For most of us, the fact that the end of the world didn’t happen May 21st at 6 p.m. was probably about as important as deciding what socks to wear and searching for funny YouTube videos and news articles about the Rapture.
It’s interesting that we even cared about the predicted Judgment Day to begin with. Why did the media bother to cover this story so extensively anyway?
Some might argue that it satisfied a few important news values. It was bizarre, given that it was certainly not grounded in science and was simply a belief held by a select group of people. It did have the potential to impact everyone on the planet. And let’s not forget that it was timely, considering the looming “countdown to Armageddon” ending with May 21 at 6 p.m., which, by the way, was not scheduled for one particular time zone.
But the reason this story was as big as it was goes beyond news values. It reflects a more innate human need to share in mythical experiences. Let me explain.
Myths, legends and superstitions bring us together, as peoples and cultures, whether we like to admit it or not. We have a lot in common with many other people: shared education, shared histories, shared stories, shared values, etc. Most reasonable people believe that killing someone else is wrong, point blank. Westerners are apt to get a strange feeling of discomfort and dread should they break a mirror or see the numbers 666 standing alone.
The reason that we have these shared beliefs is partly because we have been exposed to similar stories, i.e. myths, legends and superstitions, with certain messages or morals attached to them. Laws, education systems and personal experiences also align us with certain ways of thinking and behaving.
Our shared beliefs are grounded in our shared cultural languages. And those cultural languages are based on stories and experiences from our childhoods and upbringings. Many of us grew up reading the same books, going to the same movies and visiting the same department stores, supermarkets and amusement parks. Who hasn’t seen a Disney movie? Who didn’t read a Beatrix Potter book? Myths are part of that cultural fabric. They bind us together, help us to make sense of the world, form opinions and make judgments.
End of the World and Group Think
People tend to rally around a common cause. We cheer for sports teams, side with one front in times of war, tune into an address from a prominent figure when it’s an “urgent matter of public interest.” We like to know that we’re part of a team, especially when the stakes are high. The possible end of the world as we know it would be considered a fairly high-stakes kind of situation.
It’s comforting to check-in and see whose team we would be on if the world was really coming to an end. What would we collectively do? What lessons can we, the human race, learn about who we are and what we’re doing on this world? Like many myths, even when disproved, they still teach a lesson.
The Rapture is a religious concept. It can also be considered a myth based on an end-of-the-world scenario. Such end-of-the-world myths are hardly unique to one religion or group. You don’t need to explain the concept of the world being destroyed by some cosmic force to most people. Most of us have heard stories about that already. We’ve probably had reference of “the impending end” imparted to us by the news media, in books and from friends. That’s what makes it interesting. We know what that means. We also know that it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
We knew that the world wasn’t about to end on May 21st and that we would be back to work the next day and/ or the day after, but we still got wrapped up in the myth. It was interesting because it would be so terrible if it actually came to pass.
That’s what captures our interest. We know that others know exactly what this whole end of the world thing is all about. We know it would be sad if the world ends and we know that humanity as we know it would cease to exist. What separates this kind of story from a story about a murder or a teacher saving a child from a lake is that we can all relate through the shared cultural language of myth. That’s what made it a powerful news story. That’s why it was covered as extensively as it was.
Interestingly, the Apocalypse is also a longstanding source of amusement for many people.
In fact, much of the fallout from all the doomsday predictions this time round has been comical. It’s funny to identify recurring themes in human history and reflect on how this myth in particular has been a prevalent part of the human psyche from time immemorial.
Don’t be Miffed
The Armageddon myth, unrealized yet again, united us for a brief moment. I bet you remember where you were May 21 at 6 p.m. and that you will likely remember that for a long time.
The news media coverage captured the moment, the zeitgeist. It was news because it’s grounded in our common myths and legends. And, who knew, this time they might have been right.