We are all going to die. Before you panic, please stop and consider that there's probably nothing you can do about it. Wait, sorry. That wasn't very reassuring, was it? Well, how about this: you may or may not see your inevitable death coming. Feel better? No?
Look, I'm no good at breaking bad news to people. And even if I were, there's really no way to sugar coat this. Some people are working hard to put a stop to the grim reaper's oncoming train (before you complain about this mixed metaphor, you should know that the down economy has forced the grim reaper to take part-time work as a train conductor), but in the meantime, scores of us drop dead every day.
Even worse, most of us aren't even granted the courtesy of a spectacular death. We would all like to expire by flying a plane into an attacking alien spacecraft, suffering a fatal mullet-ectomy for the freedom of our people, or getting eaten by a bloodthirsty shark during an inspirational speech. (Spoiler alerts for all of these, by the way.) But we're much more likely to spend our last moments slipping in the shower, choking on a Wheat Thin, or grinding for gold in an Internet cafe.
Even the Mayans seem to have been deprived of a rip-roaring final act. According to new research, the Mayan civilization probably didn't board extraterrestrial spacecraft and ascend into the heavens like those old people in Cocoon. They probably weren't even wiped out by massive civil wars, rampant disease, or cutting down all their forests. Instead, say Mexican and British researchers, the Mayans couldn't survive a relatively mild drought around AD 950.
This despite the fact that many people today believe the Mayans were tuned into advanced cosmic forces enough to develop a calendar that accurately predicts the end of the world. Now, to be fair, not everyone thinks that the Mayan Long Count calendar predicts a global catastrophe. Some believe when it ends on December 21, 2012, humanity will be raised into a higher level of consciousness. I'm not sure what that means, but I'm hoping we'll all be flying kung fu masters. If not, what's the point?
Thanks to the work of so many skeptics over the years, I do know that the Mayan calendar probably doesn't predict anything at all. It simply ends the same way any calendar does. They just didn't stick around long enough to carve up the next millenia's model.
But I think that the popularity of apocalyptic thinking and the belief in prophecy has something to do with the fear of suffering an inevitable and inconsequential death. We may all be killed in a meteor strike, which, though action-packed, is pretty ordinary on a cosmic scale. But it speaks to something in us to believe instead that ancient prophets were correct when they said the world would end in fire and dragons or that we will all become star-gods at the end of this year. And until we get over this fear of the mundane, many of us will fall prey to the superstitions and misconceptions of everyone from Mayan calendar enthusiasts to Harold Camping.
One lesson we can take away from the great Mayan civilization is that when the end comes, we may not see it. And we may be very, very thirsty.