Here at my home near Boston, we just had our first major snowstorm. The nights are long now and the days are cold.
Given how dark and cold it feels, it’s easy to ignore the solstice, which occurred without fanfare yesterday at 5:45 pm. Nothing flashy happened. It was dark before 5:45; it was dark afterward. And, after all, the solstice happens every year.
But the solstice can be a reminder that events go in cycles, undulating like waves.
A Reminder Against Discouragement
When we’re in the trough of a wave, the next crest can seem impossibly far away. But the celebrations of the solstice remind us: after the trough, we begin climbing again.
We have powerful ways to remind ourselves of this, to NOT be so beaten down by discouragement that we miss the opportunity to build on what’s coming. Ritual and celebrations are potent reminders.
But story itself can remind us how things change over time, how defeat can be followed by victory.
Story As a Reminder of Light to Come
All genres of stories can remind us that a reversal is possible, that we can go from “Her mother died…” to “And so they lived happily….”
But the story in my mind, on this shortest day of the year, is the true story of the Abolitionist movement in the U.S., which is often dated to the 1831 founding of William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator.
The movement culminated 37 years later in the passage of the 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution in 1868, which extended full citizenship to all persons born in the U.S.
But we tend to forget that, in between, in the 1850s, the outlook got darker and darker for the anti-slavery movement. The Fugitive Slave law of 1850 meant that no free black was safe from being arrested on the say-so of any white slave-owner – and, protected only by very flimsy legal protections, could be carried to the South and involuntary servitude.
During the 1850s, the Abolitionists faced one defeat after another, culminating in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that, according to the Constitution, no black person – just by virtue of being black – could EVER be a citizen of the United States.
Apathy About the Union
The situation was so discouraging to Abolitionists that, when slave states began to secede after Lincoln’s 1860 election, many Abolitionists were in favor of letting them secede. If the South were a separate nation, they reasoned, it would no longer be necessary to get a slave all the way to Canada in order to free the slave; it would be enough to bring a fugitive slave to Tennessee.
For this reason and others, including Lincoln’s conciliatory statements to the South, most abolitionists were apathetic about the Civil War in its early years.
A Few Years Later…
Yet, after decades of struggle, it was only five years from the nadir in 1857 to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, which committed the North to ending slavery – and just 6 more years to the constitutional triumph of 1868.
In other words, it was only 11 years from the lowest point, in terms of constitutional law, to a complete reversal. Just 11 years!
Forgetting the Shape of the Wave
Just focussing on the fact of the 14th amendment, we forget the shape of events before that. Looking back, it seems inevitable that slavery was abolished.
But, to those who pledged their lives and fortunes to the anti-slavery cause, there was no such assurance.
We forget there was a long decline in Abolitionist fortunes, a bleak, nearly hopeless season of despair – followed by a widely unexpected reversal.
Only the story – not the bare facts – reminds us of how it felt in the darkness. And that the light prevailed even so.
My Solstice Wish for You
Whatever you hope for in this time of darkness, whatever you have striven for and are in danger of despairing about – whatever seems, in this season of cold, to be beyond your energies, which are sapped by discouragement – I ask you to see it as the low point of a wave. A wave which, even now, is beginning to build again toward a crest.
To help you imagine a turning toward the light, I suggest you celebrate the solstice somehow. Light the candles of Hanukah or Kwanzaa. Emblazon a Christmas tree. Ignite the fires of the Slavic Korochun holiday. Or burn your old clothes for the Tamil (Indian) celebration of Pongal.
In any case, think back on the stories of reversal: of darkness turning into light. Of cold turning into warmth. Of despair turning, not just to hope, but actually into victory.
On these cold winter nights, my wish for you is that these stories dwell inside you, comfort you, buoy you – as we move through this ever-repeating, yet ever new cycle of life.