While technically we have just begun winter, autumn is the season which presages decline. It is certainly why we also call it “the fall”. The air begins to get chills, the leaves dry up, wither, and drop off trees. The flowers, too, fall and lay in jumbled heaps around once stirring little vistas which jolted our hearts in the short Icelandic summer. But there´s more – Fall hints at what is sure to come: death. This is winter. And winter teaches us that death is deep and, particularly if you live in Iceland, near the North Pole as I do, dark. For a long time, too. So dark, in fact, that many suffer the appropriately acronymed, seasonal affective disorder, or, S.A.D.. For some, this winter´s darkness has become part of the sometimes too heavy burdens already compounded this past year by disease and confusion all around. A sad example: a dear friend of my own daughter, he only 21, took his life the day after Christmas, to the horrible dismay and shock of those close to him. This is not that uncommon, unfortunately. Here in Iceland, the yaws and pitches of the season (usually cold and windy but growing warmer and wetter overall since I moved here 17 years ago) hold us in its nocturnal grip until a typically wet spring releases blustery winds across the moss-blanketed landscape, giving partial relief from the dark as very gently the skies get brighter. But this is no pastoral unfolding as seasonal shifts in Iceland are sharp and abrupt. Spring comes suddenly, and then, it too goes. Summer follows, and the process repeats.
These seasonal reflections have me thinking a lot about the state of our world and what we might expect for this new year. I wonder about further glacial melting and rising sea levels in a place like this – as I think all of us around the world who live on islands should. These days though, it feels differently, that all around us, there are heavy stones of despair falling on our heads and between endless wars and climatological disasters looming, one wonders about relief. Any relief. Will the summer come again? Will it continue to be warmer than the last, thus, up here, wetter? Or will it simply be another casualty of the stop and go effects of warmer global temperatures and bring us earlier falls, and even deeper, darker winters? Will sanity rule our politicians? Will there be attempts to stop wars, to forgive debt, create new possibilities out of despair and maybe restore a little hope for a better tomorrow? I do not know, but I have my doubts.
So a number of images came to mind as I sat on this eerily quiet January first, all of them potential responses or reactions to the enormity of the new world we face.
Edvard Munch´s The Scream is the first and most obvious.
Whatever it´s true inspiration, few images capture our collective existential dread better. I have seen this face everywhere: in England, in the US, and in the stores and streets here in Iceland, where reason hangs on a tender thread but at least remains somewhat respected. Will covid return, will life return to normal, will the schools reopen, will our political leaders enact ever harsher but haphazardly thrown together restrictions only to have many of those same politicians flout all restrictions and attend parties or gatherings, mocking the very rules they demand the rest of us adhere to without question? I have seen this face on the news for most of 2020 and seemingly represented on every continent, where fear of the future rears its head more often than hope.
Another possible reaction is Trump´s snarl:
It is an in-your-face rejection of the status quo, a nihilistic, stubborn dismissal of thoughtfulness that brooks no subtlety, nor reasoned analysis but only the juvenile mocking of weakness, an irrational rejection of science, and an oblivious defiance of a deep world, full of deep problems. This reaction aims to bully away doubts, angrily rejects the slightest ambiguity and seeks instead to return us all to a mythical “better” time some can envision far more readily than others. It is oppositional defiance to the nth degree, neither righteous indignation, nor productive rebelliousness. It will get us nowhere.
Then there is Job, desperately maintaining his faith while pleading with God, demanding an answer to that most striking of questions, why, if I am good, must I suffer so? With so many dead in this pandemic and a future looming where more will follow, this face too is common.
However, our response to the collective challenges we face need’t look either like Munch´s howling figure, nor the bullshit bravado of a Trump, or even the pained confusion of Job but perhaps can be something else, more subdued, but focused. Something inspiring.
I am reminded of one different response, a different image.
It is simply one man alone, sitting under a tree, quietly touching the earth as his witness that, while all around him there is chaos, even as it descends on him and edges ever closer, it is his right to stay calm and focused. There is certainly so much to despair about the inevitable cycle of birth, old age, disease, and rebirth that Buddhists call samsara and which is mirrored in the seasonal changes we see yearly. But the Buddha determined that, as we attempt to mitigate the more deleterious effects of this cycle, by cultivating both a deep awareness and, as one teacher put it, “unbearable compassion” to well up and manifest itself in our daily actions, we develop the deepest Wisdom which knows that, while this cycle ultimately does not stop, it does not tarry for too long. And in that little span of life we have, we are well-served, by maintaining such calm, and such a longer perspective that as the world falls apart, we can still hold onto our sense of wonder, of joy, of solidarity with all the creatures and manifestations of Life on the planet, right here, right now. That the more outrage and frustration, anger, tension, and despair we manifest, the more we cloud the possibility of thinking clearly, and doing what is right, of doing that which needs to be done. And, like the picture of his awakening displays, perhaps we too can maintain a similarly noble smile, even as things ostensibly fall apart. And as the flaming arrows, worldly temptations, and the weaponized maelstroms of our manic, ever-collapsing world descend upon us as they did him, perhaps we can maintain some compassionate composure, knowing that, while those manifestations may never cease, we still can meet the future with a measure of confidence. We can move in greater harmony to the seasons of Time and, trying our best, do what we can to ameliorate the suffering we face, accepting that the circle we affect remains small. And in those small actions, but with that larger perspective, the constantly falling threats will descend as flowers: fragile manifestations of the world as it is, to be appreciated tenderly, not feared, giving us ultimately, the strength to carry on.
Touch the earth, feel its fragility, renew your solidarity with all its vibrant but suffering multitude, confident that whatever happens, the little piece of ground we sit on is where it all begins. And remember, all that is thrown at us is ultimately evanescent, impermanent, and no more a true threat to our inner life, than those carefully descending flowers at the Buddha´s feet. So, carry on friends, may 2021 be a good year for us all.