A single light shining in a dark place

(December 24, 2020)

My favourite part of Christmas Eve church services in different places over the years was always singing Silent Night by candlelight.

There are many variations, of course, but it’s emotionally powerful to see a single candle, burning in the darkened room, and then to watch its light spreading out as all the other candles are lit from it. One by one, the room brightens into (literally) a blaze of light, as the song ends.

I don’t know why singing that carol and candle lighting has become such a western Christmas Eve tradition over the years — its words by Father Joseph Mohr, its simple melody composed by Franz Gruber, and first performed in rural Austria in 1818.

But the image of light overcoming darkness — even a single light — is rooted deep in ancestral memory. Humans have always been afraid of the dark. With eyes adapted to daylight, we are completely vulnerable to predators that see well when we can’t. So the light of a fire kept them at bay, and kept us safe and warm in the dark.

These symbols of light and warmth are most powerful in the northern hemisphere, as we pass the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. It may not always be the coldest night, but the long darkness can certainly make it feel that way.

Close to the equator, there is little difference between night and day, all year long. But as you move farther north, to the latitudes where most of the people of Europe lived, the cultures there combined the winter solstice with the pagan feast of Yule (and no doubt a few others), the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and finally added the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Long before what we would recognize as math (or even geometry) in more southern climes, people measured and marked the longest night, the furthest distance away from the warmth and light of spring. The candle — or fire — lit at the winter solstice was a reminder that the sun would return, leading people toward the longest day and the first fruits of spring planting.

The famous passage grave in Newgrange I once visited — a megalithic mound built on an Irish hillside 5,300 years ago — precisely angled the entrance to illuminate the central burial chamber as dawn struck on the winter solstice. Similarly, 1,000 years later, the stone pillars at Stonehenge were arranged to have the light strike them at a unique angle at sundown, on the same day.

The image of a single light shining in a dark place transcends the religious and cultural settings in which it is found. “Light One Candle” was a powerful idea long before Peter, Paul and Mary first performed their hit song, because its symbolism extends beyond the duality of light and dark. Whether it is the lights of the menorah, celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah, the celebrations of Diwali lanterns lit for Chinese New Year or any of the local (or family) traditions involving fire and light, all make their defiant contrast against some background of darkness.

Whoever first said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” understood the emotional relationship between light and hope. All it takes is that one first candle to defeat the darkness, no matter how large or strong it seems to be.

As that candlelight service always reminds me on Christmas Eve, we receive the flame from our neighbour to light our own candle. It is our choice to dip the unlit candle to the flame, knowing that when we do it, nothing will ever be the same again, as we then become light-bearers ourselves.

By our choice, and the choices of others around us, it spreads from that one flickering flame to light the whole room — and, once outside those walls, into the world around us and across the generations.

One of the individual lights that went out in 2020 was U.S. congressman John Lewis. Hero of the civil rights movement, because of his persistence in working for justice and equality right to the end, he set an example of hope that will continue to spread and grow.

Throughout his 2017 book, Across that Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Face of America, Lewis drew on that image of a single light in the midst of darkness. Bringing it all home, the last page began:

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light.”

Whatever the darkness, Lewis’s words remind us that what is good, in ourselves and in others, is the fuel we need to keep that light burning.

This Christmas Eve, in a world darkened by pandemic, may we find ways to share with each other the light we all need.

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Nothing to celebrate on this anniversary

(August 6, 2020)

Seventy-fifth anniversaries are normally a time of celebration, because we tend to remember significant events that are important in our lives as individuals and as a society. Birthdays are generally something to celebrate, but not necessarily events in world history.

So far this year, we have celebrated V-E Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe, and the signing of the United Nations Charter. Later this month, we will mark V-J Day, the end of the war in the Pacific, and then in October we will celebrate the founding of the United Nations.

But before these, we must today mark the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and on Aug. 9, the bombing of Nagasaki. There is nothing to celebrate on either of these days, as we think of the horrors inflicted on the people of those two cities, and the premature deaths from radiation poisoning of hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of people since that fateful month in 1945 when Pandora’s box of nuclear nightmares was opened.

The world certainly changed in 1945. People hoped that change was for the better, and so history was rewritten to make it seem that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, to turn the global page toward post-war peace and prosperity.

Since then, the evidence has only grown more compelling that neither atomic attack was warranted. The war was in its final days. American intelligence had known all along that the Japanese empire had never possessed any nuclear capability — in fact, we have since learned that the few Japanese physicists who might have had the ability to create an atomic bomb ensured the sabotage of any such attempt.

So imagine the Allied conversation behind the scenes, especially after the death of U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the elevation of Harry S. Truman, who supposedly was unaware of the Manhattan Project until FDR died. Of course, they wanted the war to end — but not too soon. What was the point of spending a lot of money to build a bomb you didn’t use? Besides, it was going to be used against the Japanese — and not against people “like us.”

Historians have long concluded that there was never an Allied intention to use atomic weapons against Nazi Germany, which at least attempted to establish a nuclear program, and certainly felt free to use V-1 and V-2 rockets against civilians in Great Britain. It is therefore very hard not to also conclude that racism was inherent in the decision to use atomic weapons on Japan — and chilling to realize that only two bombs were dropped before the war’s end because that was all they had.

If there had been 20 bombs, perhaps 20 Japanese cities would have lain shattered under the mushroom clouds that became horrifyingly familiar to the world after 1945.

