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Humanist Essay for January 2014
"Dancing into the New Year"
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[Reprinted from the HSNM January 2014 Newsletter.]

New Years is one of my favorite holidays. It's secular. It's hopeful. It epitomizes the puzzle of being an aware human: Our ideals and intentions are of the highest nature, and we're going to settle down to our worthy tasks and resolutions for the new year with redoubled energy... just as soon as we blow off some steam and bid a raucous, decadent "good riddance" to the old, spent year. Yep, we do like to have it both ways.

Different cultures celebrate the new year at different times and with different customs. The date itself doesn't seem to matter as much as the simple fact that there is one, and everyone agrees to it. We need a way to count the passage of time, and, more importantly, we need that moment when