So, the world didn’t end today. Again.
We rely heavily on our family in New Zealand, since they’re the first major nation over the International Date Line (no offense intended, Tonga). They called us just after midnight their time on Y2K, and remarked upon the lack of planes falling from the sky or mayhem in the street, beyond the usual New Year’s hazards of the overcelebrated. I don’t think the Kiwis get enough credit for being the first through the breach on all these doomsdays. When you wake up tomorrow, give a little salute to your (extreme) southwest–they’d appreciate it.
I was entirely reassured already, though, because I am an historian. Specifically, I’m a historian of pre-modern history. I study populations who have predicted the end of the world almost as often as they crowned rulers. Sometimes, the doomsday date came from a monk with a little too much time and Arab math skills on his hands. Sometimes, it came from the profiteering predictions of rulers who needed the quick economic stimulus that fire sale prices on property could bring. And sometimes, just like today, it came from the crazies on the street corners. My very favorite sentence in the long and excellent book by Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, can be paraphrased as, “In 15-something-or-other, two men climbed to the roof of a London tenement and attempted to ascend to heaven.” (Alas, if they’d only thought to bring a ladder…)
Both the furor over creationism and the bizarre obsession with events like Y2K and the Mayan Apocalypse come from a fundamentally flawed view of the universe: Westerners are obsessed with linear time, seeing the history of the universe as a predefined line segment, with clear start and end points. Many folks tilt this axis upward, projecting the constant progress of humanity–they tend to see newer, bigger, better things as preferable over tradition. Others see it like an inverted V, in which some previous generation attained the height of civilization, from which we are now sliding inevitably toward a degrading loss of the standards that defined that earlier, optimal time.
But that’s not how I see time, and neither did the Mayans or any other number of pre-modern cultures who paid attention to the universe around them. The vast majority of civilizations have perceived that nature and the universe appear to operate, at least in part, in repetitive cycles. Sometimes, it’s a closed circuit–pagans celebrate the Wheel of the Year, which marks the points in the solar year that dictate agricultural and animal patterns. Othertimes, it extends in a sort of spiral, with regular milestones but a sense of forward (or sometimes backward) progression through reincarnation. There’s a reason the Mayan calendar looks like a giant wheel–it’s not meant to end. Today represents the completion of another long cycle, an event worth marking and celebrating, but in no way a period at the end of humanity’s existence.
And tonight, my family will brave the chilly Minnesota night–already velvet-black and deep, at the end of this shortest day–to gather with others to keep watch against the dark. This vigil is millenia old, and yet the message at its heart has spread into almost every culture, the world around. The sun is down; the sun will return. Ring the bells, light the fires, sing the songs to push back the night. Resist the cold, the winter, that starves and bays at the door with warmth and good cheer. For tomorrow, and every day after for months to come, the sun will return, stronger every day.
What good can such an ancient lesson hold in a culture obsessed with the new, the update, the next edition? It teaches us that no chance ever fully passes us by. It teaches us that it’s worth our best effort, every time. It teaches us that there’s a spark of light in the heart of the deepest darkness, and perseverance and faith can sustain us as long as we know brighter days will come.
Know why I’m so sure? Because we almost lost our son this year, to despair and myopia and the feeling that his sensory torture would never get better. And tonight, he rushed into our home after school, brandishing an airplane toy for his brother and a triumphant smile. He’d saved up his good-behavior points for weeks, and spent them on a gift for his little brother. He defied the dark in his world–the darkness that some voices want us to believe drive autistics to unredeemable acts of violence–and now he takes joy in making others happy.
12/21/12 isn’t the end of the world. Neither was 12/31/99. They’re all just one more circuit around the sun, one more circuit around the calendar, one more excuse to find wonder with one another that we all get more chances. That the light comes back, no matter how dark it feels. So set the timer on the coffee pot for tomorrow morning. Morning may come late, but it’s definitely coming. Every single day. Miraculous, isn’t it?