Reflections on the Longest Nights

It has been so difficult to settle on a theme these last few weeks as we transition through the end of one year and into the beginning of the next. So many events have presented themselves to the news, society, and to me personally that warrant a bit of air space for public reflection. But in the backdrop of it all has been the solstice season. It seems especially important that the message is relevant. But what is the message?

Maybe that is the message. With too much going on it is easy to get scattered and lose focus. In November I was out of town for 12 of 30 days. In December I attended four seasonal parties, missed three, and hosted two. What I have not had on my schedule is time for reflection, and time to concentrate deeply. The record of my daily walks cruely reminds me that recently I have taken very little time for walking and thinking, which means even less time for true reflection, leaving it nigh impossible for me to carve out extended time for deep concentration that is helpful to learn new things and solve complex problems.

Juggling multiple priorites is normal. With too many priorities, however, it is easy to miss the value in them individually, as I move quickly from one, to the next, to the next, as if perfunctorily working through a check list that has no end. The time in between activities is often spent concentrating on recovering from the exhaustion of the previous activity until I can no longer avoid thinking about the next. Each seasonal celebration starts to feel like one more thing to do.

The irony is that I should be taking more time for reflection during this period when the days get shorter and the nights get longer, until at last the season changes and the light begins to grow again. The extended darkness beckons me to spend more time thinking. The part of the day that is most precious is the time before the world wakes up. It is so dark and peaceful. It is my time just to be. It is the time the world has available to speak its mind before it gets interrupted by humans and our squawking, piercing gadgets. It is my time to listen. That time of day is joyously long during the solstice season. These extraordinary nights provide the gift of reflection in our busy, modern lives.

Now the darkness is leaving. I may have squandered the gift offered by the nights that last well into morning.

Maybe it is human instinct to gather frequently and celebrate the darkness as it grows and then begins to wane again. The solstice time has been marked by festivities across cultures for many thousands of years. Knowing the days are finally getting longer usually brings me great relief and optimism. Like yin and yang, maybe the instinct to celebrate is the contrasting energy that prevents the peaceful solitude of deep reflection from becoming isolating. By yourself, one would never survive the winter.

Attending to and celebrating the priorities in my personal life is necessary in finding balance in life overall. I once went five years in my basement office thinking and learning, with little thought or awareness of the world outside. It was some of the most creative, most inspiring time in my life. But at the same time I missed out on so many people and things that were important to me. The evolving darkness reminds me it is not a choice between one or the other, but that there will be times when I focus on juggling multiple priorities at work with little time for other activities, and other times when I just have to accept I may drop a few balls in the juggling act because I cannot pay close attention to everything when my priorities need to shift toward family and friends. The importance of reflection and self-care is to ensure I can make those decisions strategically, and know when it is okay to let something go by the wayside until I can give it my full attention.

So what is the message for the new season again? Balance is a part of focus. As a linear thinker I like focus and order. Once in a while, however, it is okay to lose focus for a short time, just long enough to remember how many priorities are out there and the different parts of my life they represent. When I begin to feel scattered it is time to pause, reflect, and focus. While the darkness may be ebbing, it is still in its peak, patiently waiting for my attention.

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