Updated: Jan 13, 2021
I’ve always thought my Grammy captured the vibe of New Year celebrations perfectly when she said, curtly, “Too much false gaiety!” Crowding into a packed bar, counting down to midnight with a bunch of strangers - it always felt a little forced and anti-climactic. Eventually, January 1 started to feel like any other day.
2021 is different. My celebration was small and intimate (of course), and filled with sincere joy. I raised my glass with gusto. The celebration of new beginnings is not cliche.
Still, even as I feel such excitement at the prospect of moving past the pandemic, it’s reality remains more present than ever.
How can we celebrate when we still have so much, and so many, to mourn? If we do it the wrong way, celebrating can feel callous. At the same time, we always deserve to express joy - it’s fundamental to life. Joy and pain often come together, and this year we have to find ways to express both.
Joy and pain. Beauty and sadness. Birth and death. We wonder why life can’t be an eternity of sunny days without any tears. It feels unfair that we have to endure the pain. So we come up with reasons that explain why good or bad things happen.
Unexplainable events like this pandemic upend our logic. Deadly viruses don’t exist to punish bad deeds. The same process of life that sustains us also creates viruses that can kill us. Life does not play favorites with its children, bestowing its gifts equally on predator and prey, virus and host. How do we praise the gift of the vital breath while recognizing its power to kill? We need a new logic of life capable of containing its contradictions. One that can celebrate its beauty without denying the reality of senseless death.
In Denial of Death, Ernest Becker emphasizes a humble approach. After a piercing examination of all the elaborate ways we deny our mortality, he suggests we are better off embracing the mystery. Even if we can never understand its logic, we know that the great process of life exists and flows through each of us. If nothing more, we can make our lives an offering to it.
In the words of Walt Whitman -- also read powerfully by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society --
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
2021 has arrived, and with it the shimmering hope that this cruel pandemic will soon end. We must mourn our losses and heal our wounds. And, we must celebrate with most sincere joy the beauty of life that is always present. As you reflect on 2020, what mourning do you still need to do? Where is there beauty that you have yet to celebrate? Rather than thinking of silver linings that give meaning to your pain, perhaps just hold the pain and joy together, as contradictory but interwoven threads of the fabric of life. We may never uncover a satisfying logic to life, but we can still make of our lives -- in this year and every year -- an offering to Life itself, in all its paradoxical mystery and beauty.
drawing by pigwire