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How an Agnostic Celebrates Winter Solstice, the Year’s Darkest Day

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To celebrate Winter Solstice, darkest day of the year, I’m posting an edited version of a column I originally wrote for The New York Times more than a decade ago, before I got divorced and moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, from a Hudson Valley hamlet:

Garrison, New York. My wife recently decided that our family should celebrate Winter Solstice. To be honest, I wasn’t eager to cram another event into our frantic holiday schedule. Also, my Catholic upbringing left me with a knee-jerk aversion toward the rituals of religion, whether Christianity or my wife's paganism.

Nevertheless, an hour or so after nightfall on December 21, I dutifully pulled on my coat and boots, skidded down our icy driveway and tramped into a field bordering our property. Near a clump of skeletal trees on the field’s far side, I found a circle of stones enclosing a heap of sticks, which my wife and two children had gathered earlier that day. With a chunk of artificial kindling and a dozen matches, I got the sticks burning, just before I heard voices and spotted candle lanterns bobbing toward me.

We only sat around the fire for a half hour or so. The night was thumpingly cold, and smoke kept blowing in our faces. My six year old son Mac and four year old daughter Skye were more interested in jabbing the fire with sticks than in listening to their parents’ makeshift stories about the Man on the Moon and other celestial beings. My daughter singed her hair, and the tip of her mitten melted.

Then, glancing up at the stars and full moon, I was suddenly overcome with awe. As a science journalist, I know that scientists don’t have a clue how our universe sprang into being billions of years ago, or why it took this particular form out of an infinitude of possibilities, including nonexistence. Nor does anyone know how inanimate matter on our little planet coalesced into living creatures, let alone creatures that could invent reality TV. Science, you might say, has discovered that our existence is infinitely improbable, and hence a miracle.

It is one thing to know intellectually that life is a miracle. It’s quite another to see it. Saints and poets aside, most of us rarely do. Our pinched perception stems from two deep-rooted cognitive tendencies, instrumentality and automatization. Instrumentality is our compulsion to view life as a series of tasks that advance our selfish interests. Automatization is our propensity to learn chores so thoroughly that we perform them with little or no conscious thought.

These traits have undoubtedly helped our species survive. Automatization is an especially handy cognitive feature, because it allows us to carry out more than one task at the same time. We can ponder a shift in our 401K investments, for example, while driving our kids to school or watching them sing in a Christmas concert. The downside of instrumentality and automatization is that we end up sleepwalking through life.

Every now and then, however, if we’re lucky, we wake up. We stop seeing the world as something to be manipulated for our ends. We simply see it, undistorted by our desires and fears. This form of perception is the goal of all contemplative spiritual traditions. When an aspirant asked the 15th-century Zen master Ikkyu to write down a maxim of “the highest wisdom,” Ikkyu wrote one word: “Attention.” The dissatisfied aspirant asked, “Is that all?” This time, Ikkyu wrote two words: “Attention. Attention.”

Art, poetry and music can help us pay attention. And so can religious rituals, which might explain why so many people who aren’t otherwise religious—including agnostics like me--still celebrate holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. We especially need these rituals in this most benighted of seasons, when we are prone to dwelling on life’s darker aspects.

The bugbear haunting Christianity and other faiths is the problem of evil. If we were created by a God who loves us, why is life often so cruel? But sitting with my family in that circle of stones on Winter Solstice helped me see that birth, beauty, love and laughter also pose a problem. If there is no God, and we are here through sheer happenstance, why is life so wonderful? It’s a mystery, which no theory or theology can possibly dispel.

My family celebrates Winter Solstice every year now. Even when it’s unseasonably mild, I still look forward to returning to the warmth of our home, where we practice another ritual conceived by my wife. Sipping hot chocolate, we flip through an album of photos that she assembled to help us recall the year just past.

Remember when we visited Grandpa in Colorado, and your brother learned to snowboard and your sister got sick? Remember the baby crow that Mommy found in the woods and raised, and how he loved to jump on Daddy's shoulder and yank his hair when he was reading his morning paper?

The kids will squabble over who gets to turn the pages of the album. I’ll brood over a deadline, or plot how I’m going to ditch the family tomorrow to play pond hockey with my buddies. But for at least a moment I’ll pay attention and see. I won’t know who or what to thank, but I’ll be grateful nonetheless.

Photo by Matzei, Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bussen_Oberschwaben_Sonnenuntergang_zur_Wintersonnenwende_2011.JPG.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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