I just realized today is Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. To celebrate it, I'm posting the following column, adapted from something I wrote for The New York Times nine years ago:
Three years ago, my wife, who is a pagan, decided that our family should celebrate Winter Solstice. To be honest, I wasn’t eager to cram another event into our frantic holiday schedule. As a lapsed Catholic, I have a knee-jerk aversion toward rituals and other trappings of religion, whether Christianity or voodoo.
Nevertheless, an hour or so after nightfall on December 22, 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 kids had gathered earlier that day. With the help of a chunk of artificial kindling, several sheets of newspaper and a dozen matches, I got the sticks burning, just before I spotted the candle lanterns of my wife and two children bobbing toward me.
We were only out there half an 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 pestering the fire with sticks than in listening to their parents’ makeshift creation stories about the Man on the Moon and other celestial beings. My daughter singed her hair, and the tip of her mitten melted.
Glancing up at the stars and full moon, I felt a sudden surge of wonder at the improbability of life. As a science journalist, I know that scientists don’t have a clue how our universe came into being, 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 this miraculousness. Saints and poets aside, most of us rarely do. The psychiatrist Arthur Deikman blames our pinched perception on two innate tendencies, which he calls instrumentality and automatization. Instrumentality is our compulsion to view the world through the filter of our selfish interests. Automatization is our propensity to learn tasks so thoroughly that we perform them with little or no conscious thought.
No doubt these traits have helped us survive. Automatization is a particularly attractive cognitive feature, because it allows us to carry out more than one task at the same time. We can fret over our plummeting 401Ks while driving our children to their school Christmas concert. Unfortunately, instrumentality and automatization make us prone to sleepwalking through life.
Every now and then, however, if we're lucky, we do not see the world as something to be manipulated for our ends. This recognition, which Deikman calls deautomatization, is the goal of all contemplative 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."
Spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga and prayer can help us pay attention. So can art, poetry and music. And so can religious rituals. This, I suspect, is why so many people who aren’t otherwise religious 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. 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. How could all this have come about? It’s a mystery, which no theory or theology can possibly dispel.
My family celebrates Winter Solstice every year now, along with Christmas and New Year’s. Even when it’s unseasonably mild, as it was four nights ago, I still look forward to returning to the warmth of our home and flipping through an album of photos from the year just past. Remember last winter when we visited Grandpa in Colorado, and your brother learned to snowboard and your sister got sick? Remember Harley the starling, who pestered the other birds in the aviary so much last summer that Mommy brought him in the house, where he drove Daddy crazy?
The kids may squabble over who gets to turn the pages. I’ll brood over a deadline, or plot how I’m going to ditch the family tomorrow to play pond hockey. 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.
Postscript: My wife and I were divorced last year. She, Mac and Skye now celebrate Winter Solstice without me.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.