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Another doomsday’s passed — now what?

Students dressed graduatigowns pose front mock pyramid moments before countdown time when many believe Mayan people predicted end world Friday

Students dressed in graduation gowns pose in front of a mock pyramid moments before the countdown time when many believe the Mayan people predicted the end of the world, Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, in Taichung, southern Taiwan. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

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Updated: January 24, 2013 6:32AM



The world did not end Friday.

You don’t need me to tell you that. Just look around. Still here and looking good. OK, well, goodish then. Not bad.

Of course, you never really worried about all that Mayan doomsday hooey. Did you?

Because some people did, apparently. Though it was hard to tell exactly how many and exactly how much. Fluff pieces about faddish fixations — “brights,” the old-timers called them — bring out the worst in the media, or what’s left of it. “Panic” was the word I kept hearing — in the opening lines of radio reports, mostly — though when you listened to the actual facts in the stories, nothing came near to approaching panic. Mild official concern, closing some mountain path in Mexico. A survivalist outfitter reporting his sales of shelters has doubled, from 25 to 50.

Sure, in Russia and China people seemed more worked up. But both of those countries still have a strong peasant culture where rumors and hysteria are rampant — particularly Russia, where this kind of thing occurs from time to time, Mayans or no.

Remember the Russian doomsday cult that was hiding in a forest near the Volga River in 2007 and had to be lured out? The piquant detail here is they avoided packaged food because they believed the Universal Product Code, the black bars clerks scan at check-outs, is the mark of the anti-Christ.

Not that we have much to be smug about. Most significant American doomsday believers are safely ensconced in the hazy past — the Millerites in the 1840s (who left us with the Seventh-day Adventist Church) or Edgar Cayce who slated doomsday for 1936, complete with Atlantis rearing out of the Caribbean and California crumbling into the Pacific.

But not all; some are more recent — remember the Branch Davidians? They were an offshoot of the Adventists. And some are closer to home. Dec. 21 is a significant date in Chicago doomsday history — Dec. 21, 1954 was when the world would end, at dawn, in a flood, based on telepathic messages that Oak Park housewife Dorothy Martin said she was receiving from the planet Clarion.

While she and her followers — and one important message of eschatology, the study of death and doomsday, is that no belief is too daft to draw followers — while waiting for a flying saucer to collect them before the end, they were observed, unknowingly, by sociologists, whose classic study, When Prophecy Fails, introduced the concept of cognitive dissonance, reminding us that it is a human tendency, as evidence against one’s fallacy mounts, to respond by clinging tighter to it and preaching your folly with greater gusto.

Despite general disbelief, Mayan doomsday must have hit a chord — NASA felt obligated to put up a website explaining carefully why the world is NOT coming to an end, and reports it has received 5 million hits.

(It’s interesting how NASA’s role has shifted from discovering knowledge to debunking the bovine ignorance of a credulous American population — it also had to take pains to explain that the moon landing wasn’t faked on a Hollywood set).

And a school superintendent in Michigan, when canceling classes at 30 schools Friday, mentioned Mayan doomsday as a concern.

What’s going on? Life can be hard, at times, and there will always be a certain fragment of the population yearning for it to all be over, quickly and in some dramatic fashion. The world gets scary and some wish it would just go away — doomsday stories also spiked 10 years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11. Plus every faith plays footsie with end times, though Christian theology is particularly freighted, between the Book of Revelation and the flood (where God promises Noah not to do this kind of thing anymore though I suppose it could be argued that the Lord’s promise was limited to no floods).

Because of this fear aching to be soothed, doomsday sells. The Left Behind series of Christian end times novels has sold 65 million copies. Few would pay attention to a publication called “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” But slap a “Doomsday Clock” on the cover supposedly charting our proximity to nuclear annihilation, and all you need to do to get some publicity is move the minute hand. The Soviet Union is gone, the world’s tensions reduced to riots and roadside bombs, but that clock is still at five minutes to midnight, as if it were 1962.

You could look at doomsday fears as symbolizing how little people appreciate the life they’re given: humanity is about to expire and you’re worrying if you should break open your secret supply of Twinkies? Sad.

Or you could flip that around and see doomsday as a way for people to jar complacency, an adult game of peek-a-boo with death, where they close their eyes, imagine the world gone, feel scared, and then open them to see it still here, in all its sweet glory and beauty. The world will definitely end — for each of us, someday. Enjoy it until then.



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