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It wasn’t the wine that made me ask The Question; it was the conversation over dinner.
Since leaving my hometown close to 40 years ago, I rarely get to see these friends from high school. Yet we seem to be able to pick up right where we left off. Never a lull in the conversation, always a memory or an update to share.
We had just watched a beautiful sunset over Lake Ontario while eating a rather hedonistic dinner. And we talked.
About Ukraine. Israel/Palestine. Cops shooting kids; kids shooting cops. Iraq. Plane crashes. ISIS. Climate change. Afghanistan. Putin. Ebola.
Suddenly The Question popped out of my mouth: Do you think we’re in the End Times?
I’m not even sure I believe in the End Times. At least not in the biblical sense. But I did grow up with a healthy fear of Armageddon, warned by nuns not to read Revelations because the end would be too horrific to comprehend. I’ve always been intrigued by the Rapture and am relieved when Nostradamus-based Doomsday forecasts are wrong. And decades ago, a woman told me that barcodes are a tool of Satan, so we’ll know the end is near when everything we buy has a barcode.
During the Vietnam War, I asked my mother whether she thought it was the End Times. She dismissed my question, saying, “Each generation thinks conditions are bad – the worst they’ve ever seen.” She reminded me that her immigrant parents suffered through World War I, and her generation experienced the Great Depression, World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, assassinations. “Your generation too will face its challenges and suffer a crisis of faith that all will ever be well again. That’s normal.”
“Think up!” she counseled. But I’m more prone to go dark, like my dad. I’m someone who shouldn’t watch The Leftovers on HBO. But I still do; I watch those people slowly going insane because loved ones have disappeared into thin air, and no one can figure out what happened. I wonder if we’ll be trying to figure out what happened someday. After.
We already have war and pestilence, earthquakes, false prophets. And ubiquitous barcodes. I’m just waiting for the locusts. (Do ticks count?)
Some of the friends on whom I unleashed The Question after dinner that night are right-leaning born again Christians. They seemed pleasantly surprised by my biblical reference, knowing that my Catholic roots have morphed into more of a neo-pagan orientation. To their credit, they approached my question delicately.
They quoted Mathew 24:36 about when heaven and earth will pass away: No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen. “But yes,” they calmly told me. “We probably are in the End Times. However, no one knows how long they will last. We may have been in them for many years already. And have many more years to go…or not. Certainly the signs are all there.”
Although I question the general theology of End Times, I fully believe the human race is capable of destroying itself and this planet. I’m no Noam Chomsky but, in my more creative freaky moments, I equate it with the End Times for dinosaurs and Atlantis. And feel disheartened.
My activist friends are disheartened too; many are giving up, overwhelmed by the seeming futility of it all (and they are not necessarily looking forward to the Second Coming). All you need do is read the headlines to wonder if you should just end it all yourself. You wonder why you brought kids into this world, only to have them die in a fiery ball…or from Ebola. Or a locust attack.
I too have considered giving up. (What else is there to do when even the skewed news on The Colbert Report and The Daily Show creates angst?) But that isn’t an option. We can’t afford to stop caring about our collective future. My mother not only instructed me to “Think up;” she worked to make conditions better. She wrote a newspaper column and voluminous letters to the editor. She phoned into radio talk shows. On my wall hang letters from Eleanor Roosevelt, Coretta Scott King, Bobby Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller, and Barbara Bush – all in response to correspondence she had sent them. She wrote to Pope John Paul II asking why her church seems more concerned about abortion than war. She wrote to Tom Brokaw declining the handle of “The Greatest Generation” because “we sent our children to Vietnam…and didn’t take care of the environment.” She wrote to Admiral Rickover about the dangers of nuclear energy. She even wrote to Gloria Steinem telling her that she may be more effective getting the Equal Rights Amendment passed if she sported a different hairdo (a feminist faux-pas, to be sure, if she hadn’t sent Sam Donaldson of ABC News similar counsel).
Recognizing that all politics is local, she successfully ran for local office and served on boards of women’s organizations. She tutored kids at the Salvation Army and rang their iconic bell at Christmas, all the while raising two daughters and managing her real estate firm. (Along the way, in order to be able to hire women part-time in sales positions, she worked to get a New York State law changed.)
