Solstice Solace


Tonight is the winter solstice--the longest night of the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Some years, Midwinter's Night is my favorite night: I was raised by proper pessimists, and I feel better knowing that my days are going to start getting lighter than knowing that I'm at the peak of the light, and that everything's downhill from here. (The characterization of the respective solstices is what I've inherited from my parents. Some people run around on midsummer's night being all excited about how much light we have, and how long the days are; I look at them and think, "Fools! The dark is coming.")

This solstice, though, I'm a giant walking 'meh'. The Midwestern 'permacloud' is affecting me more than usual, and the completely unstructured nature of the time I have for researching and writing is messing with my need for order and checking items off an imaginary 'to-do' list. Perhaps because I have more space than normal for contemplation and reflection, I'm having horrible dreams and dealing with strong emotions from a time in my life that was long enough ago that I thought I was safe from it now. (My personal theory about this sort of thing is that our bodies/psyches store up the stuff we can't take at the time and dish it out to us to work through when we've got the ability to handle it. Which is why 'the crap' sometimes descends on us seemingly out of nowhere.)

I worked with a fantastic therapist back when my life was in sustained crisis mode, and I've got the tools (and the anti-anxiety meds) I need to work through what's coming up now. I'm doing the 'acting as if' and the 'appropriate self-care' and the 'letting myself feel what I feel' and all the rest. On the meta-level, I feel strong and know that another part of what's happening is that I'm panicking at the sheer, unmitigated goodness of my life right now: "I have all these possibilities! Amazing opportunities are falling into my lap! Doors are opening! What the %$#$@ do I want to do with my life?!"

And yet, when it was time to get up for church this morning--the last service before Christmas--I couldn't do it. The thought of facing the happiness and excitement of the community that I'm part of just felt too overwhelming. (In particular, in Advent we end each service by singing "Joy to the World", with everyone holding hands for the last two verses, and that prospect felt like being crushed underneath a giant rock.) After talking things over with David (who was very sweet and promised me that he wouldn't internalize my actions as downplaying the importance of being a part of a faith community...mostly so that I would let him go play video games, but whatever, I'll take it), I went back to sleep--for four hours.

Now I'm awake, and trying to psych myself up for a Christmas party with college friends. And I'm writing this. Because I know I'm not the only person who deals with crap like this, and because I have exactly one piece of wisdom to share.

Here it is.

You know that famous quote from Isaiah that's also the opening aria in Handel's Messiah, "Comfort ye my people?" It's all about making a road in the wilderness--preparing the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, etc. It all sounds like a tremendous amount of work, and right now, completely un-doable. The valley? It's staying right where it is for now. Sorry. And the mountain has never seemed higher. I couldn't even freaking get out of bed this morning.

But fourteen years ago, when things were at their actual, objective worst for me, I heard something that changed forever how I think about that passage. It's based on the practice of the royal progress--where the ruler would visit various parts of their land. The whole point of preparing the road wasn't to get ready for the people to journey to the royal city: it was to get the road ready for the royal visitor to come to the people. It's not our job to do all the work here--we're just helping out with something that's going to happen regardless.

The sense of relief I felt when I heard that the first time has never really faded. Because, at the end of the day, the Divine is coming, even if that involves pulling a "Sound of Music" style trek over mountains with no footpath, much less a road.

In other words, we don't have to break our backs getting the road ready and then set out on a long journey with toddlers screaming in the back, while God sits there like a passive-aggressive momma waiting for the children to get their butts into gear and show up before the dinner gets cold. God's the one doing the traveling. If we can, we do what we can to get things ready. But it doesn't really matter what we manage to accomplish, because the comfort is coming to us regardless.

(Note: this is not to say that a magical light of healing and hope will shine in our hearts just in the time for the holidays, as seen in every crappy holiday movie ever. It just means that it's not our job to comfort ourselves, or that the comfort won't come to us unless or until we've done X, Y, and Z. It's coming anyway.)

Anyway, that's my one piece of wisdom. And I'm pretty sure it's right--which is good. Because right now, I'm not going anywhere.


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Written by Christina Van Dyke
the academic world
philosophy professor at a liberal arts college, writing about medieval views on the afterlife, gendered eating, and the perils of on-line dating.

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