I have felt quite bipolar this Christmas season.
On the one hand, I have been going through all the familiar routines and patterns that I have observed at this time of year since earliest childhood: the planning, the extra shopping and cooking, the merry-making with friends and family, the sharing of gifts, especially for the children. This is the way my parents always celebrated the winter solstice–not with any religious context, but simply as a festive time to light candles and keep a warm hearth against the winter dark and chill, bringing friends and family into the circle of friendship and good cheer, and exchanging gifts almost as a way of symbolizing the abundance accomplished in the previous year, and hoped for in the future.
On the other hand, I can’t escape the awareness of how well this playbook suits the capitalist economic model, which is relentlessly undermining the very abundance it seeks to enshrine, by pushing both the social system and the environment so hard that both are threatened with collapse.
The social conditioning that has made Christmas such a huge secular orgy of buying and exchanging gifts is very hard to break. If you don’t participate, you castigate yourself as a Scrooge, a boring wet blanket. And you get depressed, too, because everyone else seems to be celebrating and having fun, while you–through your own perverse insistence on non-conformance–are off in a corner, worrying about the end of the world.
Yesterday, after opening presents by the tree and eating a cheery holiday brunch, my kids and I went for a long walk up the mountain that I can see from my front porch, the one over which the sun rises every morning. Almost at our destination, we came through a narrow ravine in which several huge, craggy, beautifully colored boulders were scattered.
One presented one of those classic overhangs that we know were used as sheltered campsites by indigenous hunters for millennia before the arrival of the Europeans. Others were balanced with amazing precision, creating deep caves that we dared not explore in this season of hibernating bears.
There was an unmistakeable sense of age in that gathering of stones. Squinting my eyes, I could imagine the great glacier that had retreated down the mountainside, gouging out the flat ravine through which we now walked, and leaving the huge boulders scattered in its wake. I could also imagine an even earlier time, when the rocks had been home to myriads of fish, with giant squid sleeping in the caves, instead of snoring bears. Those great rocks have seen so much earthly history, standing majestically on their mountainside, unmoved by the shallower destinies of the flora and fauna that root on them or pass them by.
For a moment, putting my hand on the cold rough stone, my inner turmoil was calmed by a strong apprehension of the longer view of life on Earth.
It’s true that our current way of life, complete with its winking strings of colored lights powered by huge, dirty, out-of-sight mines, will not persist much longer. Not with 7 billion people ravaging the globe like a swarm of ravenous locusts.
But these ancient stones have seen upheavals far more intense than what is currently on the horizon. They have survived as silent witnesses to many cycles of destruction and regeneration. They will be there, still silently bearing witness, after homo sapiens has become just another level on the fossil record of the planet.
There is strange comfort in this.
I still have every intention of trying to save our species–and so many other current inhabitants of Earth–by advocating for a transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and a shift from a civilization based on endless competitive growth to one based on collaborative stewardship of a steady state economy and a healthy, fully bio-diverse ecosystem. In my second half of life, this is the cause to which I will dedicate myself, second only to seeing through my job as a parent and giving my kids as strong a start as possible with which to face our uncertain future.
But somehow it helps to stave off despair, knowing that no matter how badly we may fail as a species, the planet will endure, and find new ways of prospering, new ways of combining the building blocks of creation into wondrous, miraculously beautiful and clever forms.
That knowledge forms a peaceful ledge on which to perch, between the bipolar swings of the season. You’ll find me on this perch for the next week or so, quietly collecting my energy and my will for the struggles ahead.