I was the Creative Director for last year’s Winter Solstice in the Bay Area. I worked with Nat Kozak and Chelsea Voss, who were both focused more on logistics. Chelsea was also the official leader who oversaw both me and Nat and had final say on disputes. (However, I was granted dictatorial control over the Solstice arc and had final say in that arena.) I legit have no idea how any one of us would have pulled this off without the others; love to both of them and also massive respect to Cody Wild, who somehow ran the entire thing herself in 2018.
While I worked with a bunch of other people on Solstice, all opinions expressed here are my own.
Beginnings & research phase
Chelsea, Nat, and I spent just about a full year preparing for Solstice. Our first meeting as a group was on January 20th, and we received official confirmation that we’d be in charge about a month later. In the following month, the three of us had roughly weekly planning meetings via video chat. In the first meeting, we set goals for what we wanted to have done by the first of April, and after that we checked in regularly for a while.
My goal by the first of April was to have a rough outline of the entire arc and a plan for how to make the tone be coherent. I also wanted to get a better handle on the task, and to that end I had conversations with several previous Solstice organizers and also read as much as I could. This included Ray’s sequence on ritual, most of the writing on the Secular Solstice website (both the blog and the resources section were useful), discussions on the Rational Ritual Facebook group, and whatever else I could find.
I also spent a full day listening to every single song that had ever been recommended for Solstice (see below) and making notes on them in a spreadsheet. When I ran out of songs in that reference class, I sorted my iTunes library by most listens and started going through to see if any of those songs might fit. This was quite surprisingly fruitful - I actually ended up using three of the songs that were originally put on my list in this way.
Another thing I did was go around and ask people what they wanted out of Solstice. I got responses that were actually fairly useful, like “I lose interest during long speeches” and “there should be more singalongs” and “I like singalongs but a lot of the songs have really complicated tunes and I can’t handle it.”
I think even with all that research and preparation, I still didn’t have a very good sense of the history of Solstice. I had only been to two big Bay Area Solstices, plus a private Solstice in the woods, plus a short, small, off-the-cuff Solstice that Habryka and I ran at my mom’s house in 2018. I wasn’t around for early Solstices, and I’d never seen what they were like in Boston, Seattle, or New York.
Creating the setlist
The first setlist
I met the April 1st deadline for having an outline of the entire arc. I drew up my first setlist in my notebook on a five-hour plane ride. I was taking into consideration more small snippets of advice than I can list here, but I can quote the guiding goal I referred to throughout the entirety of my time working on this Solstice:
I want my Solstice to be about the brokenness of the world and the ethos of "somebody has to and no one else will", but also the fact that even if you exercise your individual agency to do the most you can, we still might fail.
Below are some sample pages from my notebook, with most names redacted. Note that I didn't ask any of these people before assigning them to songs; this was just idle speculation on a plane ride about who might be able to pull off each song.
After that was a process of constant iteration.
We had our first full run-through of the setlist on June 16th. In the two months leading up to this, Chelsea checked in with me weekly. I had a lot of speeches to write and planned to write one and send it to her each week (which I more or less accomplished). I found this accountability mechanism quite helpful.
The first run-through was just me, Habryka, and Chelsea. We sat on the floor of my bedroom, played recordings of the songs to sing along with, and took turns reading the speeches. For this run-through, I wrote three new speeches, re-used two existing Solstice speeches, and threw in Pale Blue Dot, an abridged version of the poem Ring Out, Wild Bells, and the Sequences post On Doing The Impossible. After the run-through, which took about two hours (we timed each piece), the three of us debriefed, and I used the extensive notes I took to make changes to the setlist.
I felt burned out after this and had the luxury of taking all of July off from Solstice work. This was a huge benefit of starting so early.
The next run-through was in September, scheduled around the dates when our featured musician, Taylor (who lives in Vermont) would be in town. This was significantly more involved but still fairly informal. Seven people participated in total (including Ray, who was experimenting with projection), we provided our own instrumentation for most of the songs, and most of the speeches were read by the people who would eventually give them. Afterwards, each person individually gave me feedback, and again, I made significant changes to the setlist in response.
Regular coworking hours
Around the time of the September run-through, things really picked up. Going into crunch time, Chelsea, Nat, and I set up a regular time for Solstice coworking. We met for a couple hours every Monday night - that served both as our designated time to work on Solstice things (since we all also have day jobs) and an opportunity for in-person communication about high-context or sensitive topics.
We put out a call for auditions in August, but we didn’t publicize it very well, so we didn’t receive many applications. I required auditions for speakers and singalong vocalists, but not for instrumentalists - in retrospect, this was an obvious mistake. I let almost all of the instrumentalists who applied participate in as many songs as they wanted, but there were issues with everything from not having time to rehearse to not being able to play in the key the vocalist wanted to disagreements on chords and time signatures.
