Apocalypse: Now What? How we will know it's over

A reader wants to know how The End will end.

Workers prep materials at a drive-up COVID-19 testing facility

Workers prepare materials at a drive-up COVID-19 testing facility housed at what normally has been the Washington State Vehicle Emission Check Program Station 4 in Shoreline, June 12, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Coronavirus has changed our reality for the foreseeable future, prompting questions from you about how to navigate our strange new normal. In this weekly column, we hope to answer them with practical advice, ideas and solutions. Ask your question at the bottom of this story.

Question: How can we know when an apocalypse has ended?

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the apocalypse. We’ve learned the merits of eating takeout safely versus chowing on rodents; we’ve discovered that scolding cyclists and wailing at walkers are poor ways to get them to wear a mask. We’ve swooned to the insights of Daddy Fauci and Zaddy Knute, and we now understand that if you’re going to do anything — literally anything — do it outside if you can. 

But when we talk about the shared idea of “apocalypse,” we’re actually indulging in that most human trait of oversimplification: We assume we are talking about The End of the World, full stop. 

The first religious zealot who saw a comet from a cave probably got the ball rolling on this one, and everyone from George Romero to Cormac McCarthy has been happy to reinforce it with ripping yarns of collapse. These works remind us our lives are so much better when all the ATMs work, and there isn’t a ghoul gnawing on your occipital lobe.

Then along came a spiky li’l virus to upend our notions of how bad things could get. The idea of apocalypse got a little more unsettling, a little too real (without necessarily numbing our taste for the fictional stuff). We’re all living in a version of an apocalypse, or throttling toward it. Even if the reality is that it’s always an apocalypse somewhere, COVID-19 and the speed of information mean we can share the sensation globally, in ways heretofore unheard of. 

And yet. 

Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. The cataclysmic notions that rattle in our skulls and drive up cortisol levels when we hear the word “apocalypse” were perhaps not intended by its Greek authors. Apokaluptein actually means “to reveal, disclose or uncover.”

Many dictionaries don’t get to the zombie stuff until the second or third definition, and even the ones that go full-bore Abrahamic fire and brimstone make sure to conclude with the part about Papa Sky Cake restoring order and justice to the world. 

In that sense, our apocalypse is even more appropriate. Revelation is perhaps the greatest asset humans have, period — the spark that led us to leave the trees, try some fire and invent Crocs. We are now living through an especially intense period of revelation, where we are learning at a breakneck pace just how racist, broken and unjust our systems are; how our macro transgressions in ecosystems can come home to roost in the microscopic pathways of our bodies.

So that’s the hard truth, dear reader: Apocalypses don’t end. It’s one blinding revelation after another, a string of terrifying lights to navigate our way out of the dark so that we might find our way to a better, fairer world — one where we hope everyone gets a pair of unspeakably ugly-yet-comfortable shoes modeled after Captain Hook’s nemesis

The progression of human history hints that in the long run, we’re pretty OK at listening to the apocalypse and doing better next time. The entropy and chaos of the universe ensure that it ain’t no guarantee

“Apocalypse” was always the sexy part. But “Now What?” is where the good work happens. 

Editor’s note — Apocalypse: Now What? will be going on hiatus this fall, but the column will return recharged and ready for your burning questions. You can continue submitting them in the form below. 

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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.