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Merry Christmyth!

BY Mark C.E. Peterson December 25, 2022

Snowy woods. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Dark, dark, dark, dark, dark. 

The solstice will have come and gone by the time you read this, but the darkest time of the year (here in the northern hemisphere) is still the best time to chew through the inevitability of, and the heroic opportunities in, that darkest part of human life: abject failure. 

As autumn fell and the trees hunkered down to sleep, the world got darker and darker, and darker again – and then darker still. Life can be like that. Sure, there are ritual signposts calendared along the route, warning about the darkness and the despair (multiple harvest festivals, Halloween, candle-crowned Saint Lucia), reminding us that the darkness doesn’t last forever — if only we persevere. But that doesn’t always help much. The darkness keeps getting darker. 

Oh, and we’re going to die, too. Let’s toss that on the pile.

So, a pretty dark observation about life, right there. What’s fascinating is how the inevitability of failure, just like the inevitability of death, can produce diametrically opposed reactions, like this:

  1. “Oh hell, failure and death. Fine. We’re doomed. Give up.” 

Or

  1. “Hey, we could participate joyfully in the sorrows of this world!”

You’ve seen both of these.

With choices like that in mind, it is helpful to remember that the word “failure” literally means “stumble” rather than “crash and burn.” The darkness stumbles too, it turns out—astronomically.

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A lot of us take refuge from the winter darkness—or from failure—in wool socks, candles, firelight, and hot cocoa, in hygge or koselig. But even if you’re not Scandahoovian, refuge is available in hot cocoa and perseverance. The sun also rises: at the deepest, darkest time of the year, there’s the promise of light. 

We like stories like this. Tom Robbins built his entire novel, Jitterbug Perfume, around one hopeful phrase: “lighten up!” Even the philosopher GWF Hegel, in what is surely one of the darkest corners in the history of philosophical discourse (it’s in the essentialities of reflection section in Part II of his Science of Logic), jokes (and I’m paraphrasing) that the opposite of gravity is levity (!), or to lighten up. And, of course, there is that familiar story from the New Testament about a little light coming into the world, conveniently enough, right around Christmas—let’s call it Christmyth—time. The Romans had Sol Invictus and the Saturnalia and, heading into Asia, hiding in plain sight right there in the yin yang symbol, is a bright eye in the darkness of the yin side. A little light in the darkness. 

Those are the easy stories. Good with eggnog—a way to pregame for the bright lights of the New Year—but for abject, chewy failure and spinning straw into gold, you can’t do better than Parzival.

Parzival goes off on a quest for the Holy Grail, finds it on his first attempt, and then screws up everything. He fails to unlock the enchantment of the Grail Castle. All he had to do was ask Amfortas, the wounded Fisher King, “what ails thee, Uncle?” Whoops! Nope. He acts as he was taught to act, restraining himself to the formal and socially proscribed ways of acting, instead of listening to what his heart required. 

As a result, he not only fails the Grail quest, but—well, then it gets darker still. 

“He is told, subsequently, that no one who has failed on the first visit will ever have a second chance…” and that’s he’s pretty much damned for all time.

That’s a lot to take in… yet Parzival persists:

“…he resolves to succeed notwithstanding, and, when he has done so, is told that he has accomplished a miracle, since, through his integrity of character and persistence in resolve, he has caused the Trinity to change its rules.”

Flight of the Wild Gander, p.181

Desperate failure, heroic resolve, salvation of the world. Classic stuff.

But my mind wanders immediately to a more recent mythological retelling of heroic failure: Luke Skywalker’s. 

I’m thinking of the moment in StarWars VII when,—spoiler alert!—as a result of his spectacular failure with Ben Solo, and faced with the extinction of the-Jedi-order-the-universe-and-everything, Luke plans to burn it all down and let the universe collapse into a permanent wasteland of Dark Side darkness. 

At that moment Yoda reappears and lays into him. Luke explains the depths of his failure. 

Yoda is unimpressed.

“The greatest teacher, failure is,” Yoda says.

And then, Luke perseveres and saves the world. 

Failed lately? Feeling all that darkness? Perseverance works. 

The light’s coming back into the world. 

Yours, too. 

 

Thanks for musing along,

Mark C.E. Peterson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and former President of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.  He began his work at the University of Toronto focused primarily on Hegel’s natural philosophy and its links to the history of science and technology. These interests evolved to constellate around the larger questions of how humans are related – scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually – to nature. A practitioner of both taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years his academic research is currently engaged in a semiotic analysis of the relationship between explanatory and narrative/mythological accounts of nature and an Aristotelian re-examination of environmental ethics.

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