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Dare Alla Luce

“Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
   For those that here we see no more,
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.”

Ring Out, Wild Bells - Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“We live at a time when friendship has become both all and nothing at all ... As the anthropologist Robert Brain has put it, we're friends with everyone now.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that once we decided to become friends with everyone, we would forget how to be friends with anyone. We may pride ourselves today on our aptitude for friendship ... but it's not clear that we still even know what it means.
Facebook's very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they're not in the same place, or, rather, they're not my friends. They're simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.”
William Deresiewicz in Chronicle of Higher Ed

“New Year's eve is like every other night; there is no pause in the march of the universe, no breathless moment of silence among created things that the passage of another twelve months may be noted; and yet no man has quite the same thoughts on that evening that come with the coming of darkness on other nights.”
    - Hamilton Wright Mabie

New Year is a curious holiday.
It is meant, quite obviously, to celebrate the beginning of a new year, but frankly, January 1st is an arbitrarily chosen date. The earth take 365 cycles of lightness and dark to circle the sun, but there is no single day of the year that could be called a beginning point on that long journey. The pull of the sun’s gravity and earth’s momentum are the same every day, there is no way point in space to suggest a start or finish line.
Metaphorically, new year suggests a celebration of a new beginning, a rebirth, a lengthening of days, warmth, spring, planting of the crops. But January 1 is otherwise. It’s brutally cold, the winter is really just beginning in earnest, the days are short, darkness envelops us most of the day, the earth is barren. How is this a day to celebrate a new beginning? No wonder the central activity of New Year’s celebration is to get fall down drunk. A sober reflection on life in early January in the midwest would be too much to bear.
The Romans originally celebrated the new year in late March, as the promise of spring announced itself, and in pagan cultures it was celebrated at the Vernal Equinox, the astronomical event that signal the official beginning of Spring. That seems like the beginning of a new year to me.
But Julius Ceasar, as is always the case with absolute rulers, decided to use some of his power for his convenience, and put his stamp on the calendar, making the new year begin on January 1. 
With the rise of Christianity, the Christian authorities viewed the New Years celebration with suspicion. Because of it’s pagan connections it had to go. It was replaced by the Vatican with the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Those folks sure knew how to throw a party. The fuddy duddys at the 2nd Vatican Counsel deemphasized the Feast and we are left with a holiday that focuses more on football and hangover cures than on the telling obsessions of early church leaders.
The Holy Prepuce has fallen out of favor, but humans, as it turns out, are always on the lookout for an excuse to drink heavily and stand under the mistletoe.
There is one tradition that is uniquely associated with the New Year and has great promise. I am speaking, of course, about New Year resolutions.
Perhaps the tradition arose as atonement for the gluttony of New Year’s Eve, but whatever the source, the idea of using the New Year as a vehicle for self improvement is a lovely and pragmatic bit of ritual.
Excepting that research has shown that the things people choose as new years resolutions seem to be a bit, shall we say, self absorbed in nature. Losing weight is number one. Next is gaining control of one’s money. About half of all Americans make new years resolutions, and of those, announced resolutions are successful less than half the time after 6 months, unannounced resolutions, after 6 months, fail 96% of the time.
Let’s be generous and say that all the statistics show is that narcissism might not be a worthy goal. 
I am fascinated, and not in a good way, by modern communication techniques. For a million years and countless generations, mankind communicated face to face when they needed to express something, and shared their tribal stories in groups, often around a campfire. They built personal and cultural histories telling those stories. The story of humanity was created and transmitted around those campfires, in those tribal groups. I wonder at the future of a mankind absent those historic connections.
In recent history, a microscopic  fraction of human history, communication techniques advanced, first to the written word, in the form of manuscripts and books, then to telegraph and telephone, to radio, to tv, then the internet, and now cell phones. Just a few short years after getting accustomed to the often unsatisfactory medium of email, we have now entered the age of texting and twittering. For the uninitiated, these allow users to send brief messages, less than 140 characters, in the case of twittering. Parents will confirm that, when you phone a young person’s cell phone or send them an email, you will wait forever in vain for a response. If you want to get an acknowledgement from your child of any message, you must text. Absent your ability to text a brief message to them, it is as if you don’t exist.
So fascinating is this abrupt change in how young people communicate, that I did a brief survey of students where I work. I discover that, by 9AM, half of the students in any class have already texted a message, virtually all had texted in the previous 24 hours. I have spoken to parents with a shell shocked look on their face, who report receiving phone bills listing 20,000 messages a month to and from their child. When did they have time to eat and sleep?
