Well, it’s half past one in the central time zone, and the world hasn’t ended yet. Stupid Maya! And after we went and ate all the Y2K provisions we had stored away.

Scientific American writes about the psychological reasons why some of us love to think about the End. Excerpt:

Steven Schlozman, drawing both from his experiences as a Harvard Medical School child psychiatrist and novelist (his first book recounts a zombie apocalypse) believes it’s the post-apocalyptic landscape that fascinates people most.

“I talk to kids in my practice and they see it as a good thing. They say, ‘life would be so simple—I’d shoot some zombies and wouldn’t have to go to school,’” Schlozman says. In both literature and in speaking with patients, Schlozman has noticed that people frequently romanticize the end times. They imagine surviving, thriving and going back to nature.

Schlozman recently had an experience that eerily echoed Orson Welles’s 1938 The War of the Worlds broadcast. He was discussing his book on a radio program and they had to cut the show short when listeners misconstrued his fiction for fact. He believes the propensity to panic is not constant in history but instead reflects the times. In today’s complicated world with terrorism, war, fiscal cliffs and climate change, people are primed for panic.

“All of this uncertainty and all of this fear comes together and people think maybe life would be better” after a disaster, Schlozman says. Of course, in truth, most of their post-apocalyptic dreams are just fantasies that ignore the real hardships of pioneer life and crumbling infrastructure. He points out that, if anything, tales of apocalypse, particularly involving zombies, should ideally teach us something about the world we should avoid—and how to make necessary changes now.

I think there are two related reasons why people secretly love to meditate on the End. The first is more or less along the lines Schlozman draws, and that Walker Percy wrote about: it clarifies things, and relieves us (we falsely think) of existential anxieties. The second is that it makes the experience of life richer — or so we imagine.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. Life in New York City immediately after 9/11 was fraught with fear — but I don’t know that I have ever felt more alive, or more grateful to be alive, and in love with my city and the people in it. There was a “we’re all in this together” feeling of solidarity that I don’t believe I’ve ever felt before. It was kind of like a high, to be honest. There was no doubt in my mind about our purpose. The world was clear and crisp and full, in a way that it hadn’t been before.

I think I saw the world more truly then … but that I also saw it more falsely. It’s a strange and paradoxical state.

I think Cavafy captures the allure of catastrophe (and the decadence that expresses) well in this famous poem:

Waiting For The Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.

What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
He’s even got a scroll to give him,
loaded with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

It is deeply ironic that for many of us, the only thing worse than apocalypse is the thought that we are condemned to muddle through.