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Facing My Fear of 'the End of the World' During Uncertain Times

“It feels like the end of the world.”

I’ve heard a lot of people say that in recent months, and I can totally see where they’re coming from. We were already struggling with COVID-19 when a brutal, public murder by a police officer sent our nation into a long-simmering tailspin of civil unrest. The violent streets, ravaged store shelves, stockpiling and panic we’ve witnessed in just the past few weeks remind me of every apocalyptic movie I’ve ever seen—the ones with zombies, monsters, meteor strikes, alien invasions and, yes, global pandemics. Even the acts of selfless heroism look familiar. It feels like the end of the world.

As a child, I heard a lot about the end of the world. Between my family’s religion and my mother’s untreated depression, a narrative grew up, and what it meant for me was that I would not. I was taught to believe that the world would end before I reached adulthood, and I did believe it, with all my aching young heart. I held my breath, grieved my lost future and waited. But the earth kept turning, the sun kept rising. I finished my education, married my best friend . . . and still the earth turned.

Along the way, I began to question the idea of the end of the world. Looking around, it seemed that every day was the end of the world for someone. At every breath of mine, there was somebody else who was taking their last; someone whose life and earthly possibilities were literally at an end. At the same time—at any given time—there were great groups of people who were watching war, disease, famine, storms, despots or hatred devour all they held dear. And this, I learned, had always been the case—from the eruption of Pompeii, to the Black Plague, the Great Chinese Famine, the Boxing Day tsunami, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide. All these disasters and so many more, both man-made and natural, have stolen human lives in a chillingly casual manner, destroying individuals, families, entire civilizations.

And I discovered, as well, that not all catastrophes ended in death. I saw individuals around me facing challenges that made me on-my-knees grateful that I wasn’t in their shoes—a tough diagnosis, a divorce, the death of a loved one, the loss of a career, the betrayal of a friend, the dissolution of a long-held dream, the destruction of one’s faith. Such suffering is more personal than a storm or civil war, but for the individual involved, it’s no less keen, no less frightening. I know, for I faced my own such disaster some seven years back, when a fungal pneumonia derailed my health. Friends prayed for me. Doctors promised full recovery. But my health didn’t return. My hopes were pushed back, pushed back, pushed back—then demolished. It felt like the end of the world.

But it wasn’t. The earth kept turning, the sun kept rising. And I had a thought. Maybe this is just life—not the end of it, but the reality of it. Maybe this dance between hope and despair, light and dark, birth and death, joy and sorrow—this inability of ours to control the forces around us—is not the end of the world, but simply “the world.”

My husband had a similar idea a few days ago, when he called from the small business he’s been struggling to keep afloat through the pandemic.

“I’ve been thinking of my grandmother,” he said, “remembering all she experienced in her life, and how it must’ve looked to her.”

I saw what he meant. My husband’s grandmother was born in 1904, and reached her teens during WWI. When she was 14, she lost her mother to the Spanish flu pandemic, and when she was in her 20s, a car accident left her disabled. While the Great Depression was clawing at the door, she was caring for a child with a severe brain injury. She watched her country struggle through WWII, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the assassination of a one president, the resignation of another . . .

So much trouble. So many “end of the world” moments. So much for the good old days.

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While I outgrew my belief in the end of the world, my mother never did. When I was 24, and overdue with my first baby, she took matters into her own hands. The night after her death, I couldn’t sleep. I waited until my husband was snoring beside me, then I crept into our silent living room, tucked my bulging belly into our hand-me-down recliner, took up my embroidery and sewed through my tears. It felt like the end of the world.

Two nights later I went into labor, and early the following morning a nurse laid my daughter in my arms. I held tight to her during my mother’s funeral. I held tight to her during the grief-filled weeks and months that followed. I cared for her, lost sleep over her and found distraction in my love of her. And the earth kept turning, the sun kept rising.

That was 33 years ago. And here we are today, suffering through yet another ferociously uncertain time. It’s hard not to feel discouraged, depressed, apprehensive, afraid . . .

The other day, after months of social distancing, my husband and I had our granddaughters over for dinner and a swim. Ivy, 5, and Clara, 3, had been coming over weekly before the pandemic, but we’d rarely seen them since the quarantine, and only through window panes. Now they ran with the dogs through our house, enlivened dinner with their chatter and played their hearts out in our pool.

After they’d left, I was putting my weary bones to bed when my husband spoke to me from the other room.

“I had a blast with Ivy and Clara,” he called. And after a moment, he added, “I guess this isn’t the end of the world.”

Do you hear that, Mom? The world hasn’t ended, and it won’t this time, either. It’s changing again, is all.

Photo by Marco Ceschi on Unsplash