(This essay originally appeared in Sacred Fire
magazine, Issue #15)
Now I am become death, the destroyer
–J. Robert Oppenheimer
(In turn quoting from the Bhagavad-Gita after witnessing the first nuclear explosion.)
I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather...
Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.
On the same day, the local newspaper (which in true Central Oregon fashion has an on-going hunting and fishing column, and has been known to advertise AK-47’s for “sports shooters) carries two items that catch my eye. The first is an obituary for Jose Argülles, former art historian, but better known as the father of the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, as well as the first writer to popularize awareness of Mayan prophecy in books like The Mayan Factor: The Path Beyond Technology. The other article is about the booming business in underground bunkers. Indeed, one of the companies making these bunkers figures that about 25% of its business is due to anxiety about 2012.
‘End of the world’ scenarios have certainly gained a foot-hold in the popular imagination and have even led to some wonderful business opportunities for those who have a certain kind of ‘apocalyptic entrepreneurial ‘spirit. This includes the sixteen books (some 65 million sold) of the Left Behind series by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which vividly describe a Christian view of impending apocalypse.
Now it may very well be that Argüelles distorted Mayan prophecy (One can’t help but wonder why he couldn’t stick around long enough to see if his predictions came true!) And perhaps books about “the Rapture” will leave many of us feeling…well, left behind. But it is hard not to have at least a little anxiety about the way the world is going when we read about global warming, diminishing top soil, depletion of drinkable water, not to mention massive social upheaval as well as recent disasters such as the tsunami that swept south Asia in 2004 (killing nearly a quarter million people) as well as March’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
I might as well confirm your worst fears right here: The end is indeed coming! The bad news is that we all are going to die—no question about it. The good news is that this includes everyone, and so we will be in good company (or bad, depending on your view of your fellow humans) and there is no need to worry about favoritism (necrotism?). Whether the end comes en masse on December 21, 2012, or via earthquake, tsunami, or just from some mundane cause such as sheer boredom, old age, or choking on a chicken bone, we are all certainly in for this rather inconvenient turn of events.
Given the general imbalance in our way of life, there is some justification for thinking that we will witness massive upheaval and loss in the years to come. So what to do? Can we build a bunker strong enough, stocking it with sufficient food, water, and DVD’s to tied us over until the apocalypse somehow “blows over?” If we begin panicking now, can we prepare ourselves sufficiently?
There may be another way. Crazy Horse, the Lakota Sioux warrior who was one of the leaders at the Battle of Little Big Horn (more widely known as “Custer’s Last Stand”), rallied his men before battle by saying “It is a good day to die.” This may seem macho, fool-hearty, morbid, or all of the above. But there is a kind of fierce joy in this statement: Whatever may come, whenever we are meant to die, it is good to live life to the fullest. This is the kind of ‘warrior stance’ that is not about violence so much as the courage to face our mortality—and every form of frailty which foreshadows it. Whether we are to live for only a day more, or many years, whether we are to perish of every-day causes, or in some kind of massive cataclysm, the prescription is the same: Life is precious. Honor its value. Live fully.
Even if we concede that so-called western civilization is chugging merrily towards some kind of proverbial cliff, then the ‘bunker mentality’ may be precisely the wrong stance to adopt. Sure: Some level of precaution is warranted: For example, if you live in an earthquake-prone area, it might be a good idea to give some thought to the possibility of “the big one.” But no bunker is strong enough to stave off all of the possible calamities that can befall you. No amount of food and water stored away can guarantee your survival. Indeed, you might build a bunker or stock adequate provisions only to find that long before any disaster strikes, you end up going out to a nice restaurant with your family one day and you choke to death on a chicken bone. The gods seem to have this kind of odd sense of humor!
The more we try to ‘go it alone’ and insure our personal survival, the more we may cut ourselves off from the one thing that can help us most. Building deep connections with each other and having a sense of community is not only more satisfying in the short-term, but also the best insurance against any kind of calamity that may come your way in the future. We are social creatures, and we especially need each other in times of crisis.
Gathering around the fire is a powerful way to foster the kind of deep connections that sustain us in both good times and bad. As we sit by the fire, we begin to hear the deep wisdom of the world: Often getting a glimmer of challenges to come—whether they are mundane or of epic/apocalyptic proportions. We laugh, we cry, and we share our stories. Ultimately, there is no better way to face death than to live life fully: Gathering together to embrace the mystery of the amazing world in which we live. It is indeed a good day to die. Why not get together and celebrate?