Sunday, May 29, 2011

It's Not the End of the World, and I Don't Feel Fine

I've decided to give in and write about Harold Camping's "end of the world" prediction that didn't come true last week (actually, Camping predicted "The Rapture", which is a little different than predicting the end of the world. And I used to think the word "impeach" was the most misunderstood concept in America). Over the days leading up to the May 21, I attempted to avoid reading or hearing news accounts of the prediction, and I tried to avoid taking part in any conversation about it (though I was less than successful on both resolutions). What was my objection to joining this national "water cooler" topic? I was just annoyed that something that happens with regular frequency was being treated as a special occurrence. If somebody put out a press release saying that he was abducted by aliens, he would not be granted any special audience with the American people. At best, he would have his name added to the long list of "Contactees" on Wikipedia. And of course, Camping himself had already made such a prediction in 1994, which did not receive nearly as much attention as this one. Logically, one would think that if any prediction would receive attention it would be the first one, with any subsequent claim afforded less consideration. So reasoning that the story has no right to exist, I did my best to plug my ears, close my eyes, and deny the reality that it did.

But an Associated Press essay written shortly after May 21 inspired me to examine the matter, after all. My first instinct was to blame the situation on the news media's need to find content to disseminate (see my post two weeks ago). But the essay points out: "As with so many curious cultural blips, from the balloon boy to the angry flight attendant, it's easy to say that attention to this was created and fed by the media. But that doesn't account for the social networks — for the millions on Twitter who made topics like 'rapture' and 'judgmentday' trend throughout the day." I would argue that the same need to find content that drives news sources is also a driving force behind Facebook and Twitter. Just like networks and newspapers feel pressure to find content, social media users have to talk about something.

But then again, for every trending topic there are countless topics that whither on the vine. What is it about "doomsday" that inspires discussion? Forget Harold Camping for a second; if you surveyed a cross-section of the American population by asking when the Mayan calendar ends, I think a majority would correctly respond "2012." But if you asked when the Mayan people thrived, where they lived, or anything else about them except when their calendar ends, I highly doubt you would get a majority.

Examined from another angle, it seems illogical to be concerned about the end of the world, when the much greater likelihood is the end of our world. No events of global significance occurred on May 21, but if it was a typical day, over 150,000 people around the world died. Every day is an apocalypse for somebody; every day is judgment day for someone. And we will all get our turn. So why are so many preoccupied with the expectation that it will be a universally shared experience?

My theory is that even though most people probably don't know what the word "telos" means-- we live under its influence. We are accustomed to joining stories in progress. If we come late to a party and a group of friends is watching a movie, we don't ask them to go back to the beginning. If they press pause and tell us what we missed, that is usually sufficient to proceed. But once we've invested in a story, we hate to have to leave before it is done. If the history of the world is a story, we've become accepting of the fact that we are latecomers who have been filled in on what we missed. But it is disconcerting to know that we will be checking out early. It would give us closure to know that we won't miss anything, that events will not be proceeding without us.

But then again, given that news stories and Internet posts about balloon boys, angry flight attendants, and Harold Camping's predictions are what people are actively consuming, perhaps we can be rest assured that after shuffling off our mortal coils, we won't be missing anything worth talking about anyway.


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