When I was a kid I looked ahead to the date 2000, so unimaginably far away, with excitement. “Wow, I hope I live to see it! I wonder what it will be like! Imagine being around for the turn of a MILLENNIUM!”

So now it’s here. By the grace of God I’ve lived to see it. What a disappointment.

First of all, though the word is being shoved before our faces many times a day, hardly anyone seems to have learned to spell it. (Two L’s, two N’s — hey, it took me awhile to master that, too.)

Then, of course, we argue tediously about when it will actually occur, at the beginning of the year 2000 or 2001.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

And I didn’t know as a child that the numbers by which we measure years are arbitrary, historical happenstance, made up, and not agreed upon. For Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, this is not the year 2000. The Chinese are working on their fifth millennium and their New Year comes in February. Even for Christians the calendar keeps an inaccurate count from the year of Christ’s birth. (December 25 is also just a guess.) These dates have no meaning in themselves, only the meaning we jointly put on them.

Furthermore — the worst disappointment — my culture, the one that is now celebrating the turn of the millennium, is doing so in such a sappy way.

Though we think we are past the superstitious waves of panic with which people greeted the year 1000, we are awash in our own kinds of fear. Fear of nonfunctioning computers. Fear of terrorists. Fear of people unhinged by these fears, especially of the hardy remnant in whom the thousand-year-old irrationality is still alive, the people who are holing up in the hills with guns or massing at sacred places to await the end of the world or the arrival of the New Age.

The millennial turn has also brought out our greed, of course. The commercial world, which knows no shame, proclaims the soft drink or dish soap of the new millennium. Hotels, restaurants, and other entertainment purveyors, seeing a thousand-year opportunity, posted outrageous prices for New Year’s Eve. In that case fear and frugality seem to have won out over greed. Most of us, appalled by the prices or worried about Y2K problems, hunkered down at home.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Then we have the outpouring of silly lists. The ten or hundred most important people, inventions, events, books, athletes, or news stories of the millennium. Actually most of the lists are not about the millennium, but about the century. Even list-makers, who enjoy telling other people what is and is not important, have a hard time wrapping their minds around a thousand years.

We have jokes about the millennium, shallow TV shows about the millennium (most actually about the century again), politicians babbling about bridges to the next millennium, whatever that means. Everything I have heard through the media so far is a sad reflection on our sound-bite-paced, short-term-focused, unthoughtful, unsoulful society. Our publicly shared thoughts on the passing of a thousand years are cute, trite, meaningless, soon forgotten. Soon forgotten. Sound bites. What could be less appropriate to the challenging, thrilling, mind-boggling, and exceedingly rare opportunity to look backward a thousand years — A THOUSAND YEARS — and then forward another thousand?

This triviality is not what I pictured with such excitement as a child. What I hoped to live to see was a passage attended by great cultural and individual solemnity. A time to learn about, dwell in, and think hard about the centuries that have brought humanity to this point, the centuries that shaped us. And even more daunting but important, a time to meditate on the centuries ahead, the ones that we might shape. A time to be thankful for the stupendous legacies we have inherited and to take seriously the legacies we want to pass forward.

The very thought gave me the shivers, back around the mid-twentieth century. It still gives me shivers. I wonder if anyone else is yearning for that kind of New Year’s celebration.

For those who think that the new millennium actually begins a year from now, there’s still time.

For those who think that the numbers are arbitrary and that we could imagine a new millennium starting any year, or every year, it’s always time.