Since we didn’t get enough applications to fill all the slots, I reached out to people who I already knew were competent from seeing them perform in previous Solstices or in other contexts (such as at jam sessions or in the REACH Musical Revue). This ended up working quite well - I think that everyone I chose in this way gave a good performance.
NYC has often hired professional musicians, rather than having community members provide the instrumentation - a possibility I knew about but never seriously considered. While I still wouldn’t pay for professional musicians, I’ve come to understand better why someone might decide to do so, after experiencing the difficulties (mentioned above) of getting amateur musicians to produce a performance-ready piece.
On the other hand, a lot of the amateurs did do an excellent job! So I think the takeaway here is just that it’s important to have people audition (or be very sure of their competence level in some other way) and make sure they’re able to put in the time commitment to rehearse.
Orientation towards Solstice as a whole
Something I struggled with a fair amount was disagreements about arc cohesion vs showcasing technical skill. Arc cohesion trumped all other concerns for me, with singalongability a close second. However, it’s often the case that when singers are given the chance to perform, they want to do something more interesting than just lead the melody of a singalong, so I was sometimes at loggerheads with performers who wanted to do more complex pieces or include intricate harmonies. There are some pieces for which I regret not being firmer about putting my foot down on this issue, and I think that ultimately it’s probably reasonable to exclude performers on this basis if you can’t come to an agreement.
On the flip side, I was extremely grateful to the people whose pieces I cut after the dress rehearsal, a week before the performance. I apologized to all of them and gave them the opportunity to contest the decision, but they were all really great about it and said things along the lines of “I care way more about Solstice being better than I do about cashing out on the work I did.” To those people - I really appreciate you, and thank you for being wonderful!
In late November we did a walk-through of the venue (important for testing planetarium footage and lighting options), then in early December we had a tech rehearsal at the planetarium (mostly for A/V) and a dress rehearsal (not at the planetarium). Much of the benefit here was logistical, and I won’t touch on that too much since it’s not my wheelhouse, but it also gave me a chance to see what the final product would be like. I was originally supposed to stop editing the setlist entirely on November 5th, but in reality, I made several changes to the order and even cut some pieces in response to the dress rehearsal, and the exact content of some things was kind of up in the air even on the day of. While I technically missed my deadline or whatever, I don’t regret that at all - I think my Solstice was quite significantly better than it would have been if I had stopped iterating on the setlist a month earlier.
Considerations for creating a setlist
Creating a cohesive message
When it came to speeches, I took an arc-first approach. I decided what message fit in every place in the arc and found a piece that fit there. Only after that did I approach potential speakers. I ended up using four existing pieces wholesale; the rest were based on existing pieces but were either remixed or heavily edited by the speaker. The takeaway action item here is to have something very specific in mind for each speech and conveying that to the speaker. This improves cohesion while still allowing each speaker to put their own twist on the piece if they so choose.
- Tessa remixed Ray’s A Bottomless Pit of Suffering to make more sense in Berkeley (it was originally given in NYC, where it’s very cold) and to have more of her own voice.
- I had Nate Soares on the docket from quite early on in the process, but he’s busy executive-directing MIRI so I didn’t want to take up too much of his time. With his input, I chose an old post from his blog for him to read (How We Will Be Measured), and Chelsea and I edited it to be shorter and more appropriate as a speech. Nate then made a bunch of his own changes to reflect the ways his thinking has changed over the past few years, but ultimately it was still recognizable as the same piece.
- Though it ended up being cut at the very last minute, Alex Altair adapted a scene from HPMoR into a speech, which was pretty cool.
Creating a smooth arc
In order to create a smooth experience, you have to make sure that there are smooth transitions between the message, emotional tone, and musical/artistic feel of each piece and the next. It turns out to be really hard to match these all up. For example, there are some funny/upbeat/light-hearted songs about death (e.g. We Will All Go Together When We Go), and some fairly serious-sounding songs about more light-hearted topics (e.g. Time Wrote the Rocks). Some songs are up-tempo, some are slow and mournful, some have percussion, some are performed by choir. There are just a ton of considerations. (This is why Ray writes so many of his own songs - that’s the only way you can really have control over the message, tone, and feel all at once.)
I was aware of all of these considerations, and that’s a big part of the reason that I made sure to run through each version of the setlist from start to finish, but I don’t think I quite got it right until the final performance (even the dress rehearsal, one week prior, was fairly rocky in this regard). And even then there were still a few problems, like the energy drop from Son of Man to Uplift and the energy drop from Singularity to Five Thousand Years (making Five Thousand Years a rather anticlimactic finale).
The previous Solstices I had attended were just a series of pieces strung together, and the audience were mostly left to discern the arc on their own. At some point in my research, I saw a video clip of Kenzi MCing a Solstice, and I immediately decided I wanted to do that.
In my opinion, there are a ton of advantages to having an MC. Here are a couple:
- It gives the audience more insight into why each piece was chosen and generally gives you a chance to tie the arc together more explicitly.
- It allows you to make announcements during the program without breaking immersion, such as giving trigger warnings or asking the audience to hold their applause until further notice.
