Maybe the Mayans Were On To Something

We’re fast approaching the date that the ancient Mayans predicted would be the last. The End of the World.

I think they were right, albeit a bit arbitrary in their choice of a specific date. Of course, if you think about it, “the world as we know it” is always ending. Not as dramatically as the public imagination seems to believe–with cataclysmic events that wipe humanity from the face of the planet–but in the time-honored way that worlds have always ended, through cycles of paradigm change.

Paradigm change was most famously identified by Thomas Kuhn, a gifted graduate physics student who picked up a book by Aristotle (who was no intellectual slouch either) and couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Kuhn recognized that human culture and worldview goes through periodic changes–changes in the very “paradigm” that we inhabit, that irrevocably alter the way we see reality and experience “the way things are.”

Changes of that magnitude can disorient those who live through them.

Most social change is incremental, evolutionary. Even then, it can be hard for people to navigate. But there are signs that human society is at one of those junctures where the shift is both relatively sudden and massive, and negotiating a dramatically changing worldview is a huge challenge. We are developing a much more global perspective, recognizing that issues like the environment and terrorism require global responses. At the same time, we are seeing an increased emphasis on localism. Previously marginalized populations are demanding their due, and long-held belief systems–religious and secular–are being called into question.

The people who can’t deal with the pace and scope of this change are understandably terrified . Think how you’d feel if you awoke one morning in an unfamiliar environment–surrounded by people speaking a language you didn’t understand except for tantalizing bits and pieces, with customs that were both alien and familiar, and expectations you couldn’t fulfill. No wonder their actions seem irrational to those who inhabit that new environment.

I once read a treatise on paradigm shifts. The author suggested, reasonably enough, that there is chaos during the transition, because folks on either side of thae shift lose their ability to communicate with each other. Little by little, those embedded in the old paradigm die off, and relative calm returns.

As hard as it sometimes is to be sympathetic, we need to realize that for inhabitants of the “old” reality, the world really is ending.


  1. I can’t remember which teacher taught me this but I remember it this way: “There is nothing more constant than change.”

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