Apocolypse, Eventually: What Counting Down to Doomsday Taught Me

by: Nick Currie



In the manner of a hipster, I’ve spent the past twelve months dismissing the hype about the coming end of the Mayan calendar on December 21st with not just faith in scientific thought and cultural misunderstandings, but also an “oh that, I’ve known about it for forever” eye roll. I’ve known that date since before it was cool. Forget about global catastrophe related to ancient, obscure numerological artifacts from cultures Western nations systemically wiped out centuries ago – I’ve known that date since long before we were even worried about the possible catastrophes of global warming. In the Olympics of thinking about this coming apocalypse I’ve been practicing much, much longer than you have, so basically what I’m saying is, give me all of the gold medals, now, please. Thanks.

Here’s what happened that I learned such useful information so early. As a middle school student in the late autumn of 2001, my Social Studies teacher decided to devote an entire quarter of a semester to his pet project, Mayan Studies. An Anthropology major in college, my teacher was well-informed on various aspects of Mayan culture, from accounts of daily living to its rich folkloric tradition to its advanced scientific innovation, especially its highly developed system of numerals. This is to say, we spent weeks learning how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide Mayan numbers – skills that I’m finding increasingly valuable in today’s cutthroat, global marketplace.

In addition to Mayan Math, we learned to read the complex and justifiably magnificent Mayan Calendar. Its structure is simple: the days, months, years, generations keep adding up over time, such that gradually you start counting the number of Tuesdays there have been since the beginning of time – perhaps an over-simplification, but not far from the truth. Eventually the units of measurement zero out and start over, with another month, or year, or generation added to the pile. The thing about this system, though, is that you can only count so high: the calendar counts up to only 13 b’ak’tuns, the highest unit of measurement, 144,000 days, nearly 400 years, and goes no farther – you’d have to go back to the very beginning and start again. So, what happens at the thirteenth b’ak’tun?

Not a lot, my teacher said when we asked. “Honestly, back then people couldn’t easily conceive how long the world had been around for, and how much longer it would exist. In Mayan folklore, the thirteenth b’ak’tun signals the end of the earth’s cycle. The world as we know it would end, and time would start over again, running through the thirteen b’ak’tuns exactly as it had the time before, and presumably the time before into eternity. But really, they probably just didn’t know how high they’d have to count.”

We theorized other things that might happen – this was December, the final class before a holiday break, so no one actually thought anyone was going to learn – and the conversation got weird. “The world might blow up,” was a popular suggestion, along with the possibility of asteroids. Nerdy little 13 year-old that I was, I was busy making the calculation, translating it onto our Christo-centric Julian calendar. “December 21st, 2012,” I announced to the class triumphantly once I had the calculation complete. “December 21st, 2012.”

I remember sitting there, thinking about that date. Would the world actually end that day? It seemed silly to think, but I thought about it anyway. Three months before, after all, the first foreign attack on American soil in generations had occurred and shook us all, especially us adolescents with developing global consciousness. With the attacks on 9/11 came the looming threat of destruction, the lingering fear that there was a future in which we were not safe, not even alive, perhaps, and this was a fear that we hadn’t known before. With such instability, unpredictability, who was to say that the world wouldn’t end?

I thought about that date. Where would I be? Out of college, a year and a half out of college, I thought. Maybe working in business, in a city somewhere, or maybe in a school, teaching Mayan Math to 7th graders and looking forward to a holiday vacation. Would I be near my family, or far from them? Would I be married, would I have my own family? If the world ended that day, would I be disappointed? Would I feel like I’d been robbed of the chance to age, to mature, to find my purpose and passions, to write a great novel, to have a great love? Would I have come out as gay? Would I die alone? Would I die regretting the decisions I’d made, regretting the time in school, the money sunk into college, the year and a half of spinning my wheels or getting down to business? And if Mayan folklore was correct, would I just have to do this all over again, and again, and again, and again?

As the date, now more than 11 years since, draws close, I think about that 13 year old and his questions. I think about where I am: a year and a half out of college, and back in school pursuing a field I’m passionate about, doing related work in a professional field I didn’t even know existed in those days, and just beginning to feel what it’s like to come into your own professionally. In an adopted city, hundreds of miles away from my parents and my sister, learning to navigate that distance, learning to live by myself away from the various kinds of privileges they can afford but I cannot. Single, bittersweetly reflecting on my first lengthy, serious relationship with a man which came to an end nearly a year ago, and reclaiming my capacity and desire for sincere, intentional romantic love but enjoying being kind of slutty. Living and visiting regularly with friends who challenge and surprise me in the best and sometimes the worst ways, missing friends who have left Chicago, figuring out how to make new ones. Exploring my past with a therapist in an attempt to better know myself and my emotional life. Re-re-evaluating the role of art and creation in my life and my plans, packing to get on a plane to spend the holidays with my family, trying not to get a cold, filled with a kind of faith in the future that I am made to understand is rare among the rest of us 20-somethings facing possible apocalypse, rare among the vast majority of Americans in general.

I’d be pretty upset to die on Friday, let’s be real. And knowing me, I’ll probably spend the entire day with possible apocalypse in the back of my mind, as I may or may not have done on May 21st, 2011, our last hyped apocalypse date. Ancient Mayan Mistake is just as implausible to me as Doomsday Christian Mathematics, so I’m pretty sure we’ll be fine, but let’s just take a moment here and think, because who really knows how fragile our lives really are, on this planet, in this society, in this existence we’re accustomed to? If this is really it, if we wake up on Friday and it’s clear that we won’t be going to bed that night or ever again, I’ll be disappointed by all this potential unrealized: but grateful to the 13 year old boy who did the math, asked the right questions, and came to understand where he wanted to be when the time came. And if the Mayans are right about what happens next, I’d be happy to do it all over again.


Nick Currie is a graduate student at the University of Illinois – Chicago pursuing his M.Ed. in Youth Development, and a current member of the Julian Year, a faith-based social justice fellowship program of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. Through the Julian Year he has worked extensively with a number of Chicago-area social service non-profits addressing needs as diverse as child welfare, hunger, and poverty. He writes plays you haven’t seen yet, and “keeps” a couple of blogs, including Onion Days, an extended riff on Carl Sandburg’s 1916 collection “Chicago Poems” (oniondays.tumblr.com). As he smashes together his identities as an educator, justice advocate, Christian, gay man, and artist, interesting things happen; this might have been one of them. He likes having a beard, biking, and baking pies.


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