- It fills what would otherwise be awkward pauses between pieces as performers get on and off the stage.
About 50 people filled out the feedback survey, and their feedback falls into a few rough categories for me:
- “This person is right and I would change/tweak this if I had it to do over”
- “This feedback should not be acted upon”
- “Feedback on this is very split, and you can’t win ‘em all”
Things I would tweak
The peak-end rule is really important, and my Solstice didn’t have a very strong ending. I had to go up onstage and be like, “Okay, now it’s over.” If I had it to do over, I might cut Five Thousand Years and end on Singularity, which everyone loved.
Moment of darkness
The moment of darkness itself (two minutes of silence in the pitch black) got mixed reviews - some people found it very powerful, some people found it existentially horrifying and had to distract themselves, and a lot of people found it didn’t really land. The main thing I would change here is the way I introduced it.
I said, “We’re about to sit in silence for two minutes. If you’re up for it, I want you to look up at the stars, and think of someone you’ve lost. Someone whose voice you will never hear again, whose mind is gone from the world forever. Give them your grief, yes, but also give them your resolve.”
In retrospect, this was far too specific an ask. A lot of people said that the moment of darkness didn’t really land specifically because they’d never lost anyone close to them. (I copied the text from the Solstice Habryka and I ran in Madison, where it worked very well, but where the circumstances were very different in quite a number of significant ways.) If I had it to do over, I would encourage people to sit with their feelings, wherever they were at, rather than prescribing something for them to think about.
I struggled for a long time to find or write an appropriate speech for the first-speech slot in the program. It was only a day or so before the dress rehearsal that I settled on giving an abridged version of Nate’s This Is A Dawn. While it had roughly the right message, I don’t think I myself was that bought into it, and as a result, people seemed to find it a bit generic, and not really meaningful. I’m not actually sure what in particular I would do here if I had a do-over, but I do want to highlight that the first-speech slot is quite important and I definitely didn’t totally nail it.
Feedback that should not be acted upon
A hopefully uncontroversial example of this is the person who doesn’t like the sound of strummed instruments, and therefore gave a low rating to every song with strummed guitars. Sure, this is a valid way to feel, but at the same time, one person’s preference in this area does not mean it makes sense to cut all guitars from Solstice.
A more controversial example, but one that I am still willing to stand by publicly, is the common complaint that Son of Man is sexist. Look, I’m a woman. Chelsea is a woman. The person who soloed on Son of Man is a woman. My sense is that, while some people were genuinely offended, and that came through in their feedback, most of the people who registered complaints were just people who were worried that other people might have been offended. I continue to think this song is an excellent fit for Solstice message-wise and has great energy (it was intended to be performed a bit faster but there were some technical difficulties with the drums). I would not hesitate to include it again.
Eating disorder trigger
For complicated reasons, there was a brief discussion of weight loss at the end of Solstice. It was intended as a sort of light-hearted post-credits piece, but we mishandled it, and people didn’t end up getting the chance to leave if the topic was difficult for them. This had significant negative consequences for some people, and I sincerely apologize for that.
We’re taking steps to make sure that future Bay Solstices are more careful around sensitive topics like this. Specific action items include providing verbal trigger warnings in addition to the ones written in the program, and allowing significantly more time for people to leave if they need to, including having some people planted in the audience to stand up and leave so that it feels socially okay to do so. (Even though I myself won’t be running Solstice next year, I’m in close contact with next year’s organizers and have made at least one of them aware of this.)
On the feedback form, some people mentioned being very upset by Solstice because it reminded them that they were lonely or felt like they could be accomplishing more. I do not think anything should change about Solstice itself in response to this feedback, because being reminded that the universe is vast and dark and cold is pretty much the entire point of Solstice.
Perhaps in the future it would be good to make it clear to potential Solstice-goers that Solstice deals a lot with death, individual responsibility, and the vast, uncaring universe. Then they can make more of an informed choice about whether or not to go, and if they can’t handle it, they can’t reasonably blame it on anyone but themselves.
(The table below has the pieces in chronological order of how they appeared in the performance.)
|2||The X days of X-Risk||3||4||7||16||14|
|3||To Drive the Cold Winter Away||0||1||14||16||11|
|5||Time Wrote the Rocks||0||6||10||17||9|
|6||This is a Dawn (abridged)||0||0||12||19||5|
|7||Hard Times Come Again No More||0||2||8||18||12|
|8||There Will Come Soft Rain||3||6||12||11||9|
|9||Pale Blue Dot||0||0||3||12||25|
|11||Do You Realize||1||4||6||16||14|
|12||A Bottomless Pit of Suffering||1||1||7||15||14|
|13||Bitter Wind Lullaby||0||3||11||16||10|
|15||The Moment of Darkness||1||1||5||15||17|
|17||We Are the Light||2||1||13||16||5|
|20||Brighter Than Today||0||1||2||16||18|
|21||How We Will Be Measured||0||4||12||15||8|
|22||Son of Man||3||6||10||15||6|
|24||What it means to win||1||2||6||20||5|
|27||Five Thousand Years||2||4||7||17||10|
At a high level, most people liked most things! This is heartening.
