The Seduction of Shortcuts to Wisdom October 15, 2012

The Seduction of Shortcuts to Wisdom

December 21 is fast approaching, and as you probably know, it’s not just the winter solstice, it’s also the “Mayan calendar thing.” According to some popular books and at least one movie, on that day we are all going to be killed in a global cataclysm.

Because I do performances about science for children, and because apparently I’m an approachable person, the children’s parents often ask me what I think of the “Mayan calendar thing,” specifically is it doomsday. I usually have a brief and respectful response that encourages them to be more skeptical about such claims. I point out that I’ve lived through dozens of well-publicized doomsdays, and they all have had two things in common: They didn’t happen, and the only people who disappeared were those who had made a lot of money hyping the idea. That seems to satisfy most of the people who ask me about it, and they appear to dismiss their fears.

However, that long and self-discrediting record of failed doomsdays seems to be saturating the public’s usually large appetite for the excitement of end-of-the-world predictions. As a result, much of the Mayan calendar hype has switched from “We’re all gonna be killed!” to “We’re all gonna become enlightened and wise.” Popular books promise that all of humanity will undergo a global transformation that lifts us to a higher level of consciousness and ability, resplendent with a profound sense of connection with the universe, with all life, and with our fellow human beings.

And best of all, that shortcut to enlightenment and wisdom will be fast and easy.

I remember living through only one other well-publicized prediction of global transcendence, sort of the opposite of a doomsday; you might call it a dawnsday. In 1969, The 5th Dimension released this hit:

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars

This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius
The Age of Aquarius
Aquarius! Aquarius!

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
Aquarius! Aquarius!

I was 19 at the time, full of optimism, energy, and determination to make a positive difference in the world around me. Whether it was to happen over an age or in a single day, the suggestion that the whole universe was going to somehow favor humanity’s species-wide transformation to enlightenment and wisdom was intoxicating and irresistibly seductive.

Then 43 more years passed.

My optimism, energy, and determination to make a positive difference haven’t become tarnished. Instead, they have become tempered. The 15,695 intervening days of living real life have left in me a realism that fortunately has not deteriorated into cynicism, and a patience that fortunately has not deteriorated into resignation.

I’ve seen that people as individuals really can grow and change for the better, and they really can have a positive influence on the world around them. But I’ve also seen that there are no shortcuts to that kind of wisdom. There won’t be any spectacular, overpowering zapping of anyone into an amazing higher plane of consciousness. To buy into the seductive dream of the spiritual quick fix, the magical shortcut to wisdom is to succumb to a passive and complacent fatalism that only postpones your willingness to start working on it.

Wisdom is gained by slow, hard, work. You never finish the work; you just get better at it. Patience is your left foot, and diligence is your right foot, and you walk in that direction step by step. It’s done one person at a time, one day at a time, not all of humanity all at once.

The Age of Aquarius does not begin because of the stars or because of an old pre-Columbian calendar. It’s inside you right now waiting for you to start real-izing it, making it real in your behaviors.

If you want to see the peace and love mentioned in the song, then start working for peace and practicing love rather than waiting for them to spontaneously spring up in everyone simultaneously. If you want to see the harmony and understanding mentioned in the song, then work for harmony rather than demanding conformity, and work for mutual understanding rather than demanding agreement. If you want sympathy to abound as the song says, then show sympathy to others whether or not they show it to you. If you want trust to abound as the song says, then make sure you are consistently trustworthy. If you want the mind’s true liberation that the song promises, then gently and patiently liberate your mind from your anger, vindictiveness, fear, and hatred.

Your progress will be slow, uneven, and marked by setbacks. When you screw up, acknowledge it, waste no time scolding yourself, and just try it again. Your overall movement will be more forward than backward.

And decades will pass, and you will have lived through dozens of doomsdays and a couple of dawnsdays, and those will neither impress nor disturb you, but the world around you will be a little better because you’re still in it, and after you’re gone, it might even stay a little better because you were in it.

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