Apparently the existential thinking of my French studies sunk in somewhere after all despite the fact that I would desperately wish for the French novels and films of my academic years to come to a conclusion or point of some sort. Mercy!
Several decades later, as I travel in my little world, I notice how the holiday lights proliferate by the day and how the reflecting snow augments their brightness. It’s no mystery that the season of light happens on the longest and darkest of days as we (in the northern hemisphere, anyway!) descend towards winter. As I witness and delight in the decorations springing up around me, and as I set up my own decorations, I can’t help but also think about the darkness.
Darkness usually has such a negative connotation. Certainly at this time of year, darkness comes ever earlier and, as the sun sets, the cold burrows deeper into your bones. Personally, I have trouble leaving the warmth of my home to venture out into the dark. As far as I am concerned, when it’s dark the day is over. That doesn’t work out so well when it is dark at 4:30 in the afternoon. But as I set up my decorations, I find myself anticipating the dark, knowing that the lights are muted, invisible, meaningless without it.
Maybe I’ve spent too much time freezing my toes off in a snowbank recently, but my brain has been firmly veering toward the existential. What would light be if we didn’t have darkness? Not much. It turns out, the darkness I generally dread is the platform for the delight of the glimmering lights all around me. This makes me think further about gratitude and love: Would we even understand our good fortune without suffering? Isn’t grief one of the deepest and most profound expressions of love?
I think about the trials I have faced in my life, about times and places I never want to revisit or repeat, about the people I have loved and lost (or am still losing slowly, every day). I recognize how the challenges transformed me into the person I am today, that the slow loss of my mom to Alzheimer’s forced me to pay attention and to spend extra time with her while we could still talk, that the sudden loss of my aunt drew me closer to my uncle and cousins, that “grief is just love with no place to go.”
Adversity and challenge can be blessings in disguise. With them comes introspection, awareness, knowledge, compassion, connection, and gratitude. Without them is a life unquestioned, many paths not taken. Adversity led me to work in the woods of northern Maine and to travel to the other side of the world to study in Madagascar. It was the discomfort and emptiness of my questioning, who-am-I-and-where-do-I-fit teenage years that gave me courage, that forced me to stretch myself, that showed me who I really was and helped me define my passions, and that taught me to see with gratitude the blessings that exist every day in my life. Once again, the darkness was the platform for the light.
At this consumeristic time of year, I am even more mindful of my many blessings, especially the basics. Here is my short list of cherished things. We should never take these (and many more) for granted. Trust me.
- Shelter – I see the snow on the ground, hear the wind howling outside. I have woken with wet toes when the bottom of my sleeping bag slid out from under the tarp that protected me from the rain; I have slept outside when temperatures have dipped below 20 degrees, every article of clothing I could carry on my body, my sleeping bag hood drawn down to my eyes around my head. But my nose was still so cold I had trouble sleeping. I am so grateful to have a roof over my head and heat to keep to me warm;
- Umbrellas – You only have to get soaked in a rainstorm once to understand what a wonderful invention these are. Live in the woods working days on end in the rain and you will never forget the comfort of being warm and dry;
- Washing machine – As a mom, laundry is, admittedly, the bane of my existence at times. But, oh my gosh, the machine does it all by itself! And we are fortunate enough to have one in our home. One bout of stomach flu running through the family is all it takes to realize how awful life could truly be. Imagine walking your laundry to the laundromat down the street when you are recovering from the flu. That’s right. We are blessed beyond measure.
- Clean water – I fill my water bottle directly from the tap. If you have never experienced anything else, it’s easy to see how having clean water, on demand, anytime you need it wouldn’t register as a luxury. But many countries don’t have treated water and many women spend the better part of their days fetching water from miles away. I knew that the parasites and bacteria in untreated water wreaked havoc on more delicate American and European GI systems (sometimes called Montezuma’s revenge), but only recently did it strike me that those who live in developing countries also get sick from the water. Water they drink every single day. Five months in Madagascar taught me clearly how impossible it is to work, go to school, be healthy and strong – live – with constant tummy troubles.
- A quality education – Education is a much less tangible “thing,” but it’s so critical that I have to include it. An education is both a foundation and a launchpad. A quality education is something that should be a right and a guarantee. But it isn’t, not in many developing countries (where many girls are fetching water instead of going to school), but also not equitably in the U.S. An education provides a path toward financial security, a way to access broader opportunities, and, fundamentally, hope. She’s The First recently launched a powerful video about how imperative and transformative an education is. One of the extraordinary women profiled is a graduate of the MAIA Impact School in Guatemala.
I could go on. But those are my top five.
Hopelessness is the darkest of places to be. In this season of light and giving, I encourage you to think about how you can shine your light into the darkness. Shine your light on all of your blessings, no matter how small they may be. Reach out to those who are in need of hope. If each of us were to be a ray of light for even just one other person this year, think about how much hope we could fill the world with. Let’s make 2020 EXTRA-ordinary, each in our own ways.
In thinking about something bigger than us as individuals, and in the giving spirit, here are some of my favorite organizations that are doing the difficult, audacious, and awesome work of providing high-quality education, clean water, and recognizing our common humanity across the world. I am holding them and all of my readers in the light this holiday season.
MAIA Impact School – Unlocking and maximizing the potential of young women to lead transformational change.
Water for People – We believe in a world where everyone has safe drinking water, forever.
One Revolution – It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.