Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Non-End of the World, New Age Edition; or, Happy 14th B'ak'tun!

Once again, the world was supposed to end at a precise date and time. There were even disaster movies about it, including one big one. That time was the moment of the summer solstice (3:11 a.m. PST) on December 21, 2012. 12/21/12.

Sure enough, the world didn't end. Yet again.

That moment is when the 13th b'ak'tun of the Mayan calendar came to a close and the 14th began. A b'ak'tun is something of a Mayan counterpart to a millennium on the modern Roman calendar. If you remember, the world was also supposed to end at midnight on January 1, 2000. The only thing that happened that day was that some computers went haywire because it didn't occur to their mid- (and even late-)20th-century programmers that the 20th century would end, so the dates they used were two digits rather than four. This was the famous "Y2K bug" that people hoped would bring down civilization so Jesus could return. The difference between the turn of the Mayan b'ak'tun and the turn of the Roman millennium is that there never was a "14th b'ak'tun bug".

The Mayas, of course, are happy to collect the dollars from doomsday-minded tourists. They still exist, you see, and they even still speak their old languages in addition to their conquerors' language, Spanish (and sometimes English for the tourists). Mel Gibson even filmed his movie Apocalypto in the Maya language Yucatec.

So how did this all get started? I suspect it began with one José Argüelles, author of a book called The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology and organizer of the Harmonic Convergence of 1987 (disclosure: growing up in a New Age family, I took part in it). He took the Mayan calendar, added the I Ching and other esoteric influences, and you can guess the rest. Interestingly enough, he didn't live long enough to see the world not end (he died in 2011) — but then, he never said it would. (Trivia note: he was neither Mexican nor Guatemalan, but a Midwestern American: he came from Rochester, Minnesota, not far from where I spent much of my childhood in Mankato.)

Sure enough, memetic mutation took over. Somehow, even before the Harmonic Convergence, the date 12/21/2012 got mixed up in Theosophical expectations of the return of The Christ (i.e. the Theosophical version of the Gnostic Jesus) in the form of Maitreya, the next Buddha. Eventually, cults both New Age and Evangelical formed around the Eschaton they expected on that date. This is the kind of thing my favorite major New Age figure, Dick Sutphen calls "cosmic foo-foo".

And so here we are yet again, stuck in a world that never ended, just like we were last year, twice (no thanks to one Harold Camping, Evangelical end-time prognosticator). Once again, the world has been proclaimed Twitter dead. But Twitter death never stopped the celebrities; why would it stop the world? After all, the world has been about to end since Jesus' time; it never did, and it never will — unless, of course, our leaders manage to blow it up...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Mass Shootings, True Heroes, and Doing the Right Thing

The article: The Heroes of Sandy Hook (BuzzFeed)

During the massacre that snuffed out the lives of twenty children and six teachers, the women profiled in the link above willingly risked death to save as many children as they could. Three of them — the principal, the school psychologist, and a first-grade teacher — died, yet succeeded in saving their children.

The story of the first-grade teacher, 27-year-old Victoria Soto, especially struck me. She hid her students in a closet just in time. When the gunman came and demanded where the students were, she told him they were in the gymnasium; she lied to protect them. Then he shot her dead and left. All her students survived.

Victoria Soto willingly gave up her life to save the children in her class. This, in my book, is the very definition of true heroism. She should be an inspiration and an example to all.

Now would I, vindictive old me, willingly risk my life to save innocents from a rampaging madman who once could have been me? Yes, back when I was the school outcast in four schools, middle and high, I had the potential to become one of these monsters. Fortunately, the mental health system was stronger, or at least my mother had enough connections to it that I got the therapy I needed. And I'm especially grateful to the child psychologist who worked with me then, Debbie Carlson, a truly compassionate person and the best therapist I would ever work with; she was there at exactly the right time.

Now, to answer my question: Normally, I'd want to either take out the bastard or run as far away as I could to make sure I didn't get killed. But I've been in one of my occasional spurts of growing up, and these heroic teachers have showed me a different way. So if I were in Victoria Soto's situation, faced with certain death yet a chance to save a classroom full of innocent and terrified children, I now know I'd do what she did: I'd face certain death calmly and misdirect the killer away from the kids. In some extreme situations, willingly giving up one's life to save others is exactly the right thing to do.

Of course this doesn't mean that doing the right thing necessarily involves giving up one's life or even risking it. It means following your conscience whenever you can, even if the whole system's against you.

Naturally, at first I was angry when I heard the horrible news, and posted a scorching rant on my opinion blog. Then I reflected more rationally (if still with some anger) in the follow-up post. But I ended up learning two lessons from the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy:
  1. the urgent need to repair America's ailing mental health system, rebuilding it from scratch if necessary; and
  2. that in tragic and horrific situations like this, people who willingly risk death to save lives are a shining example of humanity who are an inspiration to all.
And so I honor Dawn Hochsprung (the principal), Mary Sherlach (the school psychologist), and Victoria Soto, who out of love of and compassion for children willingly gave up their lives to save the children of their school from a rampaging madman. They, and the two teachers who saved their students and survived, are true heroes who should be remembered long after the murderer has been forgotten except as "yet another school shooter". They are my heroes.