September 13, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

The End of the World as We Know It

As a girl, I suffered through many Sunday school lessons and, beyond that, many church services. My stockings itched, so I fidgeted. I drifted to sleep, only to have my mother nudge me awake. The off-key choirs droned their way through hymns that never ended, and the preacher droned his way through another sermon about cheerful giving.

And all that suffering was worth it when we reached lessons and sermons on The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Here was my first memorable encounter with poetry. Doom poetry:

Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.

The verses of The Revelation awakened a world of destruction and rejuvenation in my imagination, a world where all knowledge would be laid bare, a world with dragons and unspeakable beasts. For my seven-year-old self, the end of the world looked like a library on fire. I spent many hours outside of church looking for signs that the end was, in fact, nigh: three sixes in a row, beasts with six wings, the four horses, a rainbow. I read The Revelation on my own, delighting in the mixture of romance and panic I felt in discovering the end of humanity.

It may very well have been the end of the world this week, but there were no dragons, no libraries on fire. Instead the language of panic, of potential destruction, surrounded the Large Hadron Collider buried beneath the Swiss and French borders. Could we accidentally bring about the apocalypse? Will our curiosity about our beginning bring about a terrible ending?

Probably not.

And even though many people have but a slippery grasp on the language of atoms and particles, they are still ready and willing to narrate the end of the human story. Is it a circular narrative that will carry us back to our starting point? Is it linear with an ending that stretches toward a new and different kind of human existence? Will we finally understand the stories we’ve been living as they come to an end?

Perhaps the end won’t be as epic as a black hole or a lake of fire. Hurricane Ike’s approach to the Texas coastline sent tremors of panic to my part of North Carolina. Disc jockeys–their voices weary–reported that gasoline would either run out or skyrocket to over $5.00 a gallon. Long lines of cars–with overheated people inside of them–waited outside of the gas stations, bringing regular traffic to a standstill in some parts of the city. This was panic, and the news reports added to it. Maybe the end of the world meant not being able to afford to go home again while others had to run far from home if they wanted to survive.

Only these moments were not the end of the world. We are not a black hole, and there has been no news of the discovery of a God particle. The price of gasoline in Greensboro slipped 50 cents overnight. The news now reports the efforts to recover and restore what the hurricane damaged before it became a tropical storm.

We sidestepped the large and small apocalypses without encountering St. John’s mighty angels or bottomless pits or plagues of locusts. There were no libraries on fire. Still, the doom poetry I read as a little girl comes to mind whenever I hear a curious note of despair in a newscaster’s voice or read another set of FAQs on the physics of the Large Hadron Collider.

Every story needs an ending; in that book, at least, the ending of the human story is epic and fantastic.