You can learn a lot about a culture by its obsessions. This week, anyone with access to social media has been aware of the coming Mayan Apocalypse. It will happen (or has happened, or is happening, depending on where in the world you are) on December 21, 2012. The world will end, somehow. Maybe the planet will explode, maybe the sun will flare, or something will hit us and destroy everything. I think for many of us it felt like it was ending last weekend.
In 2009, Nintendo released a game about the end of the world, called Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The game took place over 3 days, the same three days that kept occurring over and over until you finished the game. As the days progressed, the moon drew closer and closer to the earth until it crashed into it, destroying everything. Each time, all of the characters the player had come to know and like (or dislike) burned up.
The player’s job as Link was to persevere through these three days. The only way Link could stop it was to release four giant beings who together managed to hold the moon suspended above the world long enough to defeat the Boss and reverse the process. Time and again I’d play, release one, two or three giants, only to see them buckle under the weight of the moon and witness the end of the world.
Fantasies of the apocalypse can be seen as a manifestation of what Freud called the Thanatos drive. There have been many different interpretations of what the death drive is; the aggressive counterpart to the libidinal drive, the enemy of the vital Eros drive, or just plain drivel. But I think there is something there to be understood rather than dismissed. Just why do we want to build sandcastles and then destroy them? Why are we so fascinated with images of violence as well as images of desire? Let me offer you another interpretation, a gamer therapist one.
The death drive is about quitting, not failing. As some research has noted, 80% of all of the time you play video games you are failing at them. Yet, we continue to play video games over and over. There is always the optimistic hope that this time we just might win. Over and over in the talks I give I hear the same thing from the children and adults who often feel like failures in life, that at least they stand a chance to win in the game. I urge hundreds of parents every year to not take away the one thing their children feel capable of winning at. Video games remind them, and us, that there is no such thing as utter failure. It is a cognitive distortion, often reinforced by a society devaluing you, to think that there is absolutely nothing possible for you to achieve in life. To think that way is the become the bad object, and to become the bad object is to quit.
There is a concept in Hasidic Judaism called the Tzadikim Nistarim. These are the 36 righteous people on the earth who serve as a reminder to God that humanity has a purpose. They are all important, if even one of the 36 were to be missing the world would come to an end. Like the giants in Majora’s Mask, they bear the burden of holding back the world’s end. Like the giant’s in Majora’s Mask every single one of them is important. The Tzadikim Nistarim do not stand out, though. They are concealed in the world, even to themselves. Their humility prevents them from realizing their importance. And since we don’t know who the tzadikim are, any and every one of us could be them. We have no idea how important we are, but we do know that if any one of us falls it could be disastrous.
This is not a story of how the world ends, it is a story of how the world keeps from ending.
I recently heard an archaeologist compare the Mayan calendar to an odometer, which doesn’t end as much as turn over and resets. This idea of a reset, of a beginning, seems to me to be very important as we go through the despairing and scary end of days of 2012.
It is so much easier to quit, to think that the world is coming to an end. Why worry about anything or anyone? We could do anything we want, or just do nothing.
But the scary truth is that the world is not ending, it is beginning, over and over again. We have so much work to do. If we were to allow ourselves to see that the world is coming to a start, think of how differently we would feel about trying, risking and caring?