Because I am a curious soul, I had to ask students about the nature of their most recent text. Something so pervasive would suggest that interesting messages were being exchanged, discourse was as cutting edge as the technology. I was surprised to learn that the message was almost always the same. “What are you doing?”. asked the text. The literal answer to that must be “I am texting”. Metaphorically though, something else is afoot. What they are really doing, in the modern young person’s psychological universe, is establishing that they exist. It is as if Descarte posited, “I text, therefore I am”. And more importantly “Someone responded to my text, therefore I am”. Not receiving a response to a text surely must bring on a panic to it’s young sender that they themselves are an illusion.
But the most troubling thing to me about texting, aside from it’s obvious addicting qualities for so many, is it’s terrible limitations. How much depth of thought can go into communications limited to 140 characters”. I recall the commentators horror at the dawning of the MTV age when they noted that young people appeared to have an attention span only as long as the 30 minutes a typical MTV show lasted. A few short years later 3o minutes is an eternity. Now the attention span is around 30 words.
As emerging technologies trim our messages ever more, I foresee a future where people send messages back and forth that consist of a 1 representing a positive feeling, and a 0 representing a negative feeling. A future of a short string of texts of 1’s and 0’s endlessly bouncing back and forth between users, absent any advanced thought, no noble ideas, not even telling a story. Just a string of 1’s and 0’s representing the moment to moment mood of the texter. This is the end game of the trends in electronic messaging.
50,000 generations of human kind sharing long, entertaining, inventive stories around the campfire transformed to a faceless, voiceless series of 140 character messages transmitted to distant cell phones in the blink of an eye.
A new year, a new age indeed.
But wait a minute, a sermon, especially a new years sermon, is supposed to be uplifting, not an exercise in making you want to spit at the heavens.
 Forgive me.
This reverie on texting came about because I spent a recent evening at a holiday party, standing around a campfire as our ancestors did for a million years. We stood around that campfire, reveling in it’s warmth, sharing fermented liquids, as was the case with our ancestors, and sharing stories for hours on end. It was magnificent. Old timers mainly led the conversational way, although the young folks that could tear themselves away from the shadows and their damnable cell phone keyboards contributed as well.
Here is some of what was shared in the course of that glorious evening, sharing our common humanity.
The very first story I heard involved yours truly. The group around the fire was still rather small, and one of our group wanted to tell a story that illustrated, as he put it, the curious nature of how I think. The storyteller and I, along a with a few other people present, had been to a fund raiser a year or so ago, and the guest of honor was hall of fame baseball player Lou Brock. Lou Brock is one of my childhood heroes, and I was as giddy as could be when I learned I would get to meet him. Brock, my friend told the listeners, is a wonderful man, a simple but thoughtful guy with deep Christian convictions, and is an ordained minister who loves to share his faith with others. When I was introduced to Brock, he noticed that I had a sweater on with a cross on it. As we shook hands, Brock looked deeply into my eyes in a way that people of powerful Faith are unsettlingly capable of. He continued to hold my hand and asked “is that a Christian cross on your sweater?”. At this point, I became like a 7th grade boy with braces who is introduced to the Prom Queen. My mind completely froze up. As a matter of fact, I am a religious skeptic, the cross was simply there because I used to visit Switzerland a lot, and I like Victorinox products, and their symbol is the Swiss cross. I didn’t want to dismay my hero with the truth, but I didn’t want to lie either. So, while he continued to hold my hand and stare into my eyes with the power of a tractor beam, I sputtered - ”well, Mr. Brock, the cross on my sweater represents the Calvinist underpinnings of the Swiss Federation and it’s long history as an island of conservative protestantism in a sea of papal vassal states.”
As my friend told those around the fire, Lou’s eyes glazed over into a look that couldn’t have been more perplexed if I had been speaking in Martian. I could see I had lost Lou, and I wanted desperately to please my hero. 
“Yes, Mr. Brock,” I said, “I am a Christian”.
Those around the campfire, who know me well, howled at hearing the story.
Could the kids in the shadows tell that story in 140 text characters?