Ray and I sorted the pieces four different ways*, and there were five pieces that clearly came out on top and five that (only a little bit less) clearly came out at the bottom.
- Pale Blue Dot
- Brighter Than Today
- Bold Orion
- After-the-Credits Eliezer bit
- Son of Man
- There Will Come Soft Rain
- We Are the Light
- Light Pollution
Effect of delivery
Something I notice that’s interesting (but not that surprising) is the large effect that delivery had on people’s ratings. For example, two of the highest rated pieces were Singularity and Pale Blue Dot. In addition to a solid delivery by Chelsea, Pale Blue Dot had a backing track and custom planetarium footage. Singularity was extremely energetic and fun, and people had generally positive affect towards all of the songs that prominently featured Taylor because he’s such an obviously skilled musician. Brighter Than Today and Bold Orion were also energetic and very polished performances.
By contrast, people were relatively lukewarm on Endless Lights and Bitter Wind Lullaby, two Solstice staples that I think of as being fairly well-liked in general. Both of these songs had significant problems with their execution, with the performers having trouble agreeing on the time signature. As a result, it was difficult for people to sing along, which seems to have made for a negative overall impression.
Addressing the elephant in the room
An additional thing that people who attended this Solstice might want to see addressed is what the heck was up with the Eliezer piece. Even apart from those who found it triggering or otherwise inappropriate, a lot of people were just confused about why it happened (e.g., several people's reaction was, "Why is this guy talking to me like I'm his friend, I don't even know him"). The explanation is perhaps not all that satisfying, but I'll give it anyway.
In early October, Eliezer contacted me asking if he could do a shenanigan at Solstice. He explained his idea to me, and while I didn't really see how it would fit in, I also didn't want to reject him out of hand.
I talked to a couple people I trusted about this, and we came to the conclusion that it would be pretty valuable to have Eliezer onstage. The reasons for this were a bit nebulous, but roughly rested on the following:
- Regardless of any single community member's personal feelings on him and his writings, it's hard to deny that this community would not exist as it does today without Eliezer. (I, for example, came in through a chance encounter with HPMOR in high school, and basically every aspect of my current life is a direct result of that encounter.)
- Eliezer has increasingly retreated from public life over the past few years, and this has resulted in some feelings of abandonment on the part of the community.
- Having Eliezer onstage during Solstice would show his implicit support for the community and the event; following the above, it would remind the audience of what brought us all together and that we haven't been abandoned by our founders.
Based on this reasoning, it was having Eliezer onstage that mattered, and the content of his piece wasn't really relevant. The eating disorder trigger was honestly not something I even considered until someone mentioned it after the dress rehearsal. It was at that point that I decided to move the piece to be 'post-credits' (it had previously been early in the program proper), to make it opt-out for people uncomfortable with the topic, but as mentioned above, I failed to handle this correctly.
It’s also worth noting that, while more people hated the Eliezer bit than hated any other piece, there were also a fair number of people who loved it (if you sort by the raw number of Loves, it comes dead middle). So it was in fact not universally reviled (lots of people found it hilarious or heartwarming); it was just very polarizing.
Summary of takeaways
This is just all of the takeaways from the main body of this post, in the order that they appeared.
- Starting a year in advance and testing and iterating often makes for a really good final product but also burns you out like hell. I think this was ultimately definitely worth it, but if I was told I had to do another year of this I would probably flee the country.
- Deciding on a central theme/thesis for your Solstice early on is really important.
- Set a regular time to work on Solstice things so that they don’t slip through the cracks, especially if you have a full-time job. It’s best if you can meet with other people regularly for this purpose, because accountability.
- While hiring professional musicians may be easier, there are enough skilled musicians in the Bay Area rationalist community that I think it’s worthwhile to go that route, especially since this makes it feel more like a community event. Just make sure that people audition (or are known to be skilled and easy to work with) and can commit to rehearsing with each other.
- Choose speakers and other performers largely based on their skill level, but it’s also important to make sure that they’re value-aligned with you when it comes to the Solstice you’re creating together.
- It’s okay to iterate on the content until the very last minute so long as everyone is on the same page / no one is thrown off or blind-sided by the late changes.
- If you want your arc to be really cohesive, you need to exert centralized control over each piece rather than just leaving performers to do their own thing.
- It’s really hard to create a smooth arc over all the dimensions that matter. If you can write your own songs or work with a friend who can write original songs, this is a huge asset.
- MCing is great.
- Not all feedback should be acted upon.
- Pay attention to the peak-end rule.
- Potentially triggering topics should be handled more carefully than they were by me. It’s important for people to have a genuine opportunity to make an informed choice about what they’re exposed to.
- Delivery/execution of pieces is just as important as (if not more important than) the semantic content and the fit in the arc.
