Looking for the Light

As far back as we go in human history, we find people marking the midwinter solstice, the coldest time of the year in temperate climates, with rites and celebrations. Many of these celebrate light. Early cultures were aware that the day was getting shorter, and afraid that light might disappear permanently without the performance of special ceremonies. When it was clear that the days had stopped getting shorter, and that the terrifying changes were reversing themselves, everyone celebrated. Perhaps they were luckier than we are: nature always came through for them, the light always returned, and their fears were allayed. Some of these celebrations lasted for days and raised everyone’s spirits in spite of the cold weather and temporary darkness.

Our holiday celebrations – Christmas, Hanakkuh, Kwanza and other around the world – also take place at the end of December, due to the fact that modern religions changed the content of the older celebrations but found it convenient to keep the time of year. Today we also have fears about the future of the world, but there is no simple way of dealing with them. Although families gather to share food and presents, after the festivities we go back to worrying about the threats ahead. Many of us are depressed because of the covid pandemic, which continues to sicken people; global warming, which is devastating our environment; two destructive wars in which we are involved and what seems to be the disintegration of American democracy. Others, although fewer in our community, suffer from financial insecurity and lack of access to health care.

What can we do to move from the darkness of fear to the light of hope? There is a Zen story that offers one solution.

One day a monk was gathering water from a brook in the forest. As he bent over to dip his bucket in the water, he heard a sound in the bushes behind him. He turned and saw a tiger staring at him. The frightened monk dropped his bucket and ran further into the woods. The tiger followed. Soon they came to the edge of a steep cliff, with sharp rocks below.

The monk realized that he might die if he jumped off the cliff, but he was sure he would die if the tiger caught him. He jumped, and halfway down was able to catch a thick vine which stopped his fall. But a mouse was gnawing at the vine, and soon it would break. At that moment, he saw a large red strawberry hanging on the vine. He reached out for the strawberry, and put it in his mouth. It was the most delicious strawberry he had ever eaten.

At that moment he was living completely in the present, in spite of certain death ahead of him.

We also face a host of threatening problems as well as inevitable death. But we always have the choice to stop thinking about future calamities and to concentrate on the current moment, to become aware of the beautiful, complicated world around us.

Last week I had friends for lunch and we sat on my porch looking out at the trees below. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing, and the air was full of flying insects and whirling leaves. A praying. mantis landed on the table and seemed to look at us. At that moment my worries disappeared: I knew I was a part of ever– changing nature, and that what would be would be. There is an alternative to despair. Alice Gerard