A band had played at the party earlier that evening were enormously entertaining. The guitarist stood next to me by the fire, and I asked if he had to work to keep his ego in check, given my observation that a succession of people had told him, rightly so, what an incredible guitar player he was. He responded with a story. He had spent over a year on the road with a young, up and coming pop singer that a very wealthy patron was bankrolling in the hopes of having a piece of the next Britney Spears. The girl, only 15, was incredibly talented, and the guitarist traveled the continent in luxury for 18 months as the singer’s handlers tried to break her through to a bigger audience. Each night, he said, after the show, a line of fans would approach the young singer and tell her how great she was. The singer’s handlers did the same. At some point the singer began to believe them, no one in her entourage tried to keep her grounded, she began to refuse to practice or rehearse, spent her days grazing at the ever present buffet tables, soon lost the glow of a Lolita-ish object of lust, and before long the whole affair fell apart and the singer’s patron’s abandoned her. The guitarist was out of work and told his listeners that he had learned a hard lesson that he would never lose sight of. Humility and self reflection, he noted, are more important that the passing praise of strangers.
These are the sort of lessons one learns around the campfire. Would a manic pair of thumbs be able to communicate the lesson in a text message?
The host of the evening is an amateur magician. He gets a monthly magazine intended for magicians, and he began to tell about an article in the most recent issue. It was a sort of biography of a magician who was born in Italy, and through a series of coincidences ended up in America, married to an American woman. The magician, like so many Italians, had a lyrical, poetic way of looking at life, embracing the wonder of life with passion and vigor. In the article, our host noted, as he had everyone’s attention, the magician mentioned that in Italian there was not a word for birth, but rather a phrase. The phrase was “dare alla luce” Bring into the light. Like our host, I just thought this was spectacular. Leave it to the Italians. The miracle of the creation of life was explained, not by a dry single word, but by saying that the baby is brought into the light. Bravo.
See the things you learn when people get together and share stories?
After a time, the crowd around the campfire broke into smaller groups. I was approached by a fellow I did not recognize. Somehow he knew that I was acquaintances with some folks that he knew and we began to compare notes on these old friends. Because we shared some common history but I couldn’t place him, I asked him where he was originally from, and when he had been at the university most of us went to. I began to get his life story, and, as is the case with many people who have experienced a life changing event, he quickly began to tell me about the defining experience of his life. His son, at about age 10, began to have some perplexing health issues. A seemingly endless battery of painful medical tests ensued. Eventually he got the terrible news that his son had cancer and would need life threatening surgery. Those of you with kids know how unimaginably horrifying this had to be. He quickly became his son’s medical advocate, questioning doctors, never taking no for an answer, and eventually, with the doctor’s help, came up with an aggressive strategy to battle the cancer. He told me of the terrible details and indignities of the surgery and it’s aftermath, and how his son’s spirit wavered during some of the most physically demeaning aspects of the treatment. I didn’t want to hear these horrors, but it was so obviously cathartic for him, I let him speak. Like you, I’m sure, I was afraid of learning of the outcome. But his son is now 21 years old, full of, and I quote his father, “piss and vinegar”, and has been cancer free for 11 years. He is the light of his father’s life. Hallelujah.
He mentioned that he had given blood that day. He told me that he was so grateful for his son’s recovery that he vowed to give blood as often as he could to somehow express his thanks. He has given every 2 months or so since then and, so far, has given 67 pints of blood. The selflessness amazed me, a person who gets faint at the thought of a flu shot.
I made a flippant remark about his mental health, suggesting, based on my own sissiness with needles, that you would have to be nuts to let them poke that many needles in you.
Actually, he said, just yesterday, he had gotten the results of a psychological test that proved he was completely and totally sane. He didn’t seem to be kidding. You know I am curious, so I asked why he had taken a psychological test. He told me that the test was to prove he was psychologically stable, as he had volunteered to donate a kidney. 
Knowing of the heartache of his son, I was stunned. I assumed a family member needed a kidney and asked if it was so. No, he said that he owed a great debt because his son is still here with him. He had thought about this for some time and decided to donate a kidney to whatever stranger the hospital deemed it would do the most good for.
Folks, I like to think that I am a fairly selfless person, but what this man was doing was beyond my comprehension. He had counted his blessings, had taken measure of how he might give someone else the gift of life, and was going to put himself through a terrible physical ordeal to give that gift of life to a total stranger. Dare alla luce. This man was bringing someone into the light. Bless his beautiful heart. I cannot imagine a more selfless act, an act born of gratefulness to the cosmos for his own good fortune. It is obvious but I will mention it anyway. He considered himself incredibly blessed, not because of the sort of materialistic good fortune that most of the world lust after, but because of unexpectedly being able to continue to share his life with a loved one.
