A few days ago I got quite a shock when I realised my friend was serious about December 21st possibly being the end of the world. At first I was irritated by what I considered irrationality, and was dismayed by my friend’s credulity.
It seems – from a poll of over 500 respondents to A Nice Ring to It’s Freshly Pressed article “Six Reasons Why the World Isn’t Going to End in 19 Days” – that almost 95% of us would laugh or cringe at the latest apocalyptic prediction, though a little over 5% of respondents declare a belief in some catastrophic event on that date.
Indeed, here in Sri Lanka, supermarkets have apparently asked suppliers to fast-track delivery of non-perishable food items, and things like candles, bottled water, and mosquito repellent are walking off the shelves. Everyone on my friend’s staff has asked to be released on the 20th to go to the village to be with family, forcing my friend to consider what she should do to ensure her family’s survival if such an event were to occur.
“How can this be?” I wondered, “especially here in literate Sri Lanka, a society that has survived over two thousand years of the vicissitudes of war, colonisation, pestilence and ecological change?” Each time my friend talks about it, I’m forced to think more about her reaction – she is my friend, after all.
Then it came to me. It’s the Tsunami factor.
Eight years ago this month, over half a million people on this island survived the horrors of the water; of parents, children, husbands, wives being torn from their arms, never to be seen again. Out of a clear blue sky, with no warning except for a strangely exposed seashore, 35,322* people died in Sri Lanka that morning. In a nation of a little over 20 million people, almost everyone I’ve ever met knew someone who had died, or had lived to tell their harrowing stories of survival. The stories are recounted still, as gut wrenching as if they’d happened just last year. For the survivors, the displaced, their lives will never be the same – for the visitor, the physical and economic scars are visible still.
The Boxing Day Tsunami hit without warning, and the explanation for it was beyond the understanding of shell-shocked villagers. Then, on their television screens one evening last week, dubbed into Sinhala and Tamil, appeared what purported to be a creditable documentary predicting another catastrophe. The date – December 21st – is uncomfortably close to Boxing Day.
I think it is understandable that people who don’t have access to the range of resources we in the ‘West’ grew up with and take for granted – people who probably have good reason to not always believe what they have been told by their “betters” – might believe ‘foreign” documentaries like this. I think it’s understandable, in a society still reeling from one of the great cataclysmic events in humankind’s history, that panic can spread easily. In fact, a little over 25% of A Nice Ring to It’s pole respondents admitted: “I don’t want to, but I’ll probably be a little freaked out that day.” And with over 2 billion results from a Google search for “21 December 2012”, who can blame them?
It will be my turn to be shocked if I face the end of our existence on December 21st – or three days of darkness, for that matter – but in the meantime, remind me to be more understanding and tolerant of others’ beliefs and fears – there’s usually a reason.