Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Solstice And What It Means To Be Human



“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus 

“December has the clarity, the simplicity, and the silence you need for the best fresh start of your life.” – Vivian White 

Today, December 21st, is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year in our hemisphere. It is a day surrounded by important holidays, rituals, and ceremonies in many religion and national/cultural groups. Hindus celebrated Danhu Sankrati last Friday, and Hanukkah started Monday. Christmas Eve and Christmas Eve and Christmas are still to come, and Kwanzaa is next week. The Solstice itself has been celebrated for centuries in many ancient cultures, and several Wiccan groups celebrate it still. Most of these observances focus on light-coming out of the darkness-and rebirth- new growth and a new beginning. Out of our shortest day grows the possibility of more light, longer days, and a chance to start over, both literally and, just as important, metaphorically. It is a time that unites and brings joy to the celebrants across the globe. 

As a history teacher and cultural observer, I have always loved this mix of observances and celebrations. To me this mix provides a chance to connect with all of human life and history. It is a chance, should we allow it to be, for us to connect with what unites us; our history and beliefs as humans.  

When I taught my 8th grade ancient civilizations class, one of the first questions and themes we examined was, “What does it mean to be human?” We looked at how different cultures organized themselves, expressed themselves, and gave themselves a way of looking at the world and the universe. This time of the year makes me realize that in a real and powerful way. All of us, regardless of where and when we lived and what groups we most identify with, respond to and adjust to what nature presents us with and we pass that down. We come up with patterns to find a way to make it “work” for us and to have “meaning,” to and for us. And just about every culture or group does this in similar ways, recognizing and believing certain common things. 

One is that individually, we are not the center of the universe. We have always needed groups to survive, physically up to a certain point of course, and mentally also. We simply have to work together. One of our major identities has always been a “group identity.” And we have always used rituals of some sort to manifest and confirm that identity. A second belief is that we have to respond to the actual world around us in ways that can allow us to survive, thrive, and establish places for us to live. That is why the vast majority of human rituals are centered around what the physical universe is doing. We have to incorporate that reality into our belief systems. A third thing humans have always believed is that there is more going on than humans have control over and fully understand.  We have almost always been in groups that believe in a power or powers beyond our full knowledge, understanding, and control. We call these things by different names, but we acknowledge them. Fourth, humans all seem to believe that there is constant rebirth, development, and transformation; places to get to beyond where we are. We all make resolutions, go through rites of passage and have some version of “growing up.” We all have this sense of life having some sort of meaning and heading somewhere. We are in motion. 

So when I think of what we as a species do at this time of the year, I can be joined with all that we humans have done and continue to do since forever. I can see myself as part of the eternal human family and really recognize that we have far more things in common than not. Yes, I have my own beliefs and ways of living those beliefs. I have my own terms, rituals, etc. But in so doing I am just joining with the billions of humans who are on the planet with me, have been on the planet before me, and will be on the planet after me. We do the same things, and that is what links us together. We do not have to believe the same way or ritualize the same way, but we do have to do these things in some way simply because we are human. And at this time of the year, seeing all the ways these human things play out renews my hope that we can find our way beyond our petty, unimportant differences and link ourselves to our basic and real universal humanity. That we can go into the longer days and discover ways to share this planet in peace and with love and compassion. I believe such things are possible. After all, I am a human.  

Do enjoy this time of the year and know comfort, joy, good food, good company and the making of new and good memories. Humankind; be both. 

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