Monday, June 2, 2008

Any Ending is a Happy Ending

Ian McEwen has an interesting essay on apocalyptic religion and why it's important for us to pay close attention to it. In the article he refers to this book, which, if you haven't ever read it, you should (I read it as research for a play I once wrote about end-times thinking, and it's great).

We should add to the mix more recent secular apocalyptic beliefs - the certainty that the world is inevitably doomed through nuclear exchange, viral epidemics, meteorites, population growth or environmental degradation. Where these calamities are posed as mere possibilities in an open-ended future that might be headed off by wise human agency, we cannot consider them as apocalyptic. They are minatory, they are calls to action. But when they are presented as unavoidable outcomes driven by ineluctable forces of history or innate human failings, they share much with their religious counterparts - though they lack the demonising, cleansing, redemptive aspects, and are without the kind of supervision of a supernatural entity that might give benign meaning and purpose to a mass extinction.

The boy can write.

I think the essay is worth reading and pondering, because we really shouldn't dismiss such thinking as merely "wacko." It's important to face our various crises and challenges as "mere possibilities in an open-ended future that might be headed off by wise human agency." If you don't approach things this way, then everything--everything--becomes a sign and signifier of The End. And if The End means a return to God, or a return of God to earth, or whatever the case may be, why fight it? In fact, it's heresy to fight it--we should be doing all we can to hasten it. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And if that's the way you see the world, gentle reader, then it's certainly your right to do so. But I do not. I do not believe that some intelligent force placed me upon this earth and set a timer running, with certain moral and ethical and spiritual expectations I had to meet before the timer ran out, in order to merit the Big Prize of heaven. That's not life; that's a game show.

And here's the problem. Game shows are fun. Can our favorite contestant make it through the obstacle course, fill the water buckets, swing over the muddy pond, and ring the bell before the timer buzzes? It's suspenseful! We love it. And I have no problem enjoying that set of rules in my entertainment. I like action and adventure movies too. That doesn't mean I'm going to feel unfulfilled as a human being unless I can get chased through the jungle by Cate Blanchett (well, hold on a minute...if it's Cate Blanchett...).

Storytelling was supposed to be a diverting and momentary escape from life, not a substitute for it. Life itself was not supposed to be a story--everything leading to a climax, a denouement, and a happy ending. Life is just life.

But for some people, a life that is not plot-able on a grid that leads inexorably towards a happy ending is a Bad Life. Sugar-Candy Mountain is not simply the childlike Happy Place we hope for; it becomes the sole reason for living . If we aren't going to make it to Sugar-Candy Mountain--or, worse, if there is no Sugar-Candy Mountain, then what's the point of anything? Why wake up? Why go to work? Why love your wife? Why raise your children? None of these things has any value or joy in themselves unless they are steps along the way to Glory.

And what makes all of this dangerous today, in ways that were never truly dangerous before, is that people now have the ability to force the climax--to impose the ending. If they can't stand the day-to-day, for-it's-own-sake living, if they don't like the storytelling in their lives, or the lack thereof, they can damned well make the ending come and retroactively justify the drudgery of their days.

Because, to people who must have some kind of cosmic and explosive resolution to justify their little and limited works and days, any ending becomes a happy ending. And those people scare me.

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