I admit to having a rubber-necker-type fascination with abnormal psychology. I've had it for as long as I remember. My father had bi-polar disorder (manic depression, back in the day) and I was fascinated with the way his mind worked. Even though his behavior caused pain and challenges to our family, the why and how of the way he thought captivated me.
In the last year or so, my rubber necking gaze fell on what seems to be an inordinate number of people preoccupied with doom, conspiracy theories, apocalypses, end times, vampires, and zombies. What is all this stuff about? And why does it seem to be everywhere in popular culture? TV shows like The Walking Dead, The Vampire Dairies, and the older 24. Movies like 2012 and books like the Christian end-times series of novels, Left Behind.
As a part of this peculiar "hobby" of mine, I started visiting conspiracy theory and doom forums on the Internet. On these forums, almost anything that happens anywhere in the world is immediately portrayed as having deeper, darker, more sinister forces at the core and hidden from the mainstream media (MSM in forum speak). A good majority of the forum posts start with "And so it begins...." or "Doom on".
The recent string of seemingly "unusual" animal deaths, starting with the blackbird and fish deaths in Arkansas on New Year's Eve, highlight this preoccupation with claiming surreal, supernatural, or sinister causes to unexplained phenomena. On first look, this type of doomsday thinking tends to indicate a very unnatural attraction to one's own demise. On further reflection, probably not.
I think in most cases (not including true suicidal types), it's more symptomatic OF the fear of death and dissatisfaction with the uncertainty of life, or the inability to come to terms with one of the Four Seals of Dharma, impermanence. The Four Seals of Dharma are:
1) All compounded things are impermanent. Compounded meaning containing parts that make up the whole. Everything in our world is compounded, including time and maybe space?
2) All emotions are painful. Sure there are emotions that produce pleasant sensations, like happiness and comfort, but they are painful because they don't last and because they create unrealistic expectations.
3) All phenomena are empty, without inherent existence. Nothing exists by itself, inherently. Nothing exists independently, or externally. All things are the object of a subject, so therefore without inherent existence.
4) Nirvana is beyond extremes and is, therefore, peace. This means that, if you accept and keep the first four concepts as your worldview, you will be at peace.
Accepting and seeing the world through the lens of these seals is the way of Dharma, following the teachings of the Buddha. Dharma is things as they are. Things as they are is the natural order of things and more like physics, than theology or religion.
It is clear, though, that we all have trouble accepting things as they are most of the time. Some of us have more trouble than others, sometimes things are easier to accept, and sometimes things are impossible to accept. That, too, is the natural order of things in the human condition. In the Dharma, we refer to this state of non-acceptance as ignorance.
Maybe one reason we are constantly on the lookout for answers—even bad ones—is biological. James Gorman points out, in his recent article, "Mass Animal Deaths: An Environmental Whodunit" (The New York Times), that "our minds have evolved to look for patterns, and causative agents" as "a survival mechanism". He writes that "some thinkers argue that this turn of mind...ended up predisposing humans to believe in a deity, because when we can't find a natural cause for an apparent pattern or event, we posit a supernatural one."
Another reason may be that to accept things as natural, or the way things are, can be dreary, boring, or downright depressing. It makes us feel much better to ascribe a grander purpose to the way things are, even if that grander purpose is an evil conspiracy or sheer doom. In the article "It's the End of the World, and We Love It" by Mark Moring (ChristianityToday magazine, 3/5/10), he reports that a movie critic speculated on a reason for the popularity of doom in entertainment as stemming from "an innate sense of justice". He quotes the critic as saying we have "a sense that all of us probably deserve calamity or worse. When an act of God is on display, we marvel at what we suspect (perhaps hope) is his sovereignty at work, wrathful and terrible through it may be."
I think it all points to wanting to be a part of something bigger than our little ego selves, even if that something bigger is disaster. David Brazier in the book, The Feeling Buddha, writes about a "big story" versus a "little story". He writes: "Real satisfaction arises when the little story is integrated into or even subsumed within a big story that is itself worthwhile." He continues, warning that, "if we do not deliberately give ourselves to a wholesome story, we will get caught up in an unwholesome one." Brazier says that a "big story brings a big task. The great work requires something of all of us. If we neglect this, then we remain trapped in our little stories. Modern society tends to operate in ways that isolate us in our littleness."
Natural disasters, wars, great evils of murder and mass murder, prophesies of a wrathful God allowing the total destruction of our planet and all its creatures, and the prevailing threat of terrorism bind us together in big stories. Sometimes these big stories lead to unwholesome responses: like wars to fight other wars, violence as a solution to violence or perceived injustice, the giving up of our rational compassion to an angry God, and wars to fight terrorism. These unwholesome responses illustrate how, in not giving ourselves to a wholesome story, we get caught up in unwholesome ones and isolate ourselves in our own littleness.
My own personal antidote to the very human feelings of isolation, aloneness, and littleness—and my reply to the cry in Peggy Lee's hit 1969-single, Is That All There Is?—is to keep dancing with the Dharma; living the Middle Way that avoids extremes of thought and actively embraces things as they are. This, as David Brazier reminds us, requires something of all us, yet binds us together in the web that contains all of us in things as they are.
About these blog posts
A mix of older posts I wrote for the blog, Suchness: It's All Good - Buddhist Ramblings, LinkedIn articles, and Career Coaching blog posts.