Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Feels About the Secular Solstice

In a recent blog post, Miri talked about why secular ritual is important to her, and about her experience of the 2013 Secular Solstice in New York. Much of what she said resonated strongly with me. In particular,
What I continue to yearn for despite all these years of atheism is that togetherness, the feeling of being part of a larger whole, of participating in ceremonies that have existed virtually unchanged for centuries, of feeling that I could go to services on Friday night in San Francisco or London or Tokyo or Cape Town and be welcomed in virtually the same way, with the same greetings and food and songs. They will say Shabbat shalom and there will be challah and red wine, in America and in Great Britain and in Japan and in South Africa.
and also,
... The Secular Solstice, in a weird and possibly unintentional way, validated how much I hate winter and how much of a “big deal” it is for me to get through it without some of my favorite distractions and coping mechanisms. Unlike the other winter holidays, the Solstice doesn’t frame winter as a happy cheery beautiful time with family, snowball fights, kissing under the mistletoe, Santa Claus, and Jesus. It frames it as a challenge, but one that we nevertheless get through every year.
I didn't make it to the New York Solstice last year, but I was at the one in San Francisco, and it was similarly powerful for me. The ritual may have been important to me for slightly different reasons, so I wanted to share my perspective as well.

As I've talked a little about before, I have seasonal affective disorder. Despite much recent improvement, it's severe enough that I'm living in Chile for the next four months to avoid the worst of the American winter. This has led to me having some pretty strong feelings about winter holidays, and Advent/Christmas in particular since I was raised Catholic.

Advent's more of a season than a holiday, but it shares with the Solstice the property of not framing winter as a "happy cheery beautiful time with family, snowball fights, kissing under the mistletoe, Santa Claus, and Jesus". It's supposed to symbolize the time at the end of the Old Testament after both Judea and Israel had fallen, but the Messiah had not yet come to deliver Yahweh's people from exile. Originally it was about the time after Jesus died and before his second coming, which is why Advent once included mandatory fasting and other forms of penitence--but then it turned out that he wasn't actually coming back any time soon, so people reinterpreted.

Either way, it's all about preparing to be saved.

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

The Catholics imagine that the Jews were actually right at that particular point in their history, and God really was about to come down from the heavens and save them from their misery. As such, the customs surrounding Advent are filled with longing, hope, and the feeling that if we can just hang on a little longer everything will be ok.

Which is exactly what it feels like to have SAD, at least before you learn resignation. And of course, contemporary Western Catholicism ties all of this very closely with Winter.

The Advent season has a lot of rituals I find quite lovely. The Advent wreath, for example (which was actually appropriated from the Lutherans, I just discovered, though the tradition of a wreath decorated with candles is much older than Christianity). Setting up a nativity scene with an empty manger. The whole of Christmas Eve Mass is just spectacular. It starts with a darkened church. Then, slowly, candles are lit and people begin to sing quietly. The lights aren't turned all the way up until Midnight, at which point (in my parish anyway) there begins a joyous Mass that is sung the entire way through.

From my perspective, though, Catholic Advent and Christmas seem terribly broken. There's so much beauty and so much potential there, but the moral of the story is all wrong. What do you do when the nights are long and the wind is cold and you have no place to call home? You huddle together and wait meekly for a Messiah to come and save you.

No. Just, no.

To me, the Secular Solstice is sort of what I wish Advent and Christmas could be. The aesthetics, and even the narrative, are very similar. But it builds toward something else: a resolution to save ourselves, each other, and everyone who will come after us. And to do more than that, to keep making our world better and better until the darkness has been permanently banished.

There is acknowledgement of hardship and the enormity of our challenge from within a cold universe that doesn't care about us in the slightest. That part is taken very seriously, and is tied to the metaphors of winter and night. And then, as a community, we accept that challenge with a vow, not to submit to our fate until a savior is sent from heaven to rescue us, but a vow to take the future into our own hands, to ensure by our own power that it's something beautiful and bright.
Tomorrow can be brighter than today
Although the night is cold
The stars may seem so very far away
But courage, hope, and reason burn
In every mind, each lesson learned
Shining light to guide to our way
Make tomorrow brighter than today
Winter is still hard for me, but last winter was the best one I've had since early childhood. At the San Francisco Solstice celebration, it was clear to me why. Not only am I part of tight-knit community again--not quite a congregation, but close--but I'm surrounded by people brimming with determination to improve themselves and the world around them, and with the self-efficacy and rationality to actually do so.

What I experienced at the Solstice was not merely a reminder or a symbol, but a manifestation of the things I care about most. It was a secular sacrament, in the Catholic sense of the word.

In the winter when I am isolated, I am consumed by fear and despair. On the night of the Solstice, participating in that sacrament along side others working effectively toward the same goals, singing about the march of progress and our plans for the future, I witnessed the power of a motivated community of humans to drive back the darkness.

At one point, footage from the International Space Station was projected onto a large screen. As we watched together from our vantage point in space--while the lights of civilization glittered beneath us, and as dawn broke over the homeworld--there was one shared emotion, invoked by the power of ritual, resonating and amplifying through the minds of everyone present. It felt as if a single brilliant beam of resolution were shining toward the future of humanity.

The Secular Solstice is still new, still developing rapidly and trying to find its feet. If you want to nurture this idea and watch what happens, I recommend that you support the Secular Solstice though the Kickstarter campaign.

1 comment:

Rhaidot said...

I liked this a lot. I was raised as a Catholic and I can relate. Christmas is a complicated season for me. I will like to spend that holiday with my fiance, but we are forced to be with our families for economical reasons. And familiar tradition demands a lot of alcohol and dancing, two activities that I don't really love. I feel isolated with my own family and their activities. You are right, so much wasted potential.

RATE: 4 (I don't give it a 5 because it uses some terms which aren't familiar to me. That's my fault though, and I feel that I can't quite grasp the full meaning of the text)