The Meaning of Flipping Over the Calendar Year

Posted December 31st, 2014 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Well, there really isn’t much, actually. What could be more arbitrary than making a big deal out of a purely human way of organizing time?


Moon over Brule, Alberta. Credit: Margaret Swedish

I mean, I think about this nearly every New Year’s Eve now. There’s the Earth, which has its own rhythms of time – circular, cyclical, seasonal, not linear. The times that mattered most to humans of an ancient past, ones they marked with rituals, were about seasons and moon cycles, about tides, solstices, the equinox, patterns in the night sky that moved around in predictable ways, the stars in the night and the shadows by day that told them quite accurately what time it was.

Okay, still, a holiday to mark a change in numbers, in human imposed linear time,  is fine. We can use the celebrations, though most of us don’t do that by drinking and freezing out in the streets tonight. There is a Peace celebration among several of my city’s sanghas in the morning, and a bonfire out in the country with friends tomorrow evening where we burn detritus from our lives, if we wish, and those are packed with meaning and good company, friendship and shared hope for a future less destructive than our present, a future where we do a better job of living up to our potential as a species on a planet as beautiful as this one.

I won’t write again about the dreams we have here, for our world, for this project, for the contribution we hope to make in 2015. You can look at previous posts. But I will affirm that we have them, we have these dreams, and they rest in some pretty profound fears and in some deeply profound urgencies about how we are going to move forward in this unfolding century. Many generations have seen years looming before them in which there was certainty of high stakes, of enormous consequences embedded in the challenges of the time. But has our very survival as a species ever been among them?

From Apollo 8 - NASA

From Apollo 8 – NASA

As I have written before, I am not a believer in anything like our near-extinction, or the end of life on the planet (it’s bigger than we are and our future as a species is not the same thing as its future, or the future of evolving life), or apocalypse, especially the religious “end times” kind. I believe that we are fated, by our choices over the past century of industrial development, to endure a harsh passage that will take several generations to get through – a passage that will be marked by ecological diminishment, the slide into a process of de-industrialization that will be very hard to face because it will contradict so much of what we westerners and “advanced” industrial societies around the world have come to expect in life. Living conditions will become very difficult, and we have lost a lot of the resilience that humans in earlier centuries learned by simply being born into pre-industrial, pre-consumer, pre-technological times.

How do we view this human journey? How we answer that question will say a lot about how we get through it. If we cling to what we have, what has made life so ridiculously convenient, to privileges and comforts brought to us by our ravaging of the “natural resources” (many of us really hate that term) of the Earth, which are now becoming increasingly scarce, if those living like this insist on clinging to what they have as the majority of people around the world face rapidly deteriorating living conditions, then the future we face will be a version of dystopia for sure, violence and war and more and more separation out from one another. It will fail, ultimately; but what sorrow if that’s what the affluent and the powerful choose for themselves.

peoples climate march crpd

People’s Climate March

If we believe the only way to continue is to keep this industrial growth economy (to use Joanna Macy’s apt phrase) churning along, if we fear the chaos and disruption it would entail to shift away from that economy swiftly, then the future will be painful indeed. But if we could begin to re-invent the meaning of work and lifestyles and success and culture, to detach these things from consumption and material possessions and stock values and from ease and comforts the planet cannot support much longer, we could make the times coming by the mid-to-end of this century much less difficult, with much less suffering, and with a real sense of community rising among humans as we recognize that we are all in this together.

We will have to decide about these things, which will be necessary for the coming times:

living radically simply, using as little of the Earth’s gifts as we possibly can;

hoarding less for ourselves in every way, from property to stock portfolios to all sorts of individually-owned goods, replacing that way of life with a culture of sharing;

being willing to change our aspirations to having what we need rather than what we want;

offering our skills and talents with goals other than higher incomes and financial success and comfort, in other words, viewing them by what they contribute toward the journey, the passage, rather than by how much money we can make;

finding meaning in friendship and community as among the things that fill our time and our days, long conversations around our meal tables or on front porches where neighbors can come by to say hello, getting to know one another so that our neighborhoods become home, places of joy and safety;

living locally and deeply right where we are, because the era of so much global travel and tourism is coming to an end, whether we like it or not;

embracing diversity and inclusiveness (because racial, ethnic, and cultural segregation will make it impossible to get through the coming times with anything like ease and without the fear of one another that breeds violence in our streets);

committing to the work of accelerating the demise of the corporate/market culture by separating from it as much as we can;

helping to develop and support local industries, the making of the simple things we actually need from available materials – including organic food and farmers’ markets, what we wear, what we fix rather than replace, what we make with our own hands (think how much fun this could be, how much community could be created!).

Well, I’m sure you could add to this list (and please do so in the “Comments” section!). The thing I want to emphasize is that these are not ideals for some perfect world; this isn’t like the “commune” movements of the 60s and 70s (which didn’t work anyway). We are facing these choices inevitably, by necessity, because of the very fact of having surpassed the planet’s biocapacity, by the ecological collapses coming or already unfolding, from climate change to water scarcity to drought that threatens our food supply to new diseases, species extinctions, resource depletion, the looming end of the fossil fuel era (for which we not preparing in any meaningful way), and more.

You see, this is about developing both the skills and the kind of community we will need to go through the passage with hope, with determination, empowered rather than paralyzed, and with values more suited to the worth of the human spirit, the capacities of this consciously aware and remarkably creative species.

Credit: Margaret Swedish

Credit: Margaret Swedish

So while this may feel like a most sobering end-of-the-year message, it really is not. Any way of life that would lead to so much sorrow, destruction, and suffering as this one has is one that ought to be ended in any case. We will not be ending it by choice and decision (as a species, or nation, or culture, that is; many people have already made these decisions and are living by them), but through collapse and urgency. I wish I could see how we emerge, but I won’t be around for that since it may be next century before we are able to get a real sense of how we will do. However, I feel a certain gratitude that at least I’m here for the beginning, and that I can contribute some seeds to the soil from which the future will emerge. The soil needs to be all churned up and renewed. We won’t like a lot of that process, but we could eventually come out with a better world than this one.

And so, while turning the page on the calendar year is no big deal in Earthly terms, may it be for us part of a bigger turning, from what David Korten and Joanna Macy call the” Great Unraveling” to the “Great Turning,” to the age in which humans rediscover themselves as participants in an ongoing creative process in which we are not masters but channels, a process full of unfathomable mystery and breathtaking beauty.

And so, in that hope, many blessings on the New Year.

Margaret Swedish



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One Response

  1. Barbara Richards

    Thanks! I feel less alone! This morning as I occasionally do I read a passage from “The Song of the Bird” by Anthony de Mello. The passage was about a warning of an earthquake that would take away all the water and replace it it water that would make the drinkers insane. One person saved water and retreated to a mountain top. When he returned all the people who remained were insane and chased him away. He retreated to the mountain top. But was lonely, so returned and found the same result…after some time he/she poured out the saved water and drank the maddening water, joining the crowd. The way is narrow and lonely. Thanks for being there.