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Winter Solstice 2023: Our Quiet Work in the Night

The holiday lights are lit. The weather is chilly in many places, perhaps snowing or rainy. There are also places where the sun is out, but because it is close to the horizon, very little warmth reaches us. It is not the daytime weather that holds our attention as much as how many hours of dark there are. With both sunset and moonset so early, we have nearly 8 full hours with neither in the sky. That makes the hours between midnight and dawn seem very long, and if you feel alone or weary, they can also be very hard. 

We often celebrate the light at Solstice, remembering the gift of light, giving voice to our longing for longer days. We bring good cheer to well lit rooms and tidings of joy, to paraphrase many carols and holiday songs. The night, however, is with us too. This year for many reasons, we are thinking about the dark as much, if not more, than the light because the dark hours are a gift too. In the depths of our thoughts, like the deepest part of the night, there is so much to be learned. 

Peering into the dark seems so perilous. The unknowns seem so ready to harm us. An active imagination, one of the great gifts of being human, tends to go into overdrive in the long dark hours of the solstice night. But what if being in the dark is like listening without certainty? What if lying awake before dawn is a time to let our attention be called to things beyond our daily routine? 

This is the invisible work that happens when light is shining elsewhere. For the many triumphs celebrated with fireworks and cheers, someone has labored or worried for hours and hours and hours. This is true of so many different parts of human life, from parenting to living through the loss of our elders, from creating art to working for social justice, from delivering packages in sweltering heat to discovering how to treat

agonizing pain, from coming to terms with trauma to letting go of a relationship that is breaking your heart. Very little of what we do receives any fanfare. Very much of what we accomplish comes from steadiness, especially steadiness away from the limelight. 

In the middle of the Solstice night, the hours seem long and the hard work of being human happens under the cover of darkness. We never really know what is happening within our thoughts and feelings in those creative, far away moments. We don’t really know how our dreams help us renew or solve problems or settle our anxieties. I think we can say that this hard work is a very human answer to uncertainty. It is our inherent ability to be steady, even when we are deeply worried, that eases anxiety. 

We look at the long night and wonder, as our ancestors did, “Will spring ever come? Will the days grow longer again?” For all that the earth’s orbit has been consistent since long before the birth of our earliest ancestors and the days have always gotten longer again, we still worry. We know in an abstract way that life will go on. We know the days will warm and the crops will grow, but we also know that as individuals and sometimes as communities, we may not live to see it. This is the uncertainty of being human. 

Our honoring of these five days of Solstice is an occasion to hold, in all of it’s complexity, the uncertainty of our own lives and the reality that we cannot know what will happen in the spring or next year or even tomorrow. Sometimes we are able to hold this complexity, sometimes we are not. That, too, is very human. 

Solstice is an occasion to acknowledge the invisible work of being human. We can acknowledge that we do the work of grieving, of adapting, of growing, of learning and so much more in dark times and dark places. This is profoundly human, and perhaps the most individual of experiences we can have. This inner space where we do this work is the opposite of being with others, it is the furtherest thing we have from being in relationships with others.  But it is no less valuable or precious for being deeply personal and individual. This is what makes each of us unique, revealing our incredible individual worth. It is that precious inherent worth that we are called to acknowledge in one another and to honor in ourselves.

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