The other night I had a dream in which I made an important connection about apocalyptic thinking. I dreamed I was talking to people about all this when it occurred to me that the whole thing may be wrapped up in the lived experience of time.
I’m not sure what brought this on, unless it was watching the Georgia Tech-North Carolina game on Saturday afternoon. (I was in the College of Engineering box, on the Press Level at the stadium. It’s a long story.) When Tech pulled ahead 14-0, we all relaxed; this was going to be easy. But the first half ended in a tie. Tech won, but it was a slightly messy victory, much scarier than it needed to be.
Watching the game, we were all tossed back and forth between hope and fear, and the whole thing turned on one or two critical plays, like that Tech interception in the end zone that prevented Carolina from scoring in the last few minutes of play. Since we could not know how the game would end, since the whole thing hinged on the strangest of mischances, we were left in the most turbulent kind of suspense.
As Vonnegut might say (taking a cue from Galápagos), our big brains are capable of having any number of conflicting opinions at the same time. Under stress, trying to cope, I might be smug in the assurance that Tech somehow deserves to win (and that the refs cheated them out of at least 50 yards), fearful that the team might be playing under some jinx that makes humiliating defeat inevitable, taking refuge in my old disdain for all sports by thinking that it doesn’t really matter anyway, and so on, and so on, all at the same time – or at least in very quick succession, with lots of repetition.
Watching (vicariously, by satellite) the progress of Hurricane Katrina across the Gulf of Mexico, watching the flooding and the chaos in New Orleans, was a lot like this. We knew what could happen, perhaps even what was likely to happen, but we were still in suspense. The whole thing turned on strange mischances: Would the levees hold, in spite if years of neglect? Would help arrive in time?
In that moment, without the benefit of hindsight, there is time for dozens of contrary opinions and emotions, from the noble to the perverse – at least for someone watching from the safe remove of a box on the Press Level.