I love spreadsheets with a passion, and I found keeping all of the relevant material in one place to be enormously helpful both for me and for communication purposes. (Whenever someone had a question about the arc, the performers, or anything, we could just pull up the spreadsheet, and even make a copy of it to see how changing the order of the pieces would feel.)
Here is a template for the spreadsheet I used. Let me know if anything is unclear!
Masterlist of Solstice materials
Daniel Speyer runs the Secular Solstice GitHub page, which is a useful resource, but it’s also very hard to edit - especially if, like me, you’re not a programmer and don’t know how to use GitHub in general. The Giant Epic Rationalist Solstice Filk spreadsheet is likewise a useful resource, but it’s kind of a mess. So I made my own spreadsheet, which is publicly editable and incorporates every song, poem, story, and speech from the above two repositories. (Apologies to Daniel Speyer and to anyone who sees this as polluting the commons by instantiating too many competing projects.)
* The sorting algorithms we used were the following:
- % Positive : (Liked + Loved) / (Total responses)
- Overall-Liked : (Liked + Loved) – (Disliked + Hated)
- Weighted : (2.25*Loved + Liked) – (2.25*Hated + Disliked)
- Loved : Raw number of ‘Love’s
Thanks to Ray Arnold, Nat Kozak, and Chelsea Voss for their input and edits.
Thank you, mingyuan, Nat and Chelsea, for organising the Solstice. It's one of the most meaningful events I go to each year, that makes me feel like I care about the same things as so many other people I know.
As a second point, this retrospective is really detailed and I feel like I can get a lot of your knowledge from it, and I'm really glad something like this will be around for future solstice organisers to learn from.
Yeah, wanted to basically just echo these points.
Could someone explain what the "Eliezer bit" actually was, for those of us who weren't there?
You can watch it here.
I have a bunch of comments on this:
I've always thought that his failed attempts at researching weightloss and applying what he learned were a counter example of how applicable LW/EY rationality is. Glad to see he solved it when it became more important.
Really? Fine, you don't know him but if you don't know EY and are at a rationalist event why would you be surprised by not knowing a speaker? From the public's reaction to his openning it should've been clear most people did know him.
That was excellent, and I quite enjoyed watching it. I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen yet, of course, but I just want to say:
Well done, Eliezer!
Yeah, after watching that, I can't see how anyone reasonable could dislike it. That was awesome.
About 2-3 months earlier, I chatted with Eliezer at a party. Afterward, on the drive home, I said to my friend
"Gosh, Eliezer looks awfully spindly. It looks like he's lost weight, but it's all gone from his face and his arms."
I was starting to make all these updates about how it doesn't look good to lose weight when you're hitting 40, and that it's important to lose weight early, and so on.
I told this to Eliezer later. He said I got points for noticing my confusion, which I was pleased about.
Maybe people who rationalized their failure to lose weight by "well, even Eliezer is overweight, it's just metabolic disprivilege"
I think it's more like "people who are currently struggling to lose weight, or get out of negative cycles of crippling anxiety about it, seeing it made light of is hurtful." (I think one can hold a legitimate position that that's a real problem they can't just 'snap out of' or whatnot, and that watching the speech would be legitimately harmful to them, independent of whether you think it's better on-net for society to cater to that)
My actual current position was something like "it was good to move it to the end as an 'after-the-credits' scene, and good to describe it as optional, but because everyone was still seated and in some cases it was really awkward to move around, it didn't really feel like a live option, and it would have been better to do something like 'let people start to leave slightly before starting the bit so that people who wanted to keep moving out had an easier time doing so'"
How many people raised their hands when Eliezer asked about the probability estimate? When I was watching the video I gave a probability estimate of 65%, and I'm genuinely shocked that "not many" people thought he had over a 55% chance. This is Eliezer we're talking about.............
He has been trying to do it for years and failed. The first time I read his attempts at doing that, years ago, I also assigned a high probability of success. Then 2 years passed and he hadn't done it, then another 2 years..
You have to adjust your estimates based on your observations.
I started writing a post around this aspect of Solstice, and I may come back to it, but since you bring it up here I think it's worth addressing in a comment.
If I'm being frank, I think this is a woefully inadequate and irresponsible response. I don't mean that as an attack on your or the organizers in any particular year, but rather as a statement against the general pattern of behavior being manifested. A rationalist culture with more Hufflepuff virtue would not think it okay to remind people of something distressing and then offer them nothing to deal with the distress.
Some more, somewhat disjointed and rambly thoughts on all this:
One of the effects of Solstice is that it makes salient thoughts and memories of loss and loneliness, generates negative-affect emotions, and otherwise affects people in powerful ways. These effects, especially for those who do not have a lot of psychological safety, range from producing mild negative affect to causing trauma or trauma-like experiences to causing psychological deintegration. Failure to address this and just say "ehh, intended effect" is, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, similar in my mind to encouraging someone to engage in a physical activity that is likely to cause them injury and then saying "oh well, I guess find your own way to the hospital" when they inevitably get hurt. Or, for a more mundane example that I think illustrates the same principle, it's like telling a friend you want them to hang out with them at their house to lead them through doing a messy activity and then when the inevitable mess appears saying "okay, well, time to leave, I'm sure you'll clean it up".
