Jan/Feb 1999 Miscellany

I Don't Feel A Thing

by Laura Bagby

Recently there was a survey in a psychology magazine on the net that posed the question: "How do you feel about the new millennium?" Feelings are subjective. Feelings are emotional responses to stimuli. It never occurred to me to feel anything about something as inevitable as a new millennium. Why not ask how I feel about the sun coming up in the east? The absurdity of the question caused me to think about this almost constantly for the next few days. It amazed me that anyone, especially those devoted to maintaining positive mental health, were encouraging superstitions about natural events. My first thought was that we, as a civilized society, have come much too far in our thinking to even consider a negative or positive response to a fact like the given year. Don't we pride ourselves on being beyond blaming or exonerating our "luck" by the stars? If so, why would progressive psychologists encourage such superstitious attitudes? Will they next ask us to say how we feel about the earth orbiting the sun?

After several days of probing at this like a sore tooth, I got to the root of what bothered me about the question beyond asking me to respond emotionally to a fact. Our calendar is arbitrary. Most people today accept that time is relative but that our calendar is completely relative is so accepted that it never occurred to me to believe that a year we have made up has any relevance to the natural world. I don't think I could find even one person who believes that this is the year 1998 in any absolute way of calculating time. We have agreed on this number for the purposes of having a common reference but it is an inconsistent designation that requires our collective agreement that we will start counting the years from an agreed point in time.

Scientists date the beginning of the earth to between 4.5 billion and 9 billion years ago. They estimate that life began to form around 3.5 - 3.9 billion years ago. To say that we are entering the second millennium is absurd in terms of actual time. Even time in recorded history can be traced back over six thousand years. The first Egyptian calendar of 365 days a year can be dated at 4236 B.C.E. We know that time began before that date so that year is merely a point that we can refer to as the beginning of "recorded" history. If we had chosen to call that first known calendar year the beginning of calendar time, this would be the year 6234. It would be neither the beginning nor ending of a millennium. If we agreed this is the year 6234, that consensus would change nothing. If we decided to date our calendar from the founding of Rome as the Romans did, this would be the year 2751 or so. Calendars have no meaning except that which we assign to them.

The only reason we have calendars is to have a common reference for events that have happened, to mark the passing of time and help us plan for the future. This penchant for keeping time is apparently a trait we have in common with pre-historic people whose artifacts have been interpreted to include some way of designating passing time as long as 20,000 years ago. While calendars (and clocks for that matter) correspond roughly to natural phenomena, they are in reality merely man-made devices that record linear time when we all know that time is not linear at all but rather time is relative, just as we know that television is a mirror of rather than the reality. When we think of time by the calendar, we begin to believe that years follow one another as stones in a line follow one another. We do not think of years as circular which makes sense in terms of the seasons on which the year is based. Instead we think of years as ending and beginning as the new year stacks up on top of the old one.

In the way that we are accustomed to thinking of calendar time, we might say that the year 2000 will mark the end of the first millennium of the common era but since neither the year 1 nor the year 0 corresponds accurately to the year of Christ's birth, even our current convention of referring to time according to the Christian calendar is inaccurate by about six years. In addition, the Julian calendar which began in approximately 46 B.C.E. went through several reforms of the days and months in order to bring the yearly calendar into better calibration with the equinoxes. All known calendars are calculated by observation of the natural phenomena of the galaxy. But errors throughout the history of modern calendars make it impossible to determine exactly what date this is from the common referent of Christ's birth.

The Gregorian calendar had days added and subtracted erratically; one goal of the reforms to the Gregorian system was to be able to calculate the date of Easter each year so that it would fall as it had when the Council of Nicea first decreed how the church would determine the Easter date. One of the more whimsical revisions to the calendar occurred in October of 1582 when the calendar reformation dropped ten days from October: October 4, 1582 was followed by October 15, 1582. Along with the adding and dropping of days and months, the rules for leap year have changed over time. The Roman datekeepers added a leap year date every three years but Augustus decreed in 9 B.C.E. that leap years be discontinued; the leap years resumed in 8 C.E. every four years instead of the original three.

I also keep hearing people refer to the year 2000 as the new century/millennium. The year 2000 is the last year of this century/millennium; the new century does not begin until midnight on January 1, 2001. As irrefutable as this fact appears to be, while I was searching the internet for explanations of why the year 2000 is the last year of this century, I was shocked to discover that apparently many people think the date of the new millennium is a matter of belief! So now this random date that we consider the year 2000 allows us to have an opinion on when a new century/millennium occurs as well as subjective emotional responses. It seems a little confusing to me that something arbitrary that we have agreed to label as fact now requires us to respond to it completely subjectively.

Since astronomers indicate the years before the common era in negative numbers, and the common era in positive numbers, the system requires including the year 0. Therefore, the first year of each century (1800, 1900, 2000) is the last year of the old century just as the year 0 is not B.C.E. or B.E. That is the reason we do not begin a century until the 01 year of the new hundred. This is not a matter for opinion; it is a mathematical solution to the common calendar in the same way that other reforms such as leap years and the number of days in each month were adjusted to correspond to the cultural expectations of those designing the calendar by some external criteria.

While all this trivia is amusing and often confusing, it illustrates the point that our calendar is completely arbitrary. We made it up. It is a figment of our imaginations. It is merely a way of having a common point of reference. So how can we rate our overall attitude as negative or positive to the new millennium or our degree of fear for what might happen during the new millennium as the psychology survey asked us to do? Yet, it has come to my attention since I became obsessed with this question, that many people do have negative attitudes and fears about the inevitable change of date. But as I pursued this topic in net searches, I also discovered that much of the information I found about the new "millennium" is positive.

It has become increasingly clear to me that people want to believe there is a milestone toward which we can look to say we are leaving the old behind to embrace the new; they want to believe the new - whatever it is - will be better than what has gone before. This hopeful reaction is as common to people throughout history as the need to mark time. And there are, of course, those who believe this abstract date will bring destruction and mayhem upon us. This, too, has been a common reaction throughout human history: in all eras and cultures, there have been those who predict dire events and they have used all possible arbitrary ways to determine when and where these disastrous affairs will happen. Humans have an unquenchable desire to know when, where and how life on this earth will end; we can with some accuracy trace the beginning of life on our planet and even the beginning of our galaxy but of the end we can know nothing which leaves it prey to any and all imaginative speculation.

Even as a so-called civilized society we have not come so far from superstition that we can't find a way to project our hopes and fears on some external stimuli. We like to believe that what happens to us is out of our control so we look for that which we believe we can't control such as the calendar. Of course, we could choose to manipulate and reform the current calendar to any date we agree on but without a dictator to decree, as in the ancient days of calendar creation, we are pretty much stuck with the calendar as it currently stands. The dates then are perceived to be out of our control and as such, they are subject to all the superstitions "civilized" humans can conceive.

And maybe that is not such a silly thing as I originally thought when asked how I "felt" about the new millennium. Anything that gives the entire population of this little green planet a chance to wipe the slate clean and begin a new history might be a good idea. If we can leave war, poverty, hunger, anger, etc. in this millennium, then I'm feeling favorable toward a new millennium. If enough people strongly believe that a new century/millennium will put all of the mistakes of human history behind us, then we have a good chance that life on earth will improve for everyone. In fact, if we are going to effect all this wonderful change, I'm all for calling January 1, 2000 the new century/millennium. The sooner we use our efforts to reform the quality of life instead of the calendar, the better off we will all be. And when I see humans seriously engaged in making this planet a better place for all of us to live, I will feel something. And I may even believe.


Previous Piece forums serendipity Next Piece

What did you think?