I am writing these words on the first day of a new year, indeed a new decade well into the 21st century CE in the West. I struggle to deliver the hopeful and optimistic message that is expected and traditionally expressed on this first day.
Yet I awoke on January 1 somehow saddened and even worried. The math of it always worries me, the very human calculations that, in contemporary times, offer up January 1 as the start of a new year. Time may be just an illusion after all.
“Is this really a new year,” I ask myself every January 1, “or just the next moment in a seemingly endless series of moments?” In the past year, we have all learned something about the arbitrariness and the elasticity of time. Time, in one sense, is experienced by each of us in our own body, one of the places where biology resides. We wake and sleep, eat and drink, discard the waste materials and start all over again. Surely that tells us that time is not at all linear but is a rhythm, a set of cycles, created by the experiences of each living creature.
Yet we agree to a common time, an earthly time, a lifetime. This organizing principle allows us to function as societies and has been historically and traditionally based on the larger rhythms of the planet, the seasons. This larger perspective is also biological and even astronomical, based on the turns around the sun of the small planet that we call earth and that we still call home.
And yet… When each circle around the sun is said to begin and to end is entirely assigned by culture and custom and not by biology at all. It is instead assigned by metaphor, that human proclivity to make meaning. Shouldn’t the new year then begin with the awakening, the appearance of the first buds and shoots? Or should it begin at the winter solstice, when the longest night and shortest day have passed and we move again into the light? Or perhaps with the harvest at the end of these growth cycles? In fact, there is no beginning or ending but for our human need to assign one. And so we do.
We have most of us just survived a year in which the days seemed endless, every minute an eternity and the months, in contrast, flashed by. What did we do? What did we accomplish? To some, that feels like an empty question; to others, entirely too full and laden. We strive to make sense of the sensory. In fact, that very meaning is crucial in keeping us connected to the reality that our senses present us. We work and play, love and hate, are born and die within the dimensions that our senses offer us. As humans, we can do no more and no less.
This past year, which we named 2020 in our contemporary counting system, has been hell for many of us, especially those living under the Trumpian regime. It was a year of upheaval, violations of the most basic human rights previously and somewhat naively taken for granted and almost entirely absent of commonly accepted morality and ethics. We discovered that half of us have little in common in terms of meaning and morality with the other half.
We also have had to face the fact that the planet we call home, its rhythms and cycles, have been so disrupted that there may be no turning back. Will the very keeping of time be altered by these changes, our very lives forever changed by the viruses that will continue to be produced as the ice cap melts and frees what has been dormant for eons?
What if this year is not over at all, but only a small preview of things to come? I, we, all of us are hoping to be able to inhale fully in this next year and then to exhale without worrying if it is our last breath. We do not yet know if it is the end of a difficult and anomalous year or the end of a decade or the end of the world. I suggest that we are confusing the cure with the disease by hailing the ending.
I, for one, am long since over the purported ancient curse of the Chinese, which many of you may already know. “May you live in interesting times.” Without further discussion of its origins, let me point out the irony of the statement. It is a double-edged sword based on the melange of what interesting times offer us. Yes, they are interesting, but they can also be frightening, threatening, dangerous and exhausting, much like our current times. There is no doubt that we live in interesting times.
The majority of us are ready for the ordinary, uninteresting and mundane. We do not want to be frightened anymore. We do not want to be isolated anymore, following the death tolls on one of our many ready devices and carefully disinfecting it after use. We do not want to spend our waking hours checking the news to see what “he” has done or tweeted or claimed. Interesting just takes too much energy; crazy is exhausting. What we all need is time to heal.
I wish you then a life inside time and with enough space in the cycles and rhythms for healing.