Seattle held it’s second secular solstice celebration tonight. I was lucky enough to give the speech of darkness. This is what I said.
The tradition for these speeches is to talk about death, which makes sense. It’s the darkest day of the year, and when humans see darkness they see death. I have a confession: death doesn’t bother me that much. I assume because I’ve never had a person I was close to die. It’s not that I don’t fear death, but it’s entirely an intellectual fear. I can do math around it.
So when I think about aging, it’s not death that haunts me. It’s dementia. The slow eroding of everything I was into a broken shell that can only feel hurt and hurt others. Forgetting everything I was, everything I worked so hard to make myself into. That thought is what will make me break down.
You don’t have to wait until you’re 80 to lose yourself like that. I had several dental surgeries last year, resulting in serious nerve damage. It hurt, a lot, but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was what pain did to my ability to do anything else. I had always defined myself by my intellectual abilities and suddenly I could. not. think. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t make complex plans and trust myself to follow through. The day the neurologist told me I was healing and there were things to do in the meantime was such a relief I almost couldn’t process it.
Humans are capable of such astonishing things. We went from grunts, to speech, to storytelling, to books in monasteries, to the printing press, to this device in my hand that will show me most of the world’s knowledge instantaneously. There are few places in the world I couldn’t get to in 24 hours, and fewer I couldn’t talk to someone in the same time. A disease that wiped out half of Europe can be treated with a handful of pills and for the first time we live long enough for dementia to even be a concern.
The funny thing about everything I just listed is that they’re both fantastic technical accomplishments, and enablers of other people’s potential. Sometimes that lets people invent more marvels. Sometimes it just makes them a little happier and a little safer. For the former to have meaning the latter must too.
But a lot of people who did have the potential to change the world are never able to use it. And they didn’t lose it at 30 either.
Right now there are infants dying of parasites we know how to kill because their parents had to choose between food and bednets.
There are toddlers whose brains will never develop properly because an infection drew too many scarce calories during a critical phase. There are others who will have the same problem because their food has too many calories and not enough folic acid.
There are children whose families scrimp and save to send them to school, which is taught in a language they don’t understand.
There are teenage girls dying in childbirth because they were born into a society where the genuinely loving choice was to sew their labias shut. There are teenage boys being sentenced to a criminal justice system they will never be able leave because they did one thing wrong in a system that demands perfection from them.
There are adults who survived all of that with their intellect and health intact but will never be anything more than a slightly more prosperous farmer because their village is too poor to generate the resources that would let them leave for somewhere richer.
There are entire families dying at sea because their home was destroyed by a war they didn’t start and no one will let them in anywhere else.
There are people whose brains tell them they are worthless no matter what they do.
There are people who had every advantage in life and instead of propelling them further, it made them think effort wasn’t necessary.
There are people whose parents viewed them as a burden or a threat and did everything they could to break them down, or who loved them more than anything but lacked the physical or emotional ability to follow through on that love.
All of these things are going on all the time.
Please join me in a moment of silence and darkness
(blow out candle, room is dark)
In the face of all of that, we are doing okay. People in hell find friends and fall in love and raise families. Parents change their society so their children will not face the same problems they did. Smallpox is never coming back. People who never should have survived use the deprivation and torture they experienced as fuel to help others. People who were born lazy and selfish and never thought of others encounter a situation bad enough and find something heroic in themselves after all. Not all of them, not even a lot of them, but enough. They rise up, and they take the rest of us with them.
The tradition here is to talk about humanity as one long glorious march of progress. That would be a lie. Rome fell and Europe saw infrastructure it no longer understood crumble around it. Baghdad didn’t reach its pre-Ghengis Khan population density until the 20th century. Agriculture led to a lot of the diseases we are so proud of vanquishing.
But every time that happened, we came back. Roman aqueducts are toys compared to our sanitation systems. We beat not only the diseases we created, but the injuries and opportunistic infections hunter/gatherers had no defense against. We burned the library of Alexandria but invented the internet.
However bad things got, however far we fell, we held on to whatever let us make the leap the first place and we did it again. Better. At our core, we are resilient. Right now we are taking incredible strides against every threat I just listed, including death itself.
So here, two days before the shortest day of the year, we recognize the darkness we are facing. And as I share this light with you, we recognize how we are fighting back.
(lights sharing candle, shares)