Preface

For the first several winter solstice ceremonies that I ran, I wrote a new, heartfelt speech for the moment of darkness – essentially the "keynote" speech of the event. The speeches were fueled by grief and difficult challenges that I was facing. They were good speeches. People were moved by them. They became a potent mainstay of Rationalist Solstice.

Only later did I realize... it was in fact pretty obnoxious for a winter holiday to rely on an organizer who a) had been going through hard shit that year, b) was eloquent enough to turn that grief into a speech, c) had insightful, philosophical things to say about how that grief related to Solstice, and rationality, and humanity writ large. It's a huge project. Most holidays consist of people straightforwardly executing on doing What Has Always Been Done. Carrying on a tradition – not embarking on a massive creative enterprise.

To be clear, heart wrenching creative enterprises are valuable and I'm glad people share their stories when they have stories worth telling. But I don't want people to feel like they have to, every year.

Many Moment of Darkness speeches are topical and related to things going on one particular year. We have a few timeless speeches that make sense to repeat (Beyond the Reach of God, and 500 Million and Not A Single One More). But none that quite fit to me as a default "canonical" Moment of Darkness speech. Or, perhaps alternately: there aren't quite enough "Moment of Darkness" speeches to hold up a rotation with enough variety.

So I wrote this speech one year, when planning for a small outdoor campfire solstice. I aimed for it to be something I felt good repeating. It works best when delivered outdoors. I typically ask people to remove their coat for the duration of it, to feel the cold winter air. But I think it holds up even as a part of large, indoor ceremony.

This version is somewhat personalized towards things that feel alive to me right now. I think the general structure is good, and you can tweak it to say the things that feel most right to you in the moment.


The Meditation

The winter solstice is the longest night of the year. It marks the beginning of the return of the light. 

But it does not mark the end of the cold.

The Solstice is the moment when winter begins to slow its descent. But a slowly descending winter is still a deepening winter. The world grows colder for another two months. Tomorrow, the world will be brighter than it is today. But it will not be any warmer. Not yet. Tomorrow, we will be wiser than we were yesterday. But it won’t be enough.

Somewhere out there, at this moment, someone is hurting. And they need help desperately, and they are alone. 

And we're not going to help them. 

And if we did, there would be another. And another.

Somewhere out there, someone is sick. Their body is wasting away. And humanity knows the cure – it’s dead simple. We have the power to save them. But we have not yet built the social and logistical networks to find them, and get them the care they need.

Somewhere out there, someone else is sick, and we don’t know the cure. And even if our best scientists gave it their all, it’ll be years before the right person glimpses the right clues and puts the solution together. 

...

And, here, somewhere in our community, or at least our broader social network... there is probably someone who is hurting. 

They may have asked for help. Maybe some people tried to help them. Maybe some friends and family poured their soul and burned their reserves to lift heaven and earth… but it wasn’t enough. 

Maybe they tried reaching out to help, and some friends put in some token effort... but everyone was a bit busy. And no one made it their priority.

If you're in here, and this is you... I'm sorry.

I can't promise that we'll do better tomorrow, or the next day. The most I can promise is that over time, as our community strengthens itself with the tools to help and heal humanity, we will also strive to heal and help each other as best we can.

In the meanwhile, it is a brute fact that there are people – in here, out there – who are going to be okay someday, but are not okay right now. And it will be a long time before they become their brightest self. 

...

...

And…

...meanwhile...

...somewhere out there in the world, right now, someone is shivering. 

Their lungs ache in the bitter cold. Their arms are numb. Every so often, they press their stiff fingers against their breast, stealing a sliver of heat from their heart – warming their hand enough to clumsily manipulate a tattered blanket. 

And as their fingers touch their heart, the numbness is suddenly replaced by pain. It itches and burns and spasms in the cold. Meanwhile the blanket barely even helps, just delays the inevitable. They bleed calories into the darkness. 

By tomorrow morning, that person will be dead. 

And we can’t help them.

And if somehow we did, there would be another, and another. Because we haven’t actually defeated winter. Not yet.

It's a true fact that every breath you take, approximately seven people die. It’s another true fact that grieving for each death with each breath is impossible, and unhealthy. It is not a winning step on our journey. I think one of the hardest, most important skills is to hold these two facts in a single mind.

But I think there is something valuable, once a year, to remember. To feel all that death and suffering as fully as you can.

In a moment, I’m going to blow out this candle, and we’re going to sit in the darkness for a few minutes, thinking about… whatever it is that you need to think about right now. 

But first, we’re going to take seven breaths together.

...

The speaker leads seven deep breaths.

...

The speaker blows out the last candle.

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3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:33 AM

Thanks for posting this speech - I agree about the problems that arise from expecting a new open-hearted moment of darkness speech every year, and this seems like a good approach.

I think that if I were the person in the community, in the audience, hurting, the focus on how the community has Not Done Enough wouldn't land for me. Usually in that situation, I feel pretty anti-conflict-theory and want to be seen in that. In that situation, I would get more out of it if the passage focused on... illegibility between people who are trying hard to communicate about their needs, their un/willingness to fulfill the needs of others, and their material constraints?

Unrelated: when I looked into it earlier this week, it seemed like in New York City mid-2021 to mid-2022, on any given night about 60,000 people were sleeping in homeless shelters and about 3,000 people were sleeping rough. 640 homeless people were thought to have died during that year. Seventeen of those deaths were of exposure.

I've been in live contact with how horrible it would be, to die like that, the last few days, and plenty of people who don't actually die just suffer a lot. But I'm also a little proud of humankind in general and New York City 2022 in particular, for making this horrible thing happen less than it otherwise would.

Mmm. Yeah I don't really know what the right thing here is. The thing I was trying to respond to and counter is a vague sense of Solstice giving a false impression of communities taking care of each other, in a way that felt sort of "add insult to injury" to people who weren't actually getting taken care of.

I'm not sure I quite parsed your suggestion (or, like, it made sense as a concept but I didn't quite grok it well enough that I could write a paragraph expressing it). Could you say more words about it?

I'm interested in others expressing opinions on this as well.