12/21/12

“Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” – attributed to Will Durant

The early closure of 30 Michigan schools notwithstanding, with each passing hour it appears increasingly likely that any Mayan forecast for the end of the world may have been in error.

With the possible exception of a few Mayan forecasters who would rather be right than happy, most of us probably regard the continuation of Earth and our lives on it as a good thing.

By today’s standards, the Mayans might be faulted for not having supplied error bars or some measure of uncertainty for their forecast. However, it turns out that 5000 years of social change and the decline in Mayan culture and fortunes have combined to cloud the forecast with more than enough uncertainty to go around.

Reading the full Wikipedia account we learn, for example, that the Mayans might not have been forecasting the end of things so much as the beginning of a new era. We’re told that New Agers have chosen to go a step further, to interpret the date as heralding a cosmic dawn…the beginning of an age of positive spiritual transformation.

A spectrum of possibilities covering the full range from the-end-of-the-world to a new cosmic dawn? Pretty much covers all the bases. [Makes the Sandy forecast – regardless of the hurricane or nor’easter label – look like a marvel of specificity.]

Interestingly, judging from the snide and derogatory comments to New-Age articles on the blogosphere, it appears that a lot of people are forecasting that the New Agers are wrong. They scorn the New Agers and their predictions. In a sense, these scoffers too would rather be right than happy. They would apparently rather that the world persist in its present brokenness, dysfunction, and pain, than see the positive change the New Agers say is upon us, and be then pushed to concede that the New Agers might be right.

This attitude is a prominent feature of virtually every debate. Ask yourself: When you and I disagree on a fact or an idea or a vision, do we or do we not very quickly shift gears from our original focus, which was (hopefully) to make the world a better place both for ourselves and others, to a much less-fulfilling, much smaller-minded goal of proving ourselves right?

We see evidence of this in the public debate on climate change, or any other debate of significance: health care, immigration, jobs policy, you name it. The fiscal cliff debate is shaping up this way. In the event we all go over, you can bet we won’t be panicked. Instead we’ll be preoccupied with finger-pointing… proclaiming and reveling in our right-mindedness all the way to the bottom.

Sometimes we go further. We shift the focus from important things (because we agree on them, and that’s no fun?) to side issues of less and less consequence until we find something to debate. Going back to that Sandy forecast, for example, we move from discussion that the meteorological community did a good job of calling attention to a highly unusual weather hazard to quarreling about less momentous matters…was it the US forecasters who deserve credit? Or only the Europeans? Did forecasters have the nomenclature right for this one-of-a-kind event? What should post-event assessments look like? And carrying it one step further: how could NOAA be reacting better to criticisms of the post-assessment process?

Perhaps we could replace our national motto, “In God we trust” (which itself triggers debate) with a newer, more up-to-date version: “We told you so.”

This focus on being right seems a tad surprising, considering that most of us spend most of our lives correcting our last mistake. That’s true whether we’re driving a car, editing a blog, or balancing a checkbook (wait…nobody does that last one anymore). It’s true even in our debates. We’ll find ourselves overstepping in the heat of argument. We’ll back off for a moment, fiddling and make adjustments, then have another run at our adversaries. Engineers are quickest to recognize this. They see us as ambulatory servo-mechanisms with negative feedback loops. By and large, we think nothing of it, as these actions and self-corrections are operating in the subconscious background, moving us toward our higher-level goals and purposes.

I’m no New Ager, but it strikes me that the universe offers potential for an interesting asymmetry.  Starting today, we could get more in touch with our proclivity to insist on being right, and its consequences. We could allow ourselves to be drawn toward something that might be better. In particular, we could keep our focus on big common purposes and values as opposed to each other’s slight imperfections. We could start to build off the arguments of others instead of oppose them. If they happen to be wrong, we’ll all come to a dead end soon enough. The real world will force us to make adjustments. But in the meantime, we’ll have radically improved our relationship and standing with each other. We may have made our social world a better place.

We can start this movement unilaterally, on an individual basis. We don’t have to wait for anyone else to make the first move. We don’t even have to tell each other we did this. We can keep the matter a secret (though others might see a change in us). We don’t even have to wait for or start on a particular day, or feel we missed our chance.

Christianity teaches our potential to do just this. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 the apostle Paul says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” [You and I can start each day afresh. The only thing holding us back? Our reluctance to admit that yesterday we were less than perfect, and less than perfectly right.]

Whenever even one of us does this, it triggers a ripple effect. We’d be able to look back after a while and see that there had been a kind of positive spiritual transformation…only locally at first (affecting a few close family and friends, perhaps), eventually globally.

But someone might then think those New Agers right. You and I disagree with them.

And we’d rather be right than happy.

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4 Responses to 12/21/12

  1. Sara Bridwell says:

    Beautifully done, my friend!

  2. Kevin Manross says:

    “The poet’s job is to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name, to tell the truth in such a beautiful way, that people cannot live without it.”
    ― Jane Kenyon

    Bill – you touched on something I have been seeing as a long running theme and put it in a way that brings a lot of order to the disjointed thoughts I have had a bout this.

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