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.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • John Evans

    Rajafrajin’ magic-bullet-lovin’ culture.

  • Joan

    I appreciate everything you’ve written here, but just want to make sure you realize that the song “Age of Aquarius” is originally from the rock musical “Hair” (lyrics by  James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot).  Just want to give credit where it’s due.  

  • Matt E

    Americans being suckered by effortles, quick-and-easy self-improvement? Whoda thunk it.

  • Elizabeth Klein


  • machintelligence

    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.

    Try again>
    Fail better.

  • Silo Mowbray

    When acquaintances ask me about the approaching doom and how It Must Be True because the Mayans were good at astronomy (astrology?) and math and their calendar ended on Dec 21, 2012, I ask:

    “Have you considered that they just ran out of room on the stone? That they only had room for one ‘Great Cycle’?”

    The usual response is a blank stare. *Sigh*

  • Willy Occam

    I’m looking forward to all of the excuses we’ll be hearing on the morning of December 22, 2012.  It’s amazing how gullible this species is, and how many ways these people can cover their tracks in preparation for the next group of morons with yet another doomsday prediction.    

    With apologies to Darwin, I question the efficacy of natural selection on a daily basis.

  • 3lemenope

    The compulsive desire to find order and patterns in stimuli, the underlying cause of doomsday mania, is also what causes humans to be capable of curiosity and is a very important part of actually doing science (pattern recognition in data sets). So I wouldn’t suggest writing the whole thing off. Lots of human cognitive tools malfunction in similar ways, giving rise to pareidolia, paranoia, and other fun conditions. It just means that the tools were optimized by evolutionary pressures for something other than a low false-positive rate, as it is much more important when the tall grass is rustling to assume it’s a lion and haul ass than to wait around for confirmation that it’s a lion and not the wind.

  • Renshia

     If you’ve learned something, you’ve never failed.

    It was a requirement for my kids to make mistakes. If there wasn’t a problem, something lost, broken, a call from school, a broken window or something on a somewhat regular basis, I new there was a problem. We learn by mistakes, if your not making them, your staying dumb and that’s a problem. I would even create problems if I thought life was to quiet, cause that’s how we learn by solving problems.

    or on second thought.

    You don’t ever want to fail better. if your gonna fail, then fail, spectacularly. lol

  • Renshia

    “that shortcut to enlightenment and wisdom will be fast and easy.”

    This reminds me of a favorite quote from Carlos Castaneda,  he reported that his mentor, don Juan, once said,

    “The flaw with words is that they always make us feel enlightened, but when we turn around to face the world they always fail us and we end up facing the world as we
    always have, without enlightenment.

     For this reason, a warrior seeks to act rather than to talk, and to this effect he gets a new description of the world — a new description where talking is not that important, and where new acts have new reflections, and a new world is born.”

  • Michaelbrice

    Way ahead of you, just purchased my 2013 desk calendar!

  • Kodie

    That was in August, 1987.

  • Libbie Grant

    What a great article!  Thank you, Richard!

  • Greg1466

     My son has asked a couple of times.  My response has been, “What happens every December 31/January 1?  Does the world end or do we just hang a new calendar?”

  • Sindigo

    I explained to everyone in my workplace why Dec 21st is seen, by some as the end. Most common reaction: “Is that it? That’s what’s got people worked up?”

  • Nazani14

    The Mayans, being very much alive and not stupid, are offering tours to New Age types to spend the crucial date at one of their pyramids.  I think some chanting and dancing is included, and I’m sure all the tourists will go home feeling “recharged” ready to spread enlightenment.

  • Nazani14

    Let’s give more credit where it’s due.  “Aquarius” is actually Ganymede, Zeus’ twink, bringing him a beverage which is not water.

  • anonymous


  • anonymous


  • Octoberfurst

     People love doomsday prophecies just as they love predictions as to when the “rapture” is going to take place.  Books on either subject are gobbled up by gullible rubes. The author(s) make a mint and when the occurance fails to take place they explain it away by saying their calculations were off or they prayed the catastrophy away or some such nonsense. But do the gullible learn anything? Nope, they just rush out and buy the next doomsday/rapture book that comes out.  I think such books are popular because it puts some excitement into people’s lives.

  • Archaeologist Gal

    December 21, 2012 is an anniversary of the Maya creation date, so there will be celebrations, but they don’t even have an apocalypse story–let alone one that supposedly takes place this year. As eight million of them are still alive and many still keep the calendar, it’s insulting that all these people couldn’t find time to go talk to a real Maya daykeeper. Though not surprising. The truth rarely sells. Their calendar encompasses 72 octillion years and will actually end long after our sun dies. So…..nothing to worry about there.

  • Jabulani Nzilane

    I would like to thank all my atheist friends who were kind enough to buy my book titled The Divine Truth Setting Us Free: A Christian Conspiracy To Rule The World. it feels me with so much great  gratitude to know that there are good people out there who do not parade in religion and tell the world that they are good and can save the universe. i thank you for enlightening the worldand making sense in this senseless world