A Happy? Winter Solstice


There’s something special about this time of the year, the coming of the Winter Solstice. Almost all Northern Hemisphere cultures in the world recognize the symbolic import of the longest night of the year, few, however as dramatically as the traditional European cultures who saw this time as a contest between the powers of light and the powers of darkness. It’s no wonder that so many sacred holidays take place in and around this time. There is a millenium’s old recognition of the spiritual significance of the winter solstice, a time when all of humanity must face the impending darkness.

Yet, rather than being a time of ill omen and evil portent, this is a happy season, a celebration of the power of light to stave off the dark. Ancient Pagan celebrants used candles in the trees, holly, sacred wreathes on their doors, and festive decorations, coming together as a community to light the imposing shadows, to confront the demons who might exploit the long night to perform their evil doings. When all was done and, after three days, the sacred sun ascendant, the days growing longer, great feasts and celebration called communities all over Europe together to rejoice in their mutual struggle against the dark.

It’s no wonder this moment was co-opted by the Roman Catholic Church to commemorate the birth of the Risen Son of God…who could not have been born in December as presumed by Christian tradition. This inconsistency is of no real relevance. After all, even at the time of this co-optation, Jesus of Nazareth was hundreds of years dead, or ascended as your beliefs may dictate. Today it’s close to two thousand years. We celebrate the symbolism of His birth rather than the reality of . We, often unknowingly, celebrate the Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice, the longest night and the ascent of the Sun.

So it should be. Regardless of our beliefs (no, I’m not a NeoPagan), it is important to understand the very real manifestations of this symbolic spiritualism inherent in the physical nature of the Longest Night. There are two lessons of the Winter Solstice, and these lessons are universal constants of the human condition. 1. We are all facing the darkness together and must turn to each other to do so with courage and dignity, and 2. Light is the only force against the darkness.

We may face the darkness as a community, a religious reference group, a family, a nation or, the best option as far as I’m concerned, as a human species in recognition of our mutual responsibility toward other humans. The source of light may be faith, so long as that faith recognizes the fragile miracle of life and a respect for the dignity of all humanity. The source of light might be reason as applied to the understanding and preservation of the improbability of human experience and the fact of our mutual humanity. Perhaps the light might be some combination thereof. Regardless, the light should illuminate.

And it seems there’s so much darkness that we as a global human community must collectively cultivate the light of faith and reason. We are facing a growing shadow, gathering dark clouds, that are overwhelming in their size and complexity. The Stygian challenges of ISIS or gun violence, even economic inequality are no small matters, but are not the embodiment of the darkness that we face. These are policy matters, relatively easy on their own to deal with.

No, the long night we now face is a spiritual malaise the likes of which penetrates our very soul as a people, as a nation, as a human species.

Today, we face a crisis in democracy being played out most dramatically in U.S. Presidential politics, but also in the rise of right-wing neofascists all over the western world. According to Vox.com, Americans’ disgust with our so-called democratic institutions, namely Congress and our state legislators, corresponds to a more generalized and growing disdain for democracy itself. Fewer Americans believe that democracy is essential or that democracy is the best way of running a country. This, in and of itself, may not be so dark if the alternatives being proposed were not so autocratic. A growing number of Americans believe a Pentagon takeover of the government would be a good thing. This is a huge abandonment of our basic principles as a people.

Source: World Values Survey 1995-2011, and Foa and Mounk (2015), “The Democratic Disconnect.”

In this context, it is no surprise that a scary proportion of the population is turning to pseudo-populist, fascist demagoguery.  For decades now, those previously convinced of their moral superiority, hard-working white males with nothing to show for this quality, have been duped into blaming “the other” whomever “the other” of the day may be, blacks, women, immigrants, Muslims, were the reason for their hardship and loss of status. To make America great, we must put “the others” in their place. Everyone who disagreed were P.C. idiots, sympathizers or conspirators of “the other.”

In light of an economic catastrophe from which every effort was made to pad the fall of the elite while little was done for the desperate and dispossessed masses, if Trump were not the celebrated demagogue, somebody else would be. Our society is ripe for the picking. What’s more, this phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States. From Hungary to France, Russia to Spain, the autocrats and neo-Fascists are ascendant, preying on the uncertainty of people who have lost faith in the very institutions charged with protecting their political and economic rights.

