Preparing for the end of the world - again

How will you spend your last few days? Because, according to the Mayans, we've got just 2 weeks left. It may be the start of summer but it's also the end of the world.

The Mayan long calendar finishes on December 21, 2012. After that, nothing. Or rather fire, flood, quake, famine, global Superstorm Sandy meets Cataclysm Katie, the whole Book of Revelations with wailing of teeth and gnashing of women.

Followed by nothing. A great silence. Forever. Or so say the doomsters. Who are - may the good lord bless them and pass the shiraz - wrong.

They're wrong for several reasons.

One is that they're always wrong. Doomsters have been prophesying the end of the world since the beginning of the world. Every cult and every religion - and the only difference between those two words is subscriber numbers - has a doomsday scenario.

Doomsday's a propaganda device. It scares people by threatening them with (a) death and (b) judgment. Thus the people are rendered obedient and easy to milk for money and exploit for power.

The idea of doomsday works partly because it's a metaphor. We all know we'll face a personal doomsday. We know that down the far end of the corridor of time, there's a hospital bed with our name on it. What we don't know is the length of the corridor.

Knowing a bad thing is going to happen is almost as bad as the bad thing happening. So we are tempted to hurry it along, to face it. It has to be better than waiting and dreading.

Which is why a firm date for doomsday is always popular. Doomsday holds a bleak appeal, as countless Hollywood movies confirm, as do the "preppers" of Texas and the suicide bombers of Iraq.

"Beneath it all", as the poet put it, "desire for oblivion runs".

The Mayans were no better at predicting the end of the world than anyone else. Indeed, they signally failed to spot the end of their own world coming. Their civilisation ended long before their calendar. The probable cause was climate change. And the probable cause of the climate change was deforestation. But no-one wants to know about that for obvious reasons.

Calendar-based Armageddon is far more entertaining.

Though, as it happens, the Mayans did not see December 21, 2012, as Armageddon. It was merely the end of a cycle.

And since the next long cycle won't end until 4772, they would have celebrated the date in style - barbecued sweet corn, crates of fermented cactus and a slew of human sacrifices. Back then they knew how to make their own fun.

When they weren't throwing parties, the Mayans had plenty of time on their hands. They didn't have Dancing with the Stars to fill in their evenings. They had only the stars themselves which they studied with such intentness that they came up with a calendar of staggering complexity.

We, however, are different. We are the most entertained people in history. We are seduced by constant distractions. Screens call to us from every corner, all of them begging to steal some of however many minutes we have left to us.

My current time-waster is internet chess. I have only to press a key and suddenly I'm playing a game. There is always a player available, a time-waster like me, somewhere on the planet, day or night.

I'm not especially good at chess, but I find it so engrossing that I can spend hours a day playing it. Hours when I could have been working or building something or studying or playing tug with the dog. I curse myself for it. So much so that I spent an hour this morning working out how to block access to on my computer. But in working out how to block it, I also worked how to unblock it.

A famous man once came to a school where I was teaching. "Learn", he said in his address to the kids, "as if you were going to live for a million years. Live, as if you were going to die tomorrow."

It sounded impressive, and it obviously had some effect on me because I've remembered it. But at the same time it's a puzzle.

Let's imagine that the doomsters are right. Let's imagine that the world will cease on Friday, December 21.

What would you do? How would you respond? Would you pray or bungee jump or reach for the fermented cactus? One's as good as the other, I guess. I think I'd just play with the dog.

The Dominion Post