One ending is another beginning

In Other Words


This year, in the midst of a typically festive holiday season, is what many have considered to be a very auspicious date. December 21, 2012 does not simply signify the winter solstice, but also a very important calendar day in the ancient culture of the Mayans. I’m referring, of course, to what many in popular media have referred to as Doomsday, the Apocalypse, or simply, the End of the World.

A chuckle or two at this thought is not completely out of line. Imagining the end of the world occurring in simply a matter of days could be slightly comical. But many around the world have considered this date, if not the ultimate End, at least something worth marking.

For some time, this date has loomed in the future as some kind of prophesy, a tip from an ancient culture that something fishy was coming, and that it would happen on a precise day. Looking for secret knowledge from ancient cultures is a popular theme. It has been assumed that ancient peoples were more in touch with the land and Mother Earth, and therefore more receptive to information regarding wisdom or prophesies.

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While I’m skeptical about ancient cultures prophesizing far into the future, I do believe they attained wisdom and knowledge in ways modern society doesn’t anymore and I do believe these cultures still have much to teach us. To name just one such intriguing idea, I find it fascinating the way such separate cultures around the globe and across time used what tools they had to calculate such abstract ideas as the calendar. After all, what practical good does a long-term calendar hold for such people, besides spiritual or intellectual wisdom?

Today we have the luxury of everyone on Earth using the same method of marking time. But in ancient cultures, this wasn’t the case, and the way these cultures marked cycles of time varied greatly. The Maya of Mesoamerica had a number of different cycle levels, each one encompassing the ones before it. Their longest cycle, the baktun, was 394 years and they wrapped each baktun into a grouping of 13, a significant number in their culture. The current “Great Cycle” of 13 baktuns is coming to an end this December 21st.

I recently saw an advertisement at a popular outdoors store for a preparedness class for the coming “Zombie Apocalypse” that was sure to occur following this important Mayan date. I originally thought this great fodder for a column about a prophesy of the end of the world, but the more research I did on the Mayan calendar and what this date actually signified piqued my interest in a different way.

Proof that the phenomenon this “end date” has created is the involvement of NASA in their attempt to debunk the idea that an astronomical cataclysm is headed toward Earth. And while I may think it intriguing, and maybe a tad funny, many around the world are taking this calendar date very seriously, and some are quite fearful. As one NASA official put it, if we put the fear factor aside, there is another real concern that this looming date has brought forth: a lack of regard for science education and skeptical thinking in our schools.

The spreading of fear of this date is not unlike the Y2K fears that ultimately amounted to nothing more than hype. And while it may be great cocktail party conversation to talk about how to prepare for the end of the world, it is perhaps more productive to learn about what this date really meant to that culture, and what, if anything, it might mean to ours. Learning to think outside the box of fear is a skill that is, apparently, learned.

Most experts now agree that next week will mark an important milestone in a very ancient calendar system, but it doesn’t signify a prediction of the end of the world. Instead, it would likely have indicated a time of great celebration, and maybe a time of contemplation as well. This is not unlike how many typical celebrate our modern holiday season, and I hope this year we continue to have cause for significant contemplation and celebration.


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