorist-­delivered suitcase nukes and killer bioweapons.

But there is another part of me, a voice that feels older and wiser, who suspects that even if we are on the verge of an evolutionary turning point, even if those of us who are alive today will experience the End of Life as We Know It, it just won't be as simple and obvious and bad as the literalist prophets fantasize. The transformation will not come via some cataclysmic overnight worldwide presto-chango.

It is this same part of me—the older, wiser voice—that's distrustful of our culture's predilection for seeing the worst in everything. How did hopelessness come to be regarded as a mark of sophisticated realism? Why are Things Falling Apart thought to be inherently more gripping than Things Being Reborn?

Luckily, the jingoistic part of me that yearns to be alive when Everything Changes can find a common ground with the Zen master in me who regards the entropy-obsessed, all-or-­nothing mind-set as a unique signature of the civilization that's dying. Together these two aspects of my psyche can collaborate to conclude the following:


But it's nothing like the end of the world visualized by any of the usual suspects. It's different in four ways.

1. It's a slow, gradual apocalypse.

2. The apocalypse is usually invisible, erupting into our conscious awareness only on rare occasions.

3. The apocalypse is as much about rebirth as collapse.

4. The primary way most of us experience the apocalypse is through the intimate events of our personal lives.

I'll explore these four points in more detail.

1. THE APOCALYPSE IS HAPPENING IN SLOW MOTION. It has been going on for decades and will continue to unfold for many years. Sudden, sensational punctuations arise now and then to expedite it, but for the most part it ferments continuously in the background. Most days bring no emergency that is beyond our capacity to bear, but the cumulative effects of the transfigurations that relentlessly weave themselves into our lives have turned every one of us into heroes whose courageous endurance dwarfs the valor of legends like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Arthur, and Joan of Arc.

2. THE APOCALYPSE IS FOR THE MOST PART INVISIBLE. Here's the most extreme evidence: Few of us have registered the fact that we're in the midst of the largest mass extinction of life on Earth since the demise of the dinosaurs. This is the conclusion of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, a professional society of 5,000 scientists. Think of it: About 40 animal and plant species are dying off every day—a rate unmatched in 65 million years. Shouldn't this be a recurring headline on the front page of every major newspaper?

But the work-in-progress that is the apocalypse is not always cloaked. Now and then a riveting event transfixes our collective emotions, driving millions of us deep into a visceral encounter with the ongoing collapse. For a brief interlude, the covert, slow-motion upheaval explodes into plain view. In recent years, no event has done that more dramatically, at least for Americans, than the mass murder perpetrated by kamikaze hijackers on September 11, 2001.

3. THE APOCALYPSE IS AS MUCH ABOUT REBIRTH AS BREAKDOWN. The English word "apocalypse" is derived from the Greek word for "revelation." In the esoteric spiritual traditions of the West, "apocalypse" has also come to denote a great awakening.

The apocalypse we're living through can be described by all three meanings of the word: as the end of the world, a revelation, and an awakening. Disintegration and renewal are happening side by side; calamity and fertility; rot and splendor; grievous losses and surges of invigorating novelty. Yes, the death of the old order is proceeding apace; but it's overlapped by the birth pangs of an as-yet unimaginable new civilization.

The devastation and regeneration often have no apparent link. But in the case of 9-11, they seemed to be meshed. I received many e-mails from people testifying about how the terrorist assault was a weird kind of gift. In the aftermath, their petty worries evaporated and they stopped wasting time on low-­priority, dead-­end desires. Roused by an electrifying clarity of purpose, they began to live the life they'd previously only fantasized they wanted. And they had direct perceptions—gut-level, intuitive gnosis—that We Are All One.

It's as if millions of people had a simultaneous Near Death Experience and harvested the epiphanies that typically come to those who have peered over to the other side of the veil.

Here's another example of catastrophe and regeneration arising from a single set of events, suggested by Caroline Myss in her book Energy Anatomy. China's invasion and occupation of Tibet in the 1950s resulted in the exile of the Dalai Lama, which ultimately brought that great soul's influence, along with his elegant brand of Buddhism, to the entire world with a breadth and depth that would never have happened otherwise.

4. MOST OF THE TIME WE EXPERIENCE APOCALYPSE NOT THROUGH BIG, BAD EVENTS LIKE THE SEPTEMBER 11 MASSACRES, BUT THROUGH THE DETAILS OF OUR PERSONAL LIVES. The sweeping but gradual revolution, the agonizing decay of the old order and breathtaking bloom of the new, are framed in the storylines of your most intimate dramas. Again and again over the years, you're pushed to a brink that challenges you to either rise to the occasion or else surrender to demoralizing chaos. The crises may come in the form of divorce or illness or job loss, or even in less dramatic events like a misunderstanding with a friend or the inexplicable waning of a once-passionate dream.

Seeded inside each of these personal turning points is the crux of the evolving global apocalypse: You get to choose whether you'll adjust by taking a path that keeps you aligned with the values of the dying world or else a path that helps you resonate with what's being born. In effect, you get the chance to vote, with your entire life, for which aspect of the apocalypse you want to predominate.


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The apocalypse is being brought to you by the time you dreamed you signed the Declaration of Independence with your non-­dominant hand as you ate fresh Peruvian figs flown to you on the backs of albatrosses.