by Ken Low
Here we are at the solstice once again, the day when the sun stands still, or at least seems to. It is a time of deep significance because of the way it prompts reflections on what life is all about. Most of the time our minds are preoccupied with the habits and details of everyday life.
The sun appears to move across the sky every day because the earth rotates, but because the earth’s axis is tilted 23.4 degrees relative to the orbital plane, the arc that the sun travels rises and falls as the earth’s tilt is angled toward and then away from the sun. This gives rise to the seasons and the climatic differences between the northern and southern hemispheres. Early peoples experienced the changing hours of daylight without understanding exactly why it was happening, but understood that the changes followed regular, predicable patterns. It helped to know that there was a turning point that could be counted on. The days would stop getting shorter. There be a pause and then the days would start getting longer, slowly at first then more rapidly. Early civilizations invested a lot of time, effort and resources building astronomically aligned structures that would enable them to accurately measure where they were in relation to the seasonal changes. This not only had great practical value in predicting recurring weather events and planning food production cycles, it also provided a foundation for believing in the value of careful observation and record keeping for prediction and control. The best way to understand reality and effectively respond to it was to study it. Truth was discoverable if one knew how to look for it and actually made the effort.
The solstice is more than an astrological event. In many societies, it is also an existential event, a time to take stock of one’s life, relationships, responsibilities and progress. This flows somewhat naturally from the reminder that we live our lives embedded in a larger cosmic system, and that life is not just about us. Most societies have a rich store of lore and custom that supports this kind of reflective sense making and assessment. It is all around us, but one has to look beneath the surface to see it clearly.
Think about the holiday movie and theater classics we return to year after year and how they reinforce reflections on what it means to be alive and human, what real progress is, how easy it is to get trapped on paths that undermine our humanity, and the caring and responsibilities that come with waking up to reality. Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol is a great example of the life learning process and capacity construction / reconstruction. The ghosts of past, present and future highlight the importance of paying attention to the consequences of one’s actions and inactions, and what it takes to anticipate the future. The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” illustrates the importance of taking stock of how our lives intersect with others, and the ripple effect of selfless acts of kindness. The movie Groundhog Day is essentially about the evolution of wisdom, attentiveness, kindness and compassion.
Each of these movies speaks clearly to the process of becoming, reminding us that human nature is a work in progress, it is not fixed, but it does require attentiveness to the reality of one’s situation and the willingness and discipline to learn.
One of the ways to remember the higher meaning of this season is to remember that “Santa” means saint, and that the qualities, caring and thoughtfulness of a saint are essentially the qualities of mythical angels or real sages, or wise elders. One of the ways of characterizing humanity’s process of becoming is “cultivating the better angels of our nature”. This is what this season reminds us we should be doing, not just in the holiday season, but through our whole lives.
We need more sages, saints and angels. We have a lot of work to do. Keep going!