The party is an annual affair and at some point in the evening we have a white elephant gift exchange. Gifts are opened and there is a process to swap them if you think another, already opened gift is better. Because of this the good gifts bounce from guest to guest until the end of the process.
I watched as gifts were opened, and in most cases it was obvious that folks had taken the most hideous item in their basement and wrapped it for laughs. I have had a tough time of late, dealing with heartache of the sort that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. When it was my turn to open my present, I approached it cynically, in the manner of someone who has had too many lumps of coal lately. Imagine my surprise, when I opened the package, it wasn’t an ash tray extolling the attributes of a gas station in West Virginia, but rather a remarkable and expensive book I had been lusting after in the book stores. I am a book nut. I couldn’t believe my luck that an extraordinary book I have been wanting to own had magically fallen into my lap. This was an astonishingly coincidental bit of good fortune. My spirits soared. 
The next person, rather than open a present, handed me a package and took the book. The package turned out to be an assortment of rice cakes.
I wanted to cry.
But I quickly remembered that Buddha taught that suffering is caused by Desire. Given what was on my plate, I resolved not to curse the fates because someone else desired the book as well.
More packages were opened, and caught in a reverie on the twists in the evening, I didn’t notice when a friend exchanged his gift for the book. He quietly came over to me, looked into my eyes the same way Lou Brock had, and, without saying a word, handed the book to me. I cannot express to you how much this meant to me. I thought I would tear up. He had somehow sensed that the book had meaning to me, and he had selflessly given up his own gift to acknowledge that I could use a few positive strokes. 
Of course, someone else immediately took the book again. But it didn’t hurt this time because a friend had showed he knew I was suffering and cared about me. To paraphrase Descarte again: “He cared therefore I exist.”
A few minutes later I watched another friend take the book in exchange for his gift. He also came over, looked me in the eye and wordlessly handed me the book. 
I was overwhelmed. No words were exchanged, yet two great friends let me know they were there for me.
Soon the book was taken from me for the 3rd time, this time for good. But I didn’t care. I had been given the greatest gift of all and no one can take that away. My pal’s gift of selflessness and consideration made me a rich man that evening.
I won’t remember if I lost weight or gained weight this new year in a few years time. But I will remember the rest of my life my friends trying to get me that book. It is in someone else’s library, but I got a greater gift, the gift of being shown that someone cares for me at a time when, more than anything in the world, I needed to know that someone cared.
I have no idea why, but thankfully, long ago, in my childhood, I intuitively began to follow a strategy that many others have utilized when faced with heartache and grief, a strategy echoed in the teachings of Buddhism. During the dark days and nights that inevitably follow tragedy and heartache, I refuse to give in to despair and self pity. I work, as best I can, to make myself a better person. I strive to be more considerate, more kind, more compassionate, more engaged with those around me. I try to become involved in activities that make the world a better place. I work to make myself more attractive on the inside, rather than the outside. I don’t always succeed, but I assure you I try.
Heaven forbid that the inevitable suffering of life might somehow make me less of a person, might me me angry and bitter, might make me look at life as anything other than the wonderful miracle that it is. I simply could not live with myself if that were the case.
But you plainly can’t persevere on your own. You need the help of others, the trust of others, you need the company of people sharing a common history, letting each other know you are loved.
I began this service by bringing up the ritual of New Year’s resolutions, and took a circling journey that inevitably returns to the topic. I would ask that you look at New Year’s resolutions differently this year. Set aside concerns about your waistline and pocketbook, and consider this:
Resolve to put down the electronic gizmos, and gather more in groups, tell more stories, participate in building a common history, and strive to be more selfless, more compassionate, more forgiving. Remember the astonishing selflessness of my new friend who is donating the kidney, the modest, wonderful selflessness of my old friends. Your selflessness doesn’t have to be as dramatic as donating a kidney to a stranger, but let’s resolve to start with small steps and always consider how we might help ourselves by helping others. The wonder and majesty of our live’s won’t be recorded in how much we acquire, in our status, in how much we indulge ourselves, or how we might resolve to lose weight on January 1. It’s a new year, an opportunity for the birth of a new approach to our lives, an opportunity to acquire real wealth in the harvest of how we treat other people. 
Our resolutions must be to be kinder, more forgiving, more compassionate, more selfless human beings. 
Dare alla luce. In this new year, let’s resolve to bring ourselves and others into the light.

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