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Why People Dream of Apocalypse

Are more people today dreaming about the end of the world? Should they be?

Key points

  • We are innately primed to dream of disasters, dangers, and worst-case scenarios.
  • Apocalyptic dreams extend beyond the individual to envision disaster for the whole world.
  • Dreams of disaster also enhance our mental alertness and creative capacities to respond to collective dangers.
Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

Are more people today dreaming about the end of the world? Should they be?

These two questions emerged from numerous conversations with family and friends during the recent holidays. Although coming from many different perspectives, several people expressed an equally urgent fear about the imminent threat of collective disaster. Apocalyptic anxieties are in the air right now, at least in waking life. What about in dreams?

Catastrophic Dreaming

Researchers currently do not have baseline information about how often ordinary dreams include the specific topic of apocalypse. We do, however, have indirect information from numerous sources suggesting that apocalyptic dreams are a widespread phenomenon, historically and cross-culturally. Empirical studies have made it clear that dreaming is a never-ending parade of disaster and destruction, a relentless generator of worst-case scenarios, and a vividly immersive theater of apocalyptic anxiety. We are innately primed to dream of things falling apart, of misfortunes, disasters, being late, getting lost, falling, collapsing, getting hurt or sick, becoming paralyzed, and dying. According to studies using various systems of content analysis, a huge portion of ordinary human dreaming, in all places and times, involves themes of drastic danger to the dreamer.

Viewed in this context, apocalyptic dreams can be conceived as the most extreme version of falling dreams. They are dreams in which catastrophic disasters and misfortunes afflict not just the individual dreamer, but the whole world. All of society tumbles over a cliff and plunges helplessly downward; an entire civilization falls apart; a whole culture becomes sick and collapses. These are worst-case scenarios going far beyond the personal sphere to include everyone and everything. As a feature of ordinary dream content, the theme of apocalypse is probably rare. But it remains a latent potentiality of human dreaming, ready to be activated if waking life circumstances become sufficiently dire to call it forth.

Apocalypse as Archetype

We today are not the first to fear the imminent end of all things. Humans have been anticipating apocalypse for thousands of years. Both in waking and in dreaming, we are instinctually prepared to perceive the gathering of conditions that could lead to the destruction of our collective reality.

And yet, because the archetype of apocalypse can be so quickly triggered, it can also be manipulated. By radically devaluing the future, apocalyptic fears can justify behaviors in the present that people would never otherwise accept. Visions of apocalypse can become resentful fantasies of vengeance against those whose power over us seems impossible to escape: Only by violently destroying them and their hold over present reality can a better world emerge. This is the archetypal formula behind countless movies, TV shows, video games, and songs that permeate pop culture. Unlike stories grounded in the hero myth, in which the individual goes on an epic adventure and returns home bearing treasures to share with the community, stories animated by the archetype of apocalypse focus primarily on the explosive destruction of the community itself, and only secondarily the individual’s resulting exile or liberation.

Feelings of apocalyptic doom can also be manipulated in the opposite direction, toward passivity and quietism. With no hope for the future, it might seem there is no reason to try changing anything, no reason to participate in traditional institutions of governance and social cohesion, no reason to devote time and energy to long-term projects. Ironically, this kind of apocalyptic withdrawal only benefits the people who currently enjoy the greatest privileges of present reality, by voluntarily removing a potential threat to their power.

Don’t Give Up. Turn Within.

Perhaps the more pressing question is, should people be dreaming about an apocalypse? Current conditions seem to justify extreme alarm about our collective prospects. Climate change, failing political systems, economic inequality, racial strife, sinister surveillance technologies—all of these threats are becoming worse by the day, and are already causing enormous harm and suffering to humans and other species. Environmental science (going back to Alexander von Humboldt’s 19th-century vision of Geognosis) has given us a new awareness of the interconnectedness of everything on the planet, and a new awareness of the fragility of all earthly forms of life, our own included.

This expanded awareness represents an important new chapter in the history of human consciousness, even though it brings a great deal of fear and uncertainty, too. Many of us feel an acute sense of loss regarding the species, ecosystems, and ways of life that have been destroyed or gone extinct. It’s tempting to yield to righteous anger or helpless resignation, even if neither of those paths will truly help with the problems we face.

An alternative path is to mourn these losses by devoting ourselves to deeper self-reflection and critical scrutiny of our inner psychological resources, beyond the limits of our egos, beyond the limits of our conscious rational selves. If followed with a spirit of honesty and openness, this path leads to the realizations that you are more than your ego, that your whole self encompasses more than what you consciously think and do, and that your alienation from this “more” is itself a source of suffering and a contributor to apocalyptic despair. If we have nothing but our ego selves to help us solve our problems, we are truly doomed. We need help.

Fortunately, we all have powerful natural resources for help in our dreams, which emerge from the ancient wisdom of the unconscious mind. As much as dreams dwell on frightening dangers of destruction, they also enhance our mental alertness and adaptive capacities when responding to new threats in the waking world. Dreams are endlessly creative and innovative, providing new perspectives on our biggest concerns in daily life. If you turn within and follow the tracks of your dreams for long enough, you will develop powers of intuitive insight and creative flexibility that can enhance the effectiveness of whatever actions you take in the waking world. By drawing deep strength from within, you will become a more creative and dynamic contributor to collective efforts for peace, health, justice, and prosperity for all.

References

Hill, M.O. (2004). Dreaming the End of the World: Apocalypse as a Rite of Passage. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications.

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