Racism, xenophobia, colonialism and power were the Four Horsemen of the nuclear apocalypse from the start.

We think 2020 will be seen as a pivotal year in the 21st century, because of how much the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we live together in a global society. But while the pandemic looms large in our field of vision, there are other events unfolding that might be more crucial for the future we hope our children will enjoy.

The United States is leading the way in dismantling the treaties that were efforts to make nuclear annihilation less likely. The year 2019 saw the U.S. withdraw from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty. This year, the Trump administration has announced it intends to withdraw from the Treaty on Open Skies, which allows reconnaissance overflights to monitor military buildup on any side. The next Trumpian target is the New START pact that limits nuclear weapons platforms between Russia and the United States.

Ending these agreements makes the world a much more dangerous place than it was — or than it needs to be.

Seventy-five years after the mushroom clouds rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we need to remember that nuclear weapons today are larger and far deadlier than those first two small bombs. There are more than enough, on all sides, to mean the end of life on Earth, whether by radioactivity or by triggering a nuclear winter and dropping temperatures to levels too cold for vegetation and most animals — and people — to survive.

Even a small-scale, regional nuclear conflict could be enough to trigger catastrophic global climate changes, given that we are already close to tipping points because of how we continue to live against the planet by not cutting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.

In a nuclear age, facing climate crisis as well as a global pandemic, there is no place for “them” and “us.” We are all in this together.

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Now more than ever, hope matters

Misspelling the Maasai word for “hope” — osiligi — in a Kenyan primary school (2014)

(March 28, 2020)

ACTIVISTS have always said that we need to find another way to do things. Another way to live together — to live with the Earth, instead of against it.

For too long, the response, from too many people, has been, “No. There isn’t another way.” Or, “I don’t want to look for one.” Or, “We did it once and it didn’t work – we tried.”

Through COVID-19, Mother Nature is delivering a blunt message: “Think again. Try harder.”

We need to listen, but that means major cultural change, for communities everywhere. People think such change is difficult, but culture changes all the time.

Since the Second World War, for example, western industrial consumer culture and its ideals of material prosperity have gone global. But so has the damage to the biosphere caused by the tools, systems and attitudes of that culture. So have the social costs, reflected not in global prosperity but in income inequality, made worse by people losing their homes and livelihoods in rural areas and crowding into unplanned cities.

However much the economic indicators have continually crowed about higher gross domestic product, the happiness/well-being indicators have continued to drop. The gross national happiness index, promoted by such countries as Bhutan, was certainly mocked at Wall Street parties. Can you even count happiness?

Happiness might be hard to measure, but unhappiness is literally embodied. Too many of us are malnourished or overweight (or both), inactive and unfit, afflicted with problems that a healthy body should manage. Unhealthy and unhappy seem to go together.

And now, here we are. Anyone who doubts that we are all in this together, inextricably linked to everyone and everything on Earth, just has to watch the graphs of COVID-19 cases, and the global economic dominoes that continue to fall as a result.

Scientists, activists and fiction writers have been predicting a global pandemic for decades. Their audiences have ignored them, sold their books at garage sales, or left theatres thankful that the heroes saved the day, once again, before the popcorn ran out.

As we watch people adjust to whatever this “new normal” means — and it will likely be months before anything even remotely resembling the “old normal” returns — there are some truths already emerging about what matters most:

Neighbours matter. Other people need our help, just as we will certainly need theirs.

There are no strangers anymore — just people we haven’t yet met. If you feel alone, don’t just sit there — reach out.

Relationships matter. Whether the people are near or far, close companions or people (even family) we have hardly talked to in years, those relationships are how we stay grounded, reassured, comforted, encouraged and motivated to get through whatever today brings.

Community matters. No one is in this crisis alone — how we all behave, together, affects how we will survive it, together. Competition in these circumstances is pointless — co-operation makes the group stronger.

Sharing matters. If we each contribute what we can to the well-being of the community, those relationships are strengthened, for whatever comes our way.

Generosity matters. It takes many forms, and so do the gifts we can give. The gift of time, of care, can be as simple as a phone call, or the offer to pick up food or medicine for the most vulnerable. If you still have a job or an income, think of those neighbours who currently do not.

It’s too glib to say religion matters, because in a time of crisis, when the artillery shells fall, there are no atheists in a foxhole. But this situation makes us think about our life priorities, what we are doing with our time and our abilities, what we mean to the people around us and about what we can do for others. Religious or spiritual beliefs can help us to reflect on those things.

Technology matters — as long as we remember technology is in our heads, not just our hands. We can do things differently, so think hard about how to change our culture so what matters most to us is supported by our technology, not undermined by it. We are all powerful, capable people, and there is always another way if we try harder.

Finally, hope matters. With enthusiasm, I once misspelled the Maasai word for “hope” on an ancient blackboard, with a stub of chalk, in a ramshackle school in rural Kenya.

“Osiligi” was everywhere in conversation and on signs. At a deeper level, it means more than just “hope.” It is the faith that what is done right aligns with how the universe is meant to unfold, for a continual blessing from generation to generation, as part of the rhythm of life.

Amid such abject poverty, I learned a valuable life lesson from them.

Their courageous response to the challenges they faced every day was: “Osiligi.”

May it also be ours.

Peter Denton is an activist, author and sustainability consultant based in rural Manitoba. His seventh book, Imagine a Joyful Economy (a collaboration with Gus Speth), was just published by Wood Lake Books.