In the wake of 9/11, my then-85-year-old mother became fascinated by the plethora of American flags springing up everywhere – especially on cars. When she’d spot someone getting out of a flag-adorned auto in a parking lot, she’d limp her small frame over to ask if they were registered to vote. To her great dismay, the majority of respondents answered, “No.” She would then provide a mini-lecture on how to best defend a democracy: “It’s not about the flag; it’s about the ballot.”
When her personal “end time” came, she started crying when a priest arrived to administer the sacrament of Last Rites. He asked how a woman of faith could be so sad, and she looked him straight in the eye to say, “I’m crying because my church won’t allow women to become priests.” She apparently had one more wrong to right and took advantage of the opportunity. The elderly priest later told me he had never had anyone challenge the Catholic Church on her death bed. No kidding.
Looking back now, I realize that my mother must have been exhausted…and depressed too. But she persevered, putting her role as citizen ahead of herself. She worked for change instead of contemplating the end of the world like I’m doing.
My mother can no longer reassure me that all shall be well. No one can; that’s not how it works. I can only do my best to stay engaged, to live the conscious life. To recognize that one person can make a difference, one voice can be heard. As the saying goes, if enough people beat their heads against the wall, the wall eventually falls down.
Although I hope not, this very well may be the End Times – whether as prophesied or as the result of our own stupidity and arrogance. That possibility should give us all-the-more reason to do what we can before we are asked to justify how we spent our time on this earth – to our children, to ourselves, to our ancestors, to our deity.
We can’t afford to give up now; the polar ice caps are melting. And the locusts…well…
— copyright 2014 Patricia A. Nugent
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I read your essay a few days ago, and had some time to think about it. Certainly we can look ad the Book of Revelation and find references to the end times, and we can look at what’s happening every day here and believe that the end times are upon us. I believe that we shouldn’t really dwell on it. Jesus said that we won’t know the time (and that even HE didn’t know the time). I think we should always be ready, and being good to those around us (as Jimmy D. mentions above) and do right by our neighborhood, and state, and country, and planet. I dont’ think we should worry about it, too much.
Tom Walsh (your classmate)
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Sounds like a plan. The milk of human kindness. Thanks, Tom.
Patty: Nice to see you stretching your literary muscles here. I call this “chronological chauvinism,” where we humans think that somehow, we live in the pivotal moment of all human history, that all of humankind has led up to our day, our moment, and usually, our doom.
Imagine the first cave man on the discovery of fire lamenting, “This is the end of life as we know it.” Or the 14th century wizard seeing a supernova and declaring “It’s the end of the world.”
Surely, people in the WWI era thought that the airplane and mustard gas were the ultimate weapons, and those at the end of WWII believed the nuclear bomb would be the death of us all (OK, the jury’s still out on that).
Believe, if you want, that this is the end of the world. But remember that someone, in every era since the dawn of speech, has uttered the same absurdity.
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That was certainly my mother’s message to me: Each generation thinks this is IT. Meanwhile, with the latest developments, I’m now in the market for a hazmat suit! Let me know if you need/want one too!
I love the way this turned into a picture of your mother and the way she lived her life. A great model!
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It’s amazing how much we continue to learn from decisions our parents made (or didn’t make) as to how they lived their lives. Drawing from the title of my book, “They Live On” long after they’re gone. Thank you.
Reblogged this on Journal Stories and commented:
As published on the Vox Populi site this week…
Great article and insight……however don’t give up… Compared to the barbaric past of humanity, we are doing better…While we have more efficient methods of killing each other, there are less people doing the killing. While there are more fear/hate vehicles out there such as Fox Noose, there are also more enlightened people affecting those around them with their light and love. It still comes down to one person at a time enlightening those around them, imparting their wisdom, support and love. Keep up the good works…..
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Hmmm….not sure this is progress: “While we have more efficient methods of killing each other, there are less people doing the killing.” But I am hopeful that more enlightened people like yourself can and will turn things around. We know that light and love make a difference. Thanks for the comment.