Facing the Winter of the Soul

Winter solstice, Newell Creek Canyon, 2021. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Today is the darkest day of the year, winter solstice, when the sun will be out less than a third of the 24 hours. In a broader sense, these feel like dark days, with worse approaching. In times like these, it is crucial to gather our thoughts to face the challenges ahead, to clearly map our position and the journeys to come. I will try to do that here.

The darkness of the times is in our face. The Big Lie campaign around the “stolen election” has resulted in democracy-killing measures passed in numerous state legislatures, suppressing voting and effectively giving legislatures the power to nullify election results. Along with radical gerrymandering, these measures seem likely to hand Congress to the Republicans in 2022 and the White House in 2024, with Trump’s return a high probability.

Meanwhile, one coal state senator has blocked legislation that would deal with climate disruption and increasing social inequity, even as the top ranks accumulate wealth to an astounding degree, and climate extremes intensify. Just in recent weeks, storms drenched Southeast Asia and unprecedented windstorms shredded Midwest towns. We just learned that the ice shelf which corks the flow of central West Antarctic glaciers is nearing break-up, with 10 or more feet of sea level rise in prospect.

Across the world, vaccine apartheid has created a breeding ground for new Covid variants such as omicron originating in South Africa, a country that has been pleading for release of vaccine formulas against pharma industry greed. At the same time, increasing tensions between nuclear-armed great powers endanger the world with the worst of possible outcomes.

In this winter of the soul, it is important to set situations in perspective, and see where slivers of daylight might break through the dark skies. Begin with the thought many people throughout history have weathered dark times, facing oppressions and wars. They do today in many parts of the world not so fortunate as the industrialized nations. Most of us in the developed world have lived in relative security and prosperity. Much of the darkness we face is a sense of those situations going away, of a highly uncertain future in which circumstances we have taken for granted are no longer guaranteed.

Yet, in reality, our certainties are grounded in a great deal of delusion.  That we could continue a prosperity built on energy sources that twist the climate. That we could maintain a democratic system in an era when wealth and corporate power are increasingly concentrated. That the market could adequately address most needs and solve most problems, with some public policy tinkering around the edges. The collapse of comfortable delusions of security and certainty drives us to face the reality we need fundamental systems change.

Losing our comfort zone helps us build compassion for and solidarity with people who have little or no such comfort.  For instance, white people worried about the slide into fascism should recognize that communities of color and the poor already live under police state conditions, subject to killings and violence with little consequence for the perpetrators.  It should get us real about what we face. Decrying the death of democracy begs the question about how much democracy we really have in a system increasingly controlled by big money and corporate elites.  When two bought-and-paid-for senators can stymie progress on measures with broad public support dealing with critical issues such as climate and voting access, it is clear real democracy in the U.S. is at best limited.

We hear much about the attempted coup of January 6 and the slow-moving coup under way. But if a coup comes to the U.S., we’ll only be reaping what we’ve sown around the world, staging coups in numerous nations, from Guatemala and Iran, to Brazil, Indonesia, and Chile, and, more recently, Honduras and Ukraine, just to name a few. This does not even count the “regime change” wars that have wrecked whole countries and millions of lives, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc. (For an encyclopedic record of U.S. global mucking, see Killing Hope by William Blum.) We continue with our comfortable lives in the U.S., blithe to what our national security state has done around the world. There is not much of a peace movement in the U.S. today. Maybe if we become less comfortable in our own nation, we can gain some sympathy for the millions of victims of U.S. foreign policy. And realize that empire comes home. The legions eventually cross the Rubicon River. It’s inevitable.

Thus, the darkness of our times can spur us to ditch a false sense that everything will be okay, and move us to a place where we are, as Native poet and activist John Trudell said, living in reality. It is a place indigenous and others in less fortunate populations are forced to live. If dark times shatter our illusions of okayness, they might wake us up to act in ways proportionate to the challenges we face. Clearly, we have not done that so far.

Action starts from the margins, spurred by small groups pressing for change.  Big changes never start with majorities. Consider that even in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, slavery abolition was a minority viewpoint. Lincoln and the North only objected to the spread of slavery into the West, and supported emancipation only when pushed by circumstances such as the need for Black troops to fill depleted ranks. Contemporary calls for rapid abolition of fossil fuels and the police-prison-industrial complex face much the same situation, advocated by committed political minorities but not yet achieving majority support.

Often, it is a matter of simply standing up for what is right in an uncompromising way, whether or not victory is in prospect. U.S. culture is infused by the thought once expressed by football coach Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” We live in a culture that idolizes winners and despises losers. But sometimes you have to stand on what seems for a time like the losing side. In coming times, many of us might have to take just that stance. To stand against governments and systems that seem hopelessly locked up by powerful interests, and masses of people committed to traditional forms of injustice.

After today’s solstice, the days will begin to grow longer, and the light will return. To bear the dark times we face, and the darker times that may well be coming, we must find the light in our own souls, and recognize this struggle is not only political, but also moral and spiritual. As with many people throughout history facing systems of oppression and seemingly impossible odds, we must bear witness to what we know is right. For the sake of staying true to our own souls, if nothing else.

This first appeared in The Raven.