Reflections on a Mirroring Season
Look through the lattice of existence, and there's a universe spun around the miracle of pattern and repetition. From the petals arranged around the face of a daisy to the moon's unending sequence of ebbs and tides, the web of structures and cycles is manifested everywhere.
Our lives correspond to these predictable rhythms. The arc of the sun, the clouds on parade, the turning of the pages of the calendar — we trace these daily sojourns, year after year, and rely on their return to map the future. Home is anywhere the mind's eye recognizes the castle of the familiar.
As creatures of habit, we tend to repeat what has come before. Little wonder that we have wished to "get back to normal" after September 11: to reestablish a routine around which we can rally.
Yet an odd thing is happening on the road to normality. Some part of us appears to be resisting.
Instead of flinging ourselves into old thinking and behaviors, we find ourselves more willing to withdraw and reflect. One overhears more conversations about "quality of life." Many have begun to reassess their life objectives with an eye toward adopting a more deliberate rhythm. Parents are devoting more time to their children. Non-Muslims have reached out to Muslim neighbors. People want to spend the holidays closer to home. Like a snail that remembers to return to its shell, we seem to be curling inward.
In a sense, you might say, we're turning into ourselves.
There is something deeply normal about this. Only it goes beyond the usual "normal." It originates in an impulse so embedded in the psyche that it bespeaks our emergence as a species on the planet.
The attacks on our nation seem to have smashed through our complacency and hurled us through layers of accumulated habit. Like Lewis Carroll's Alice, we tumbled down a hole and fell through the darkness, as if in a dream, until we woke up somewhere else, further down. And here the dark is altogether different. The place we've come to rest is a slower, more amazing, subterranean level of normality. You could say we've fallen back on the oldest of habits.
In these last three months of unspeakable woe, we have synchronized ourselves with the seasons of the earth.
It's the home we had forgotten we had left.
To fathom the magnitude of the shift in perspective, one must consider what the nation has experienced.
We were on the cusp of autumn when calamity intervened in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington. As we watched, uncomprehending, our universe unraveled. The procession of the seasons went unnoticed. Who watches the sun while plunging through the void?
The earth — from what we could surmise — had stopped turning.
For months we have labored to jump-start the future. According to a nationwide poll in mid-September by CBS News and The New York Times, nearly 6 in 10 Americans thought the US should "return to business as usual as soon as possible." Almost 7 in 10 expected that the nation would resume its normal routine in a few days or weeks.
"Normal," to our mind, connotes "activity." Buy. Fly. Drive. Catch a movie. Wave Old Glory. Getting revved almost feels like a patriotic duty. What worked before, the logic goes, will surely work again.
So why our suspended animation?
In part, we are mindful of the freshness of the wounds. To revert to the pre-September habits feels unseemly, almost callous or insulting to the memory of the dead. Then, too, we must cope with the aftershocks — from the bombing in Afghanistan and the anthrax in the mail to the threat of biological or nuclear war. Just as a deer's hard-wired reflex is to hide until the danger in the woods has subsided, disengaging may improve our long-term chances of survival.
Yet apprehension alone cannot explain our reluctance to "gear up." To understand this growing urge to stop and reflect, it would help to get our bearings by surveying our surroundings.
Autumn's drama has receded into winter. The deciduous trees have relinquished their leaves in a shower of gold, orange, crimson, and ochre. The Northern Hemisphere has entered "the southern journey," as Hindus call it, the "dark half" of the earth's revolution around the sun. When the nights grow longer and temperatures fall, many animals seek refuge by hibernating or burrowing, and much of the plant world goes dormant. Although their state of inactivity resembles deep sleep or death, animals remain alive as their heartbeat slows, and plants transfer their energy to maintain their root system. Quietly, out of view, they rest and prepare to reemerge in the spring.
As the sun reaches its lowest point, the moon attains its highest. The full moon at midwinter is the brightest of the year: it is now that the moon most fully mirrors the light of the sun.
Our attitude is also one of mirroring. To mirror, one must reflect; and to reflect, one must be still. Our "can-do" spirit of physical exertion has been replaced by an interior "can-do": a deepening awareness of the value of existence. Christmas carols often portray this serenity. "Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by," says one. Or another: "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright ... sleep in heavenly peace."
Just as music, according to Leibniz, is the pleasure one derives from counting without knowing one is counting, so the seasons are the subtle transformation we experience from turning while unaware we are turning.
By heeding the ancient cyclical wisdom of the planet, we are getting back to normal — in the true sense. Can anyone imagine the possibilities to be unearthed by exploring what we already know "deep down"?
As we honor those who perished on September 11, we might also contemplate their legacy. They gave us a gift we didn't realize we needed. They left us with a clearer way to see.
This essay appeared in The Christian Science Monitor (December 27, 2001). Illustration © 2001 by Nadine Epstein. Reprinted with permission of the artist.