So it looks like we're doomed. Again. Having found the world intact on May 21, the day he'd said the world would end, Harold Camping, an 89-year-old radio preacher from Oakland, Calif., has revised his estimate. Oct. 21, he says now. That's the last day for planet Earth.
One hopes the people who gave away their money and possessions in anticipation of Mr. Camping's most recent last day can find somebody to spot them a meal or two. One hopes the fellow who drove his family from Maryland to California budgeted enough gas money to return — though why he considered Cali a better bleacher from which to view the end of the world is anybody's guess.
Not for nothing, but this isn't the first time Mr. Camping has gotten it wrong. Back in 1994, he got a lot of people verklempt over another doomsday prophecy that didn't pan out. He says he is getting these predictions from simple math and a study of the Bible. Presumably, this would be the same Bible that says in Matthew 24:36, "No one knows about that day or hour ..."
There is something sobering in debating the end of the world while the American heartland is absorbing reminder after brutal reminder of the fundamental frailty of human structures, the profound mortality of human lives. And perhaps this is just a trick of perception, but such reminders seem especially plentiful lately. From the tornadic winds whipping across this country to the ground heaving and breaking in Haiti to the ocean smashing down upon Japan, we have been repeatedly and catastrophically instructed in the capriciousness of death and the precariousness of life.
Given that the only certainty in the latter is the eventuality of the former, it is perhaps unavoidable for a rational mind to wonder how things end. Robert Frost wondered. "Some say the world will end in fire," the great poet wrote. "Some say in ice." Martin Luther King wondered. "Every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral," he mused, two months before an assassin's bullet cut him down.
Harold Camping wonders. And so he gets his calculator and his Bible and he makes predictions that frighten some gullible people and provide fodder for others to crack wise.
But the tendency to focus on the end is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. It suggests mortality is a thing to be feared.
Granted, one would never think this, much less say it when death breaks hearts and overflows eyes, when it strikes without warning or lingers above a sickbed, when it takes away the very young or the very loved, but a case can be made that mortality is really a gift of sorts.
The understanding that life is finite lends a bittersweet urgency to this business of living. Seasons change, years pile upon years, hair turns to silver and then to memory and in all of it, there is an undercurrent: Get done what you came here to do, give the gifts you meant to give, do the good you're able to do, say what you need to say, now, today, because everything you see is temporary, the clock is ticking and the alarm could go off any second.
Mr. Camping had it wrong in more ways than one. He told people to get ready for the end. Better they should live ready for the end.
The key word there being, live.
Leonard Pitts' column appears regularly. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.