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The End of Ends

The End (photo: mrjoro/flikr)

Googling the phrase “the end of” returns seven billion hits. That’s a lot of ends. Placed end to end, they’d stretch to the end of… well, never mind. Let’s take a look at some of the google returns on the first couple of screens:

The End of History
The End of the World
The End of Food
The End of Men
The End of Fish (video)
The End of Poverty (video)
The End of Capitalism
The End of America
The End of Suburbia
The End of An Era
The End of Us (gasp!)
The End of Faith
The End of Nature

I suppose all these ends are justified as means of getting attention or selling something. That none of the mentioned concepts and things have actually ended is irrelevant. Recent news that a vial of Ronald Reagan’s blood will be auctioned is a sign of the end of something, so we may as well go ahead place our bets on what, exactly, has reached its doom time. But maybe not.

I confess to speculating about the end of some things, democracy in particular. But at least I put it in the form of a question. It’s the declarative that sells. Even Jim Morrison and the Doors knew that.

What is it about The End that we find so irresistible? For one thing, there’s only mystery on the other side of it. What comes after the end? Something new? Nothing? The epidemic of blockbuster movie sequels might be telling us that it’s just more of the same that follows The End. Ecclesiastes warned us about this when he said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

“The End of…” stories can be about things we don’t want to end (food comes to mind, or nature, or fish, or Us) and things we desperately want to end (poverty, for instance). “The End of…” stories can and are used to produce both fear and hope.

Maybe the public relations punch of all those “The End of…” titles comes from their hint at an absolute. Life is full of uncertainties and vagaries. We’re unsure of both beginnings and ends, and we make up all kinds of stories that deal with those uncertainties.

Uncertainty is a great driver of human creativity. This is why John Keats spoke of “negative capability,” a person’s willingness and ability to live with uncertainty.

Time has a way of shaking us out of our beds of certainty. Those without negative capability are always climbing back into the sack and pulling the covers over their heads. “Thank goodness that’s over,” they tell themselves, whatever that particular “that” was. I think this is why we’re so attracted to “The End of…” stories. They are like the comforting darkness under the blanket, a darkness we imagine no under-the-bed monsters can penetrate.

This is a good weekend to contemplate all these “The End of…” stories. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Some will tell you the holiday simply marks the end of spring. But that’s not it.

Since after the Civil War, Americans have used this time to remember their lost friends and loved ones. It is, of course, a day devoted especially to the memories of fallen soldiers. A moment’s thought will show us that even the departed have not reached an end. They live on in our memories.

Maybe if we thought more about this we’d be less anxious about our own mortality. There’d be fewer “The End of…” stories. We could stay upright and out of our beds of certainty, moving creatively forward into an open universe we can’t see the end of.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith