The Ultimate Year

Our world, the casual sum of our interactions, is, generously, a very slender skin on one of billions of mid-sized planets that we suppose to exist. Our verified knowledge of the universe outside of the gravity well is expanding but still a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. We explore to the best of our abilities, but to be fair, the speed of light as a universal constant is an educated guess. We are a mote in the eye of some god that may or not exist. This is of course above and beyond the every day of the every day — the rent, who we love, who we hate, food, table, rinse, repeat. Existentially, cosmologically, it is a little bit existentially crushing out there. Exciting as well, the undiscover’d country and all that, but remember that the undiscover’d country is basically just death, which brings us back to a big, big scary. Which is why, if you’re sensitive to these things, every day is another little yikes.

I only bring this up because we are approaching yet another eschatological threshold, “scheduled” to occur in calendar 2012. If you haven’t heard of it, you are very lucky. But some folks are saying that a Big Thing will happen less than two years from now, which Big Thing varies depending on mileage — consult your Mayan calendar for more information. And which makes 2011, possibly, the last full year we get. Ever.

This is not the first time for a good old-fashioned end-times freak-out, not even in recent history. 1982 was a pretty big one, when the planets were supposed to align in some catastrophic fashion. It was a bust, but I was young and impressionable and happened to stumble upon a couple of shrill Christian pamphlets (extolling beliefs similar to this) that mentioned that the moon was going to turn to blood, etc. etc., and I’ll never get back the sleep I lost in 1980 and 1981. In 1987 a Harmonic Convergence was anticipated, another planetary issue mixed with, again, the Mayan calendar, but giant jaguars did not roam the earth that night, destroying and then recreating reality overnight (as far as we can tell).

We’ve always done it. Our older religions were very handy with the final scenario, be it Revelations or Ragnarok, and in the more recent centuries we have not gone wanting. Check the Three Prophecies of Fatima, or maybe you remember the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, which was certainly on topic, in retrospect. We are never at a loss for a group of humans, on the fringe or not, waiting for the end of everything that does not come.

But if you are legitimately interested in the 2012 hub-bub, then by all means — it’s a big Internet out there, and you are only a search away. I have been for years, as one with a taste for the conspiracy theory. I’m in there more for the whimsy, the irrepressible powers of the imagination, let’s say, but it is a dark and shadowy place and there’s an excellent chance that you’ll stumble across one or two things that may give you a shudder. Believe it if you will. I don’t. But I do believe in a world more interesting than it appears to be, though this is more of an aspiration than a tenet of faith. And this belief requires a steady diet of Sasquatch, UFOs and general weirdness.

The significance of 2012 is explained generally as a function of the end of a series of cycles of the Mayan calendar, which is a pretty well-calibrated cosmological clock. This is probably the aspect that you’ve heard about, and, according to a couple of New Age friends, no one is more sick of hearing about it than actual Mayans. But if you do poke around, you’ll find all kinds of wonderfully interesting correlations, like the Montauk Project, the Philadelphia Experiment, wormholes and sunspot cycles. Hours of fun research. Like, for example, in the world of “time travelers” as exists on message boards and Geocities websites and the like, there is a recurring theme of how certain time travelers that are interviewed by the intrepid talk about how they are never able to go forward past the year 2012. Do I believe in that? Well, no, but I’ve been wrong before, and isn’t it a much more interesting thing to lay awake at night thinking about than a dusty old calendar?

And if you are disinclined to give a flying fig about any of this — maybe more interested in the vestments of the material world — then comfort yourself with the knowledge that this 2012 phenomenon exists as much as a brand as it does an ecclesiastical concern. What could be more American, more now, than appropriating the doomsday scenario of a lapsed culture and making boatloads of money off it? We may be terrified of the unknown and the unknowable, but we are also terrified of not being able to buy a large television, and nothing soothes the soul than wisdom bought at no small price. Books? Oh, there are books. Seminars? We are lousy with them.

Most probably this will amount to nothing, but at least it demonstrates the anxiety we primates have over a possible expiration date. This creeping dread which is palpable and occupies a good portion of our thinking is as human as anything else we do: fussin’ and a-fightin’, livin’ and survivin’. Good times, sure. But of all of the things we have to be scared of — scorpions, embarrassment, debtor’s prison, cuckoldry, solitude, and, um, death, why do we project our insecurities into some epochal event, some end of everything?

I say, as a casual student, that it’s hubris, a mortality blown wide on a historic scale. Obviously, no matter how much we wish it were not so, we will pass away. And so we project. Why should we expect permanence when we see none? Water carves granite out of mountains, and the continents actually move. The window of our experience is just too limited to approach anything resembling permanence. Even Hubble snapshots, showing things that happened eons ago, are littered with frozen moments of stars dying. Again, eons ago.
And in our smallness, what could be more natural to become a bit unhinged? Mortality is not purely a matter for the single-issue voter. We’re soaking in it. Why not take some comfort in the concept of a world that will in some way not outlive us?

Objectively, could everything end? Anything is possible. If the astrophysicists are right, at some point we’ll be staring at the heat death of the universe, but that’s not going to be our fate. That might be a post-human fate, but we are not post-human. We are very solidly human. It’s fun to imagine, as sci-fi fans would agree, but our fate is a slow grudging acceptance. Of bad luck, of circumstances beyond our control, of mistakes we make. Maybe having the Screaming Mimis over a fate bigger than the earthly fates we can imagine somehow ameliorates those earthly fates and the diminished expectations that accompany them. And what’s wrong with being wrong? Who’s keeping score?

Ultimately: the ultimate year? It will be some version of the penultimate year. As will the rest of the ultimate years.

Brent Cox is all over the Internet.

Photo by Seth Anderson, from Flickr.