Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Journalism asked the question after release of the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the Earth. Here’s how I responded.
Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death makes the case that our culture is death-denying.
One could argue that our fascination with end of the world films and stories is an entertaining and objectified way of dealing with one’s own personal destiny. Every death is “The end of the world.” The end of the world writ large on the planetary screen moves the issue into the world of fiction, fantasy and myth from which, like all cultures before ours, we create meaning in the midst of time.
There are other reasons for our fascination, of course. Supreme among them, in my view, is the dualism and the violence that saturate Western culture: God/Satan, Good/Evil, Moral/Immoral, Saved/Damned, Blessed/Cursed.
It is this misreading of ancient Jewish and Christian texts that makes the will to power the central theme of our time. The late Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama said that all “sin” has the same root. It is the claim of “exceptionalism.” Under the banner of nationalist exceptionalism’s shameless stealing of the metaphor of “the city set on a hill” away from its proper setting in Jesus’ nonviolent Sermon on the Mount, we assume Western Culture and the U.S.A. to be the Golden City and the agent of divine will. The exercise of that fallacious conviction results in wars of foreign intervention, occupation, and “pre-emptive strikes” in the name of national security.
We have become a national security state. The “end of the world” fascination in our time is heightened by the knowledge that global destruction – nuclear night – is entirely possible. We fear it. We know it. Yet we are also a culture addicted to entertainment where our worst nightmares get projected onto a movie or television screen where we know that what we’re watching is fiction. The fiction is almost always a high-tech version of the old racist and xenophobic dualism my generation grew up on: cowboys and Indians.
Beneath the question of why our culture is fascinated with end of the world is human nature itself. We human beings, like all other animals, are mortal. We may be exceptional in that we are (more) conscious and self-conscious, but first and last, we are animals. We are born. We live. We die.
As conscious animals, we are capable of great feats. We are also, so far as we know, the only animal capable of self-deception, denial, illusion, and species suicide. The denial of death is the great denial, and immortality is the human species’ great illusion.
The fact of death looms over life for each of us existentially and for the species itself from the beginning and in the middle, not just at the end. Death is our shared destiny. Death is extinction. Our fascination with the end of the world is a strange Molotov cocktail comprised of all of the ingredients of the human condition, most especially the spiritual terror of annihilation, and the illusion of winning. It is the ongoing legacy of the biblical myth of Cain, humanity’s “first-born” who kills his brother Abel, the myth that describes our time and place in history.
If, like in the movie, you had only three weeks left before the end of the world… What would you do?
I’d do what I’m doing now only more consciously. I’d continue to write each morning. I’d do my best to live gratefully, attending to beauty in nature and in art (classical music and paintings) and to family and friends. I’d pray more thoughtfully. I’d walk my dogs more joyfully, stop yelling at them for barking, and find a place on the North Shore to look out to the horizon of Lake Superior. I’d eat lobster and Dungeness crab with lots of hot butter and salt, rib-eye steaks, garlic mashed potatoes. I would avoid Brussels sprouts! I’d end each meal with a Maine blueberry pie, flan, or Graeter’s ice cream, and a Makers Mark Manhattan. Then I’d settle down on the couch next to the love of my life, Kay, by the fireplace, turn off the news, see if we can make a little fire of our own, get anchored again in the Sermon on the Mount, and return to sources of joy and laughter in the poems of Hafiz. I’d give up being intentional/purposive. I’d live in the moment.