Trump and the far right for which he is the most entertaining spokesman are not aberrations. They’ve always been around, sitting in the darkness, waiting for a long night in which to spread their disease, their anger, their fear, destroying communities, blacking out the light. The last time they were this ascendant was the 1930’s.

And their appearance has come at the worst possible time. The global community is at a crucial transition. I firmly believe that we are seeing the end of the nation-state as the dominant political expression in the world. What comes next? Well, that depends on where the power resides. Now, more than ever, the world needs a global democratic movement. But if the citizens of democracy lose faith in the mission, then it’s unlikely that democracy will be an attractive alternative to rest of the world. If American citizens can be led to believe that military rule is preferable to liberal democracy, then why not theocracy? Why not corporatocracy?

The dark smoke rising from the World Trade Center on 9/11 still blocks out the Sun. We, as a people have willingly traded our rights, our democracy for shallow promises of security. Our communities subsumed by a cultivated fear whipped into a religious furor. Yes. Religious. Our paranoia was used to stoke the fires of blind warfare, which has, in turn, become a brutal war between faiths. Perhaps it is not official government policy that we are at war with Islam. But those we are at war with are Muslim, and Islam is at the center of the stage. W.I. Thomas reminds us that what people perceives to be real becomes real in its consequences. Rational people know this to be insane, yet when those empowered by violence never miss an opportunity to intone the word of God, their wars become religious.

If there is a god, is it reasonable for her to believe in such a species as ours?

Furthermore, at no other time have the problems facing humanity been so global in nature, requiring a global community to create global solutions. Ours may be a time comparable to the Black Plague, the Little Ice Age, or the Spanish Influenza. Yet in this case the disease is our addiction to growth economies and their requisite exploitation of the environment. The catastrophe that awaits us is man-made. Thus far, the only solutions for dealing with global problems that our elite are capable of is international free trade agreements, which only compound the problem, and rampant militarism which can only end in apocalypse.

This is the darkest, fastest growing shadow in the history of mankind. To meet this particular longest night we must come together as a species, as a people, as a global community and embrace our mutual dependence and responsibility for the least among us (“that which you do for the least of my people…”). There has never been a greater imperative for white hands and brown hands and black hands to reach out for each other in the darkness and clasp in solidarity. We must accept that we’ve been lied to by those who would build their power on a foundation of hatred and bigotry. We must let go of the fear and anger we hold in our hearts, for such only leads us to hating our brothers and sisters and pushing them away in the darkness.

And yet…

…a wise man once told me, “if you can see the shadows, then the sun is at your back.”

I find great hope in the fact that none the looming conflicts that we face have gone uncontested. The panderers of hatred and bigotry face opposition and protest. Young people are turning away from bigotry. They are interconnected with people all over the world, from all walks of life, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince them to hate. They are making their own global connections that might challenge corporatism, materialism and provide the check against the globalization of greed. I’m fortunate/blessed to work with young people for a living. They yearn for a vision of equality and humanity, and they are not willing to take our word for it, as we, the older generation, are clearly unqualified to guide them.

Hundreds of nations all over the world are waking up, stiff and blurry eyed, to the our global crisis, their people demanding a better way. The more civilized nations among us are opening their doors to refugees, investing in new technologies and business strategies responding to a global movement for sustainability and reasonable growth, a more responsible stewardship of the world’s resources.

The majority of us recoil when we see extremism and violence, suffering and decay. Enough of us are thinking that the old, traditional forms of militarism and imperialism are just not sufficient for facing the global darkness. In the eyes of children maybe thousands of miles away, floating on rafts, standing on crusted desert where once was fertile soil, hiding in bomb craters, their faces covered in dust, in their eyes we see our own children and wonder ‘what if it were me? what if it were mine?’ We can no longer countenance the suffering of children for the sake of national interest.

And there are enough of us out there who recognize that we all face the darkness together that we provide the cultivating light that’s needed to guide our way. There are enough of us out there that if we can just reach out our hands in the darkness we can find another, perhaps of different color and hue, of different politics or faith, of different culture or lifestyle, but another who, like us, is stumbling along in the darkness just trying to make her way the best she can. If there is nothing else, that one fact of our mutual humanity is all the light we need to face the longest night.

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