It’s a day like most every other day. A Friday, to be exact. Early morning. Maybe you’re out for a stroll, or nursing a cup of coffee at the neighborhood café, or making oatmeal for your children before carting them off to daycare. Perhaps you’re making love, or just soaping up in your bath.
And then it hits. The meteor. The meteor that was nowhere just minutes ago. Or at least nowhere that could be seen by you here on this tiny planet in this immeasurably vast and dark universe. If you were outdoors at that hour, you likely saw it streak across the sky, at least had time to exclaim, “Look at that! What is it? Wow, look at that!!”
If you were indoors, there was no prelude, no blaze across the sky, no warning at all before it hit. Before it sent your coffee or oatmeal flying, your bathwater sloshing, you and your lover bouncing hard against the wall as glass from the windows sliced into your flesh.
A day like most every other day. Until it was not.
Could just as well have been a tsunami while you were lounging on your towel in an exotic vacation spot. Or planes flown by terrorists into the buildings down the street. Or an earthquake. An oncoming car suddenly in front of you at 60 miles an hour on a narrow stretch of road. A crazed fugitive carjacking your sedan at gunpoint and deciding on a whim whether to add you to his body count.
Or maybe, much closer and inside you, within the bag of skin that makes you a distinct entity from all else that exists, a last piece of sludge fell into place to close off an artery and cut off the blood supply to your heart or brain.
It—the meteor, the tsunami, the planes, the quake, the car, the fugitive, the piece of sludge—wasn’t there just seconds go. And now it is. “Deal with it!” it says. “Now!” It gives you not even a wisp, a shard, a scintilla of choice.
Actually, the dream is that life just bumps along as it always has, that things are normal and stable and the people in your life and the cancer absent from your life will be the same tomorrow as they are today.
The radical contingency of life has kept novelists, philosophers and theologians hard at their tasks for thousands of years now. If you’re a raccoon or rabbit and a fireball across the sky hits and shakes the earth all around you, you dive for your hole, come out when it’s calm, and go about your foraging and eating and procreating once again. If you’re human, you dive for your hole, too, emerge when it’s calm, then set about ranting: What the hell was that? Oh my God! I wonder if my children are all right, oh my God! What the hell was that?
Eventually though, we too, simply go back to our foraging and eating and procreating, setting aside the potential terror of the next moment in a kind of native and necessary trust that the quotidian will reappear and this day will once again be like every other day. Behold the beauty of the humdrum!
And then, after the sudden colossal in-breaking of that terror we had set aside so we could go about our lives: Please God, can we just turn back the clock to yesterday? Or one hour ago? I can’t believe this is happening! Is it all just a dream?
Actually, the dream is that life just bumps along as it always has, that things are normal and stable and the people in your life and the cancer absent from your life will be the same tomorrow as they are today. And for most of us most of the time, tomorrow will arrive and that will still be true. But one day—you never know which day—something will happen. The tsunami, the accident, the diagnosis, the stroke, the desertion by your beloved, and if you survive it you think, “My life will never be the same. I promise never to take it for granted again.”
And good for you if you won’t, because the temptation to revert to the mean and return to our base semi-consciousness serves as a kind of powerful gravity. The lids close on our eyes again and we resume moving about our daily lives in the dream that they are inviolate and secure. But life never is, never has been, no matter how high our gates, how wide our moats, how vast our portfolios.
The tendency to assume all will be well is particularly powerful in the developed world, with all our daily needs basically met, far more than enough toys in hand and food in our stomachs to distract us from the darkness beyond the stars.
Radical contingency—that it could all be different and catastrophic just seconds from now—is one place where the dispensationalist Christians may be on to something. Dispensationalists are those who await the rapture of the true believers into heaven, the flinging of everyone else down to the pits of hell, and the subsequent 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ from his throne in Jerusalem. Their incessant warnings—that the end is near, one never knows exactly when, but it will surely be soon, so we had better be ready and right with our God lest we be caught asleep and unawares—isn’t, in its basic scaffolding, a wrong-headed way of approaching daily life.
Because they’re right, you know. Our end is coming and it will very likely be too soon for our tastes.
It is good to face this truth straight on. If we can truly live today as if we’re in the end days, fully alive and aware and awake to the possibility that it could all end a minute from now, so we had better get on with our living and loving and exulting and appreciating, it is all to the good.
Behold: I am uttering a semi-approving word about the rapture people. Life is full of strange and unexpected surprises.
“Rapture” photo by Richard McSundy, under Creative Commons licensing, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/deed.en. Some rights reserved.