Wednesday, November 16, 2011

a personal apocalypse

Did you know that in December of 2004, the 99942 Asteroid was discovered?

It was later named ASTEROID APOPHIS. Over 1,000 feet in diameter, the asteroid is the equivalent of 90 stories tall and weighs 25 million tons. NASA released the disturbing news in 2004's Christmas bulletin that Apophis will pass within very close proximity to Earth in the year 2029 which will alter its trajectory and give it an alarming chance of crashing into Earth on its return on April 13th, 2036. Apophis broke the record for the highest level on the Torino Scale, being a level 4 impact probability (and about a 1 in 42 chance). For this asteroid to hit anywhere on earth it would generate 68,000 times the force of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. 

Coming from NASA, this wasn't just sensationalism. However the news ended up buried that day, beneath the more immediate news of the massive tsunami catastrophe that unfolded over the next day that year. 

Regardless, Apophis is still coming. In Egyptian mythology, Apep (or Apophis in Greek) was an evil demon, the deification of darkness and chaos, and thus opponent of light and Ma’at (order/truth). As the personification of all that was evil, Apep was seen as a giant snake, crocodile, serpent, or in later years, in a few cases, as a dragon, leading to titles such as Serpent from the Nile, and Evil lizard. The Mayans also had a snake god, Quetzalcoatl (the feathered serpent), who is prophesied to return at the end of each Age.

Why am I talking about this? Well, throughout my life I have had intense nightmares about catastrophic events--most often tsunamis, with massive tornadoes coming in second, and then frequent dreams in which there is something terribly wrong with the cosmos.

Scene from Lars Von Trier's Melancholia
My dreams of the cosmos gone wrong have always been the most disturbing, because they involve the foreknowledge that something has gone wrong up in the stars, maybe a planet out of orbit, stars burning out or other impending doom that would end all life on earth. But it doesn't come instantaneously. It is just the terrible dread that over the next days or weeks there would be nowhere to run, nowhere to hide because the earth was off its axis and everyone would slowly asphyxiate or fry or suffer the tidal waves and tornadoes. Sometimes I would be aware of my children in the dreams and that would be much worse because then I would have to worry about how I could protect them from the inevitable.

When I saw the recent Lars Von Trier film, Melancholia, I was hypnotized. He calls it "a beautiful film about the end of the world." It was available via early screening on cable, so I have seen it many times now. However I would love to have chance to see this movie in a movie theater, which is like a sacred ritual to me to engage with the art.

An overturature to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" plays as dead birds fall from the sky and a rogue planet named "Melancholia" moves relentlessly towards earth. It is nothing like a disaster film, and it begins with a wedding reception, which is like a puppet show with everyone desperate to play their proper parts as the event unravels (except Justine). Guests go home, the groom leaves his one-day old failed marriage and the few remaining family members prepare for the event. At first everyone is convinced that the planetary event will just be the fly-by of a lifetime, missing impact with earth just as it has missed all previous planets. But calculations keep changing and all too late the false sense of security of a fly-by is gone as Melancholia is caught up in Earth's gravitational pull and slung right back at our planet. The three remaining family members each face their last moments of existence in their own way.

As a person who has suffered from manic depression, I relate so much to the calm acceptance by Justine (Kirsten Dunst) of their fate, which she seems to sense like a clairvoyant. It's funny how you can have a complete nervous breakdown over something others may feel is inconsequential. But when it comes to handling the really big things life flings at you - accidents, deaths, homelessness, whatever, it will be the "depressive" person who may hold everyone together and appear the most calm and composed. Maybe it is something to do with the suicidal impulses that one can have in that state. If you have already craved, contemplated and/or planned your own death (at least in your head, if not on your body), then perhaps you don't fear it the way others might. For me personally, a pending cosmic disaster is one of the best comparisons of how it feels to be aware that you are supposed to be dying of a terminal disease soon, against your will.

The idea of premature death does feel like end of the world. It symbolizes the complete loss of identity and ego. Death in and of itself is obviously very natural and happens all around us, all the time. I think what we are most afraid of (aside from pain and suffering), is the loss of individual identity and complete release of ego. I recently wrote about how ghost hunters, psychics and mediums seem to be the exploding out of pop culture these days. Perhaps we like the idea that our personality or that of our loved ones will endure and still be intact beyond the grave. It's all about us, our bodies, our belongings, our legacies. Whatever we do while inhabiting these sacks of flesh offers some definition of us, some way to categorize us by our similarities and differences to the other sacks of flesh.

I don't want to open a whole philosophical can of worms about personal continuity and the mind-body problem. I just found myself struck with the idea that facing a terminal cancer diagnosis and feeling your body break down bit by bit is fascinatingly similar to watching a rogue planet or asteroid slowly making its way towards our planet. Scientists frantically calculate and recalculate its route based on additional data over time, just as Oncologists kept giving me numbers and percentages of recurrence rates of tumors, with survival dwindling down lower and until we are at full impact range and it's said to be just a matter of time. I wonder if we were to compare facing the personal death to facing a complete annihilation of the world, how many of us would be selfish enough to think, "who gives a shit, if I am not here then why should I care about the fate of everyone else?"

I've always admired how Buddhism addresses death as a transformation, welcoming the change with peace and balance. And yet, I've always wondered, if you took the most Zen Buddhist Monk and put him on an airplane high up in the sky over the Pacific ocean... and then suddenly the captain comes on to announce that the plane has lost power,  the oxygen apparatus pops out and the plane heads into a dive, tearing apart and heading for an inevitable fiery death....
Would that monk scream like everyone else while going down?

How you handle the time you have makes all the difference. So many of us hide our faces when we are scared and seek shelter. Melancholia showed the staggering beauty of even a single moment in time. I don't feel afraid of what is to come as much as I feel inconvenienced by it. But why worry about moments when moments can be stretched and lengthened, just as they can be shortened when you don't pay attention to the fullness of life and just let it pass at ever-increasing speed.

60 days can turn out to be a hell of a long time, if you let it. And I know what I need to do now.


  1. Beautifully written. I feel so smart reading your words. Now, can we get back to my level: watching "It's Me Or The Dog" ?

  2. I awoke melancholy. Not anymore. Thank you.

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