I realize I'm making a claim here about what is morally/ethically right. I view it as important to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions, and if we put on an event that regularly and predictably causes negative psychological impact on a portion of the attendees, we have a responsibility to those attendees to help them deal with the fallout.
An alternative would be to more activity encourage such folks not to attend, but I think this is antithetical to how I understand the Solstice (it's a highly inclusive event, and we'd cause people pain if we excluded them), so I think we need to work towards helping people reintegrate after they may have old or active psychic wounds torn open by the event. I think this can be done as part of the ceremony, although a more complete solution would be changing the culture such that the downswing of Solstice didn't drop people out from a place where they already felt unsafe. Lacking that, I think careful ritual design during the dawn/new day part of the arc to help people connect and see the path forward would go a long way to addressing this issue.
For context, much of my thinking here comes from the way spiritual traditions help or fail to help people deal with the consequences of the insights they may gain from interacting with the tradition. This has been a problem in, for example, Western Buddhism, where people may teach meditation but not be equipped or prepared to help or at least help get help for people whose lives get worse (sometimes dramatically so) as a result of meditating. The rationalist project, even though it has a very different worldview and objectives, shares with some spiritual traditions an intention to help people better their lives through transformative practice, but I also see it doing not nearly as much as it could or, in my opinion, should to help those it unintentionally but predictably hurts by teaching its methods, and the situation with those hurt by Winter Solstice seems one more manifestation of this pattern. I would like us to do better at Winter Solstice as a way of shifting towards a better pattern.
I'll probably have a longer response at some point, but for now wanted to quickly summarize my current position:
I think the correct solution is "Solstice continues to have a strong core of 'look into the dark', but gets better at aftercare, and the community as a whole gets better at helping people make sane life choices and build safety nets, etc, as they grapple with legitimately challenging subject matter."
In the meanwhile, since aftercare and dealing-with-challenging-subject-matter is hard, I think the solution is to have better trigger warnings, and discourage people from going if they aren't up for it. (Meanwhile, probably working harder at an afterparty so that there's a clear place for people to go if what they want is more general holiday-togetherness)
A core issue is that many people (not sure if this is you or not), think of it in terms of "Solstice should be more inclusive, as the central community event."
And I think that is fundamentally misguided – a toned-down, less dark solstice would not be more inclusive, just have a different audience. (Notably, I probably wouldn't go, or if I did I'd treat it more like a party than like a sacred event). I do concretely predict (based on my experiences with Sunday Assembly), that a Solstice aiming to be less dark would have fewer attendees, not more, especially as years went by.
I think it's actually important that this community was founded to grapple with hard problems, and that the central holiday reflects that. We should get better at grappling with hard problems (including at the central holiday). But I think it is quite important that no, the central holiday isn't meant to be for everyone.
There's an option (the 2020 solstice team is considering) of having multiple solstices with different focus areas. I don't currently think that would solve the actual problem but did seem worth checking if people wanted that.
I'm hoping the problem can be solved more with "giving everybody tons of what they want".
Also important to note: while I do support having better aftercare, I'm not actually sure about the scope of the problem. AFAICT there's only one response on the feedback form saying "I had to help multiple people after the event who were alienated/triggered", and I don't know if that means 2 people, 5 or more. Obviously there may be more people who didn't say anything, but given that any event is going to be net-negative for a least a few people, I do think it is (unfortunately) necessary to be able to say sometimes "sorry, it's just literally impossible to make an event for everyone".
I think it's important to acknowledge the issue, but also important not to oversell it.
That was probably me in the response form.
In the previously planned post I was going to explain something about what I saw like this as way of evidence:
Assuming I got what amounts to a random sample, this suggests to me there is at least a large minority—let's call it O(10%)—of people attending Solstice who are negatively impacted by it.
I also wrote up the following caveats to my evidence:
I think "aftercare" is a decent first-order approximation of what I view as the appropriate response. I think it needs to be a bit more than just "throw a party" or "here are some people you can talk to". What I have in mind is something more systematic and ritualistic.
An ineffectual version of what I have in mind is the way, towards the end of a Catholic mass, there's the rite of peace: everyone stands up, shakes hands, and says "peace be with you" to the people near them in the pews. Slightly better is the Protestant tradition of lunch fellowship or church picnic that immediately follows service, a sort of post-worship potluck meal, but much of what makes this work (or, as often as not, not) depends on the local culture and how inclusive it is.
I think a good version of this would be something I've not seen much before: a structured authentic relating activity as part of the upswing of the service. There was something like this a few years ago at a Bay Area Solstice where people wrote on notes they posted to the walls. As I recall the prompt was something like "what is something I'm privately afraid of and not telling others", although maybe I'm mixing that up from another event. I think we could come up with something similar for future events that would help people connect and remind them that they are connected, even if they can't see the face of those they are connected to.
I think none of this is to draw away from the darkness. Make the low point low and dark and full of woe. But match it with a high point of brightness and joy that actually pulls people together and connects them without backfiring and throwing in their face the way others are connected and they are not.
I think the Solstice should be "for everyone" in a certain sense, but that achieved not by watering it down, but by making it whole so that, as much as possible, it can hit the dark notes in a way where, even in the depths of despair, people retain a thread of connection to safety that pulls them back out into the light so they can dwell in the darkness for a time without being abandoned there.
Yeah, something in this space sounds right.
There were also people who just wanted space process the ceremony after the event, in a more positive way (like, reflect on what they wanted to change about their life). I think those people would probably need something different from people who were harmed-in-some-way by the event, but similar infrastructure might benefit both.
I'm reminded of a funeral I ran once, where afterwards most people needed to escape from the funeral atmosphere and chat/party/etc to connect with each other in low key social ways, but a few people were like "I'm still real sad how are you all having fun as if he's not DEAD!?" and that gave me a general update about competing access needs after ritual events.
Having had a couple days to sit with this thread, I think it's worth adding that I'm willing to participate in addressing this issue in future Solstice celebrations (so for 2020 at least). I think I'm a poor choice for lots of things related to Solstice organizing because I'm not close enough to the core of rationalist culture to reliably drive things in ways most rationalists would like, but within the context of a team that is doing that I think I could probably have a positive impact on the Solstice experience by pushing it to better incorporate the kinds of things I have in mind and that would be effective at achieving their ends, though I am also happy to defer to others if they are motivated to do this and think they can succeed.
Put another way, if I just complain and point out the problem and offer some suggestions for who to fix it that's not enough to make change happen, so since I think this is important I think it's important enough that I should try to do something about it with my actions rather than just my words.
I notice that When I Die is incorrectly listed as requiring guitar, likely because in the spreadsheets the linked musical reference is to the solo guitar-and-voice version I recorded ages ago...but that guitar arrangement is (a) tricky, (b) not terribly conducive to singalong. Thus, I suggest anyone maintaining these sort of spreadsheets change the When I Die musical reference to a youtube link for the a cappella harmony version, such as this link:
UPDATE: That video version was recorded on a nerd-cruise with a couple context-dependent bonus verses that likely wouldn't be used (or would be used differently) at solstice so it might be even better to use a video that actually *was* from a solstice if we can find a good one with good sound. (I know the latest NYC solstice was recorded - is the video for that out yet?)
I think I have recordings from 2016 or 2017, will dig up.
FYI, the two extra verses in that video are:
(1) since I was performing on a boat:
"They may drown my body when I die (x2)...If upon this stage I died, they might toss me off the side"
(2) Since I expected many Doctor Who fans to be in that particular audience:
"They may disintegrate my body when I die (x2)...If a Dalek wished me hate, he might say EXTERMINATE"
(Note: the boat verse can be used when not on a boat but is weaker then and one must in that circumstance change "upon this stage" to "upon a boat".)
This looks pretty useful, thanks!
Thanks for the work you (and the other organizers) put into this, as well as writing up a retrospective.
The most powerful solstice advent I attended was years ago in Seattle. I remember the service included a lot of personal stories people gave of them specifically dealing with darkness.
I remember being surprised years later when I attended a solstice advent in the bay, and there were speeches from the sequences instead of the personal stories.
I'm curious if I just attended a very unique solstice advent , or there has been a change in how the solstice was run. Would there be any possiblity of considering the format like I experienced in the future, with people telling personal stories?
Curious if you were at this year's Bay Solstice event? (Oli's Eulogy seemed like one of the classically 'personal stories', and I think Tessa's was reasonably in that category, although somewhat more abstract)
I agree that personal stories make things much more powerful, they're just legitimately hard to write (and depend a lot on people having experienced a particular kind of hardship, and then having time/bandwidth/skills to write and speak about it). So it's hard to always have them.
I also think it's made Solstice kinda "extra intimidating to start from scratch" in your local community, if there's a sense that if you don't have a bunch of powerful personal stories you "didn't do it right." Getting a Solstice off the ground is hard in the first place. My sense is that the appropriate vibe of the holiday is something like "personal stories are strongly encouraged, but there's a canon of good schelling speeches that it's fine to use, if, like, no one in your local community happened have endured something traumatic that ties in well with the narrative."
(I do separately think that the sequence readings tend not to work as well, unless they're heavily edited, since they weren't really designed for this purpose)
((I think Bay events have varied pretty wildly))
I didn't go to Solstice Advent this year. I was basically going by the description here:
Whereas I would imagine a Solstice that put heavy emphasis on personal stories would have quite a different process.
Nod. Mingyuan probably has more specific answers here, but I do basically endorse her overall approach and have some thoughts about it.
I think it's possible (and desirable) to have a single coherent vision for the overall event, while still having personal stories (and indeed that's what ended up happening here). I think the process was some combo of:
#4 was an option I hadn't really considered before and I think worked well.
The problem with people writing personal stories independently is they often end up covering fairly similar ground, in a way that ends up a combo of repetitive and disjointed. (Instead of a smooth arc that flows down and then up, you get some weird repetitive motions in the middle, and meanwhile the whole thing ends up with a bit of a 'designed by committee' feel. That doesn't always happen but I've seen it happen a few times)
A question I've been mulling over, and this is as good a place to ask it as any, is what to do with songs that are sort of epistemically dicey, but, well, great.
I'll be the first to admit that Singularity is a better song than Five Thousand Years. (there were major logistical/AV problems with Five Thousand Years this year which I think made it especially bad as a peak end. Historically in NYC it's been well reviewed (in the top 3rd), but not at the level
This year, "Singularity" came with an epistemic content note of "here is a song about a future that is oddly specific and probably false", which set the right tone for the song (which is a bit silly). It made for great fun. Locally, it probably would have been a better thing to end on.
But, well, it's pretty awkward for an event framed around rationality to always end on such a song. And it's legitimately hard to write better ones that fit the same niche. I think it's particularly important for the final song to look to the deep future.
Similarly: "The Circle" was a new song about the expanding circle of concern. It was the 6th favorite song (just shy of making mingyuan's top 5 list). I think it's also the highest rated "opening song" (I struggled for years figuring out what songs to open Solstice with, and more generally what songs to do early in the setlist. "Circle" has a few important qualities that makes it a good opener)
My concern with it is that, while the expanding circle of concern is pretty important to me, it's fairly philosophically opinionated in a way that I'm not sure is "future proof." I wouldn't be that surprised if in 20 years I found myself disagreeing with it's frame in some way.
I agree it's more fun musically speaking, but the line about entropy in Five Thousand Years gets me every time.
I think the lyrics around that section actually say "5 billion years" and say it a bunch of times in a row (implying multiple intervals of billions of years passing), such that I think that line is basically accurate.
Edit: Apparently Ben meant the line as a compliment, not as an epistemic critique. Oops.
I think there are already reasons to disagree with its frame, as described in this gwern post.
Thank you for writing this retrospective, it is really interesting! Although I never attended a winter solstice, it sounds like amazing work. I sometimes toy with the idea of organizing a rationalist solstice here in Israel, but after reading this I am rather awed and intimidated, since it's obvious I can't pull off anything that is even close.
This might be a little off-topic, but are there any ideas / resources about how to organize a rationalist winter solstice if (i) you don't have a lot of time or resources (ii) you expect at most a small core of people which are well-familiar with the rationalist memeplex and buy into the rationalist ethos, plus some number of people who only partway there or are merely curious. Or, is it not worth trying under these conditions?
Btw, one thing that sounded strange was the remark that some people felt lonely but it's okay. I understand that winter solstice is supposed to be dark, but isn't the main point of it to amplify the sense of community? Shouldn't the message be something along the lines of "things are hard, but we're in this together"? Which is the antithesis of loneliness?
I think it's actually quite sad/bad that it comes across as "it's not worth doing a Solstice if you don't have lots of resources and expect a small turnout." In fact, this was the original use-case for which Solstice was designed.
(I have a rant about this over here, which I intend to turn into a more polished essay sometime. tl;dr: Big Community Solstices are quite valuable, but they are not the only way to run a Solstice. Over the longterm [i.e. decades] I would measure most of the health of Solstice-as-an-insitution in terms of how many small solstices there are. Small solstices should have pretty different expectations of polish. They also offer the opportunity to have more interpersonal connection)
How to handle 'some people have bought into the rationalist ethos and some have not' is a question that depends a lot on the percentages, but I think there are approaches that work pretty fine in that context.
This is the small Solstice I run when I want to just roll out of bed and have a small Solstice without much prep. It does depend a bit on my ability to confidently lead all the songs, which would require some up front work to learn. It relies pretty minimally on the rationalist memeplex. I think there are some (relatively minor) changes you could make that would make it easier on a completely new organizer. (I'm happy to skype or chat with new organizers to help them get oriented, PM me if that's helpful)
(that version is designed for being outdoors, but mostly works fine if you hold it in a living room and change a couple words)
I do have on my longterm todo list to put together a collection of "off-the-shelf Solstices" that serve a few different use-cases, and better instruction on how to customize them. Meanwhile, here's the things I've written so far.
That was definitely the message – it's just that there are many life situations where the positive aspects of the message aren't sufficient to overcome the negative ones. (For example, for people who currently feel alienated from the community, or don't see a path to really help out with the Great Project but nonetheless feel like it is their responsibility to help and feel despair around that. I think this will happen to at least some people even if you work hard to emphasize that they have worth and value even if they don't contribute to the Great Project, and things like that)