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Forces Within & Without

In Tennyson’s play The Foresters, Robin Hood and his outlaws celebrate the New Year with drinks and the promise of romance. The famous bandit says optimistically, “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier;’ and old faces press ‘round us now, and warm hands close with warm hands.”  Many hundreds of years later, we emerge from the dazzling festivity of the last few weeks, ready to face a bright new year with the firm assertion, “Now what?”

Despite the fact that centuries have accustomed us to a New Year commencing on January 1, the ancient people’s methods of marking the seasons—based on the sun’s influence—made enormous sense. That solar relationship, of course, incontestably governed the lives of our ancestors. At spring equinox, most regions began planting, and at fall equinox, it was widely understood that the hay ought to be in the barn, the grain at the mill, and the livestock brought down from the hills. Various old countries celebrated the New Year either in spring or in autumn—both with clear demarcations of activity, each having specific tasks.

The Babylonians, some 4,000 years ago, were the first to form the custom of New Year’s resolutions, making promises to the gods to pay personal debts and to return any objects they had borrowed. It’s worth noting that their new year commenced in mid-March, when spring was fully evident. Rowing across the Tigris River with a conciliatory basket of figs sounds rather nice.  Stepping out boldly, during the darkest, coldest, and least hospitable months of the year, with declarations about dramatic change—well, it’s daunting.

Stuck as we are with the Gregorian calendar, the hallowed gates of our New Year open with a creak and a groan onto a white landscape of snow and ice. “Wait,” our inner voice whispers,  “Maybe I need another fifteen minutes under the comforter this morning.” There’s nothing wrong with having another cup of tea and poring over a seed catalog.

Another ancient culture, the Chinese, cautioned against jumping too eagerly into change at the New Year. The revered medical text known as the Nei Jing says, “Retire early and get up with the sunrise, which is later in winter. Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued. Stay warm, avoid the cold, keep the pores closed. The philosophy of the winter season is one of conservation and storage.”

The realm of change awaits, and it’s good to remember that we are free to become whatever we deem healthiest. At the same time, there’s much to be said for taking stock of things. Nature, with her subzero wind chills and icy sidewalks, points out the wisdom of cautious consideration. After all, we can’t find true north unless we figure out how to read our internal compass, and that’s a task requiring attention and purpose. Fortunately, January is an ideal quiet time to remember that we have many choices, and that we each deserve the best.