“On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with them the world.” — Cormac McCarthy, The Road
When I was fourteen, the night sky grew brighter for a few weeks with the appearance of the comet Hale-Bopp. I grew up in a rural part of Michigan, a place with more dirt-roads than people, a place where nightfall sees the Milky Way spanning the bejeweled dark. It’s a half-hours’ drive from the farm of one James Nichols, where Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh briefly resided, and it was in this environment that I, as a teenager, went with my father among the two-tracks and cornfields to search the skies. We passed between us a pair of binoculars as our breaths fogged and the red lights of radio towers blinked along the horizon, and there above our heads she could be seen: Hale-Bopp. She was more of a dusky blue than the brilliant white the pictures from scientists showed, but then again astronomers always seemed to have far better optics than we.
Not a month after our first sighting, the members of a UFO cult in California killed themselves over a span of three days. They went by means including cyanide, arsenic, phenobarbital, and asphyxiation. They were found wearing matching tracksuits, with purple shrouds over their faces. They each carried $5.75 in their pockets.
When I was ten, I watched as a standoff unfolded on the nightly news. Over fifty-one days, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, attempted to execute a search warrant at a religious compound in Texas. The leader of the group was a man named David Koresh (real name Vernon Wayne Howell), and when he wasn’t preaching hellfire or taking wives as young as twelve he was claiming that the world would end on Passover of that year. It was 1993; I was only in fifth grade. Jurassic Park was supposed to be coming out that summer. At the end of 51 days our world was still standing, though Koresh’s was not: in April of that year ATF agents attempted a second siege, and the devotees inside set their own compound ablaze. Fifty-eight adults died in that fire, along with Koresh. Twenty-eight children went with them.
Two years later, Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh took his revenge for those acts, and for other acts at places like Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho. He set off a truck-bomb containing 1500 pounds of explosives outside a government building in Oklahoma City, damaging over 300 structures and killing 168 people. Nineteen of those victims were children.
When I was seventeen, a fellow student in my high-school government class mouthed off about the apocalypse. It was 1999, a time when people I knew were hoarding food and ammunition, a time when the phrase “Y2K” was on the tip of everyone’s tongues. “I think they should just say ‘fuck it’ and launch the missiles,” he said. “Y2K’s gonna happen, and it’s all just gonna come down anyway.”
His name was Matt. He’s an automotive engineer now. I turned to look at him then, reminded him that nuclear missiles had things like launch-codes, guidance systems. They needed multiple authentications to fire, I said, and even if something could happen, they’d be more likely to fly off into the ocean, or burn up in the atmosphere, than actually detonate.
“Oh,” said Matt. He looked almost disappointed. Then he repeated: “Well, it’s all just gonna come down anyway. So fuck it.” It didn’t come down, for the record. It hasn’t. It won’t.
Flash-forward a decade or so. Flash forward through September 11, through images of planes flying into buildings, through grand talk about “evildoers” and “clashes of civilizations.” Our president at the time talked about the responses to such attacks as a “crusade” — a word with rather loaded significance in the parts of the world he sent young men like me to pacify. Now, having survived all that, I live in Spokane, Washington, a mere two hours from where the massacre at Ruby Ridge first occurred. In 2011, an Idaho skinhead here attempted to bomb the city’s parade commemorating Martin Luther King Day; he was caught and later sentenced to 32 years in prison. Around the same time, an old Army buddy of mine began talking about 2012, about the Mayan Long Count and the claim that, at the end of the count, time will simply stop. They made a movie about this idea, starring John Cusack. I used to like John Cusack. There’s no basis for the idea, but regardless I seem to see it constantly on my Facebook feed now.
Just last week a few co-workers of mine got to talking about the Mayans, in the same giggling tones my geekier friends usually reserve for phrases like “zombie apocalypse.” I hate the zombie apocalypse. I looked up at this conversation and let slip casually that the actual Mayan people in Guatemala were protesting the stereotype about their heritage, stating that the Long Count stipulates no such collapse, but rather the beginning of a a new age of harmony — an age in which physical and spiritual worlds might be united. I admire the Mayans’ optimism.
“In my life,” I declared to my colleagues, “I have been through at least half-a-dozen predicted end-time scenarios and to date every one — EVERY SINGLE ONE — has turned out to be bunk. Figure the end of the world must be a nice comfort when the alternative is to have to wake up the next day and realize that your credit still sucks, and your kids still hate you.”
My co-workers all said nothing.
“You know there’s a garbage patch right now, floating in the Pacific Ocean, that’s the size of Texas? You can see it from space. There’s a hurricane next week, supposed to hit New England. ‘Frankenstorm’ they’re calling it. Ever notice how many people you know wait for Jesus to come riding in on his dinosaur, all while real end-time scenarios like climate-change go completely ignored? Ever wonder why that is?”
My colleagues began to grow uncomfortable.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me neither.” I thought of that Ricky Gervais photo, “Humanity”, the one with the weeping clown about to place a loaded revolver into his mouth.
Why do we always pray for the end of the world, I wonder? I think about this often, about our collective obsession with doom, our predilection toward millenarian thinking, and I think the reason is because like that photo, deep down we really want it all to end but don’t have the courage to pull the trigger. It’s why we as a species never pull ourselves up out of the mud. We seem to want to pollute ourselves to death, to obliterate ourselves in holy war like so many drunkards or junkies praying for a coward’s grave. We have to pray for a God, or a comet, or an earthquake, to come and do the job for us, because in truth we’re simply too weak to just live and keep on living.
This morning I was reading an article in the Telegraph about a new supercomet that’s supposed to pass within range of Earth sometime next year. I wonder: what conspiracies will emerge around its passage? How many cults or doomsayers will take this as their latest cue to hoard supplies or drink poisoned Kool-Aid? Why, after so many times proven wrong, do we continue to look for signs of the end foretold in the stars? Why do we still pray for the end of the world? I can only seem to find one answer: because for many people, it seems the alternative is much, much scarier.