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Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Maya, That's a Nice Rock You Got There"

December 21, 2012 is the date
that the ancient Mayan Long Count calendar
allegedly marked as the end of an era
that would reset the date to zero
and signal the end of humanity.

The Mayan civilization, which reached its height from 300 A.D. to 900 A.D., had a talent for astronomy. Advanced mathematics and primitive astronomy flourished, creating what many have called the most accurate calendar in the world.They predicted a final event that included a solar shift, a Venus transit and violent earthquakes.

The Long Count calendar begins in 3,114 B.C., marking time in roughly 394-year periods known as Baktuns. Thirteen was a significant, sacred number for the Mayas, and they wrote that the 13th Baktun ends on December 21, 2012.

The doomsday theories came to light when a stone tablet was discovered in the 1960s at the archaeological site of Tortuguero in the Gulf of Mexico state of Tabasco. The tablet describes the return of a Mayan god at the end of a 13th period.

“The Maya are viewed by many westerners as exotic folks that were supposed to have had some special, secret knowledge,” said Mayan scholar Sven Gronemeyer. “What happens is that our expectations and fears get projected on the Maya calendar.”

Why do many intelligent people fear doomsday theories? Is it merely caused by a combination of their strangely morbid, active imaginations and the never ending feeding frenzy of a media that milks every speculation of any horrific catastrophe? Or, do people fear the "end is near" because the idea has been taught and accepted as part of their belief system.

Paula Fredriksen, a William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University, says, "The amazing thing about apocalyptic thought is that a specific prophecy can be disconfirmed, but the idea can never be discredited. You just recalculate. ... Apocalyptic thought is native to Christianity. ... Nothing will ever end Christian apocalypticism, especially now, with literacy at the high level it is. Where people who were even brought up on non-apocalyptic Christian traditions, like I was, all you have to do now is pick up a bible and read it. And if you're not familiar with the elite reinterpretation of those texts, the proclamation of Jesus' Second Coming is right there, waiting for you. It's the last line in the New Testament. 'Come Lord Jesus.'"

(Paula Fredriksen, "Apocalypse," Frontline, PBS,, 1995)

The conditioning of fear is believed to be a form of classical conditioning discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in 1927. Of course, most know how classical conditioning works, but here is a brief reminder for the purpose of review:

A naturally occurring stimulus (conditioned stimulus) is paired with a response. Then, a previously neutral stimulus (unconditioned stimulus) is paired with the naturally occurring stimulus. Eventually, the previously neutral stimulus comes to evoke the response (conditioned response) without the presence of the naturally occurring stimulus.
The most famous example of human fear conditioning is the case of Little Albert, an 11 month old infant used in John Watson and Rosalie Rayner's 1920 study. Like most babies, Albert had a natural fear of extremely loud noises but no aversion to white rats. So Watson and Rayner presented him with a white rat, and when he reached to touch it, they struck a hammer against a steel bar just behind his head.

After seven repetitions of seeing the rat and hearing the frightening noise, Albert burst into tears at the mere sight of the rat. In addition, Albert showed some generalization of his learned fear response -- he would cry at the sight of objects that resembled the white rat, such as a white dog or a white coat. However, he also showed a lot of discrimination; he was not fearful of toys or objects that were dissimilar to the offending rat.

(John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner, "Conditioned Emotional Reactions," Journal of Experimental Psychology 3, 1920)

Watson concluded that phobias (persistent, abnormal, and irrational fears of a specific thing that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous) were most likely conditioned responses. He stated that phobias were probably either a fear of the original stimulus or that they had been transferred to other stimuli, as the person grew older.

I believe the Western fear of doomsday is conditioned through the stimulus of Christian apocalypticism and science. Many people have definite anxieties about the biblical prophecies concerning the final judgment. And, even if people do not hold Christian beliefs, they keep their mind open as to the manner in which all creation, as they know it, will likely end. Scientists speculate theory after theory based on some factual designs.

The earthly end, their death and the death of their loved ones, is certain, no matter the means of destruction or the occurrence of events leading to the final hours. Whether the Lord, the Anti-Christ, the doomsday asteroid, the big freeze, the monster plague, the alien invasion, the nuclear holocaust,
or the super volcano sends them into uncertain oblivion, they fear the reality of conditioned finality.

So, to me, in many ways, we now are no more intelligent or advanced in our means to calculate and deal with the validity of doomsday predictions than were the Mayans.

(a) In 300 to 900 AD, the Mayan culture foresaw "a solar shift, a Venus transit and violent earthquakes" ushering in a New World Age that will herald "the end of linear time" and bring a world founded on different values that honor the spirit of the interdependence of all of life.

(b) Since 115–202 AD, the biblical Apocalypse of John has lead Christians to understand that some day the Great White Throne Judgment will bring the destruction of the current heavens and the earth, to be recreated as a "New Heaven and New Earth" and thus ushering in the beginning of Eternity.

(c) And, modern science has always occupied itself with predicting the end through some man made or natural destruction, seeing an escape from the planet or an alteration of heavenly bodies as the only viable means of saving human life.

I ask you, is there much difference between (a), (b), or (c) in its stimulus to promote fear? Poor Little Albert probably thought that white rat would end his world. And, I know many housewives who feel the same about rodents in 2012. People are conditioned to fear anything that could cause harm and to be petrified about anything that could cause the end of life -- the darker and more dastardly the conception of the finality, the worse the fear.

These shivering souls are not concerned about Mother Earth, all the little animals, the collapse of colossal structures, the demise of human life, or the limited longevity of the planets. They simply do not want to die. They have been conditioned to fear the unknown of the inevitable -- the end of life and the end of the world.

My point is "Why worry about something that is logically and spiritually understood as definite yet indeterminate in manner and in time?" We all know that the end will come, but no one knows how or when the hammer will drop. We can better understand this, accept it, and live without fear of it, or we can fight it, allow it to cause irrational behaviors, and spread our fatalistic dread.

Maybe we could learn a lesson from Mad Magazine and Alfred E. Newman's seemingly moronic philosophy of "What? Me worry?" Or maybe we should just obey the cliche "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die." If you didn't know, that saying originated from the Bible, Ecclesiastes 8:15. “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.” I believe I, personally, prefer this biblical verse to the doomsday script in Revelations.

One closing thought -- for those of you who fear that December 21 will be the end, you should spend big on the Christmas presents but give them a few weeks earlier this year.

Fire And Ice (Robert Frost)

SOME say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,       
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

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