“It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
Around this solstice, when the nights are at their longest, the quote above provides a rich opportunity for reflection. Derived from a Chinese proverb, the quote eventually became the motto of a group called the Christopher Society in 1945. Their mission statement directs the group to “to encourage people of all ages, and from all walks of life, to use their God-given talents to make a positive difference in the world.” Years later, Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, alluded to the proverb during a Human Rights Day ceremony in 1961. The saying most likely inspired the group’s current logo, a single candle entwined within barbed wire. Most famously, perhaps, the proverb was paraphrased by Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, in a tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt shortly after her death in 1962. “I have lost more than a beloved friend,” Stevenson said. “I have lost an inspiration. She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.”
We’ve heard many references to light, warmth, and “that special glow” during the holidays. They figure prominently in nearly every secular and religious celebration of the season. Likewise, we’ve also endured a fair share of quips and criticisms of those same sentiments. These aren’t entirely without merit, especially given the escalation of consumerism (and its twin sibling, capitalism) in American culture. You could argue throughout the entire long night over whether to call December 25 Christmas, Xmas, or ¢hri$tma$. Some people seem to make good money doing just that on the cable news networks. For them, it seems, Shakespeare was a prescient pundit when he wrote the line “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
For many Americans, this is indeed a winter of discontent. Some find themselves in dire circumstances unexpectedly and unwillingly; others seem determined to foster ill will and contempt as if to spite those in search of a spark in the darkness. Cynicism has infected the populace, manifested most conspicuously by vocal members of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. Our political leaders, present and possibly future, bicker and argue, preferring to snipe at one another in an effort to score points rather than work together on real solutions to the day’s problems. Even literature and music, once places of refuge and sanctuary for me, have become overloaded with sass and snark. (More on this phenomenon in subsequent blog entries.)
In short, we find ourselves in dark times. What I wish for most of all this holiday season is a cultural solstice of sorts, a return to what truly matters in our lives. For me, this requires action and education on all our parts, the opposites of laziness and ignorance. We should be fostering community and passionate discourse, not demonizing one another and trading cheap shots in some petty game of one-upsmanship. We should, in short, illuminate one another’s lives, and reflect the light cast on us by others in the spirit of giving back and returning favor.
In closing, I offer up this quote from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. I’d prefer to change the word “armour” to “vestments,” but who am I to edit the work of countless translators and editors before me? I chanced across the line while doing research for this post. Then, when I went to verify the wording in my own Bible, the book opened directly to the proper page. Make of that what you will.
The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. (Romans 13:12)