For a while now there has been a lot of fun and mockery made at the expense of the Mayans concerning their supposed predictions of apocalypse. Despite the fact that the Mayan Empire last existed centuries ago before their subjugation by the Spanish and their subsequent abuse at the hand of the mestizo population of Guatemala and Mexico after the independence of those countries, and the fact that many Mayans still remain (I have met some of them personally), all sorts of slanders about their character and predictive ability have been given, all without a great deal of attention being paid to understanding the Mayans better.
For one, there have been great doubts given about the predictive ability of Mesoamerican peoples. There was one prophecy of these peoples, which came down apparently from the age of Teotihuacan, that around 1519 a missing king would return to lead his people to a better age, only it was one corrupt Hernan Cortes who ended up leading a small group of Spaniards and some native allies to destroy the Aztec Empire and loot its wealth for the glory of Spain. Not all prophecies, even ones that are “verified” turn out to be exactly what the people who believe them are worth. But to even say that the “end” of the Mayan calendar is today (at least where I am) is a rather fallacious claim on its face. After all, the Mayans possessed many calendars, and like many peoples (the Hebrews are one as well) they tend to have time cycles that nest within each other. For example, the Jews have 7 and 19 year time cycles, a 49 year jubilee cycle, and periodic “ages” that are declared for various significant historical events. The Mayans were no different, and their skills at astronomy were notable, and their cycles complicated. Like the Jews, running through a cycle until the years and days finish does not mean the end of the world, it just means the end of a cycle, given that they have another calendar that goes on for tens of thousands of years yet–and that is not something that any Hollywood movie would tend to predict.
Because of a misunderstanding of the nature of Mayan cyclical time, the Mayans have been slandered as false prophets for doing what they did not do–predict the end of the world for today. Clearly, we are still here, and so are the Mayans (even if they do not have an independent nation of their own). It is our willful misunderstanding of the Mayans that has led us to slander them, and many of the comments I have made today have made light of the Mayans without showing sufficient understanding that it wasn’t the Mayans fault to begin with for the misunderstanding, but rather our own. We live in an age of apocalyptic fear, some of which has to do with our own time cycles (namely the millennial cycles we have, and the periodic eschatological fears of Western civilization. To the extent that we see end of a time cycle as forecasting the end of the world, we ought not to criticize others for that failing.
But there is more to it than that. All of the laughing about the world still being here that will go on today, and the parties after another supposedly false “end of the world” declaration do not change the state of the world as it is today one iota. Yes, we are all still here (and I am glad for that, but the state of our world today does itself lend support to apocalyptic fears from a variety of sources. We have countries that largely lack legitimacy because they have massive debt that threatens military security as well as entitlement spending that large portions of the populations of those nations have become dependent on and cannot easily replace given the broken states of our institutions at large. Scientists talk blithely about the catastrophic effects of climate change: rising oceans, problems with droughts or flooding (depending on one’s location), and the like. Those of us with a more religious bent look at the state of corruption in our world and know that such actions have destructive “natural” outcomes, even without having to speculate on direct judgment from God (which many are not afraid in the least to do).
The fact that so many people are making such deliberate mockery of the Mayans for doing something that they did not do suggests that we feel the need to ridicule false prophets (or even those who are falsely claimed to be false prophets) who set dates and times in error (seeing as no one knows the day or the hour of “the end,” nor even the year or decade or century). While it may be satisfying to make endless REM quotes or disparage the prophetic skills of the Mayans, all of which I have seen done often over the last twelve hours (and will no doubt see plenty more of), such behavior is really irrelevant and not very helpful at all. The larger question, and bigger problem, is what are we going to do about our own societies and civilizations to make ourselves less apocalyptic in our own mindset. We have a lot of work to do to repair our institutions, rebuild relationships and trust, and the fact that we are still here only means that we have more time to either dig ourselves deeper or do something useful and productive in very serious times. If the laughter over one false understanding gives us some encouragement to do so, it will be all the better so long as we do not blame the Mayans for the fear we have. We earned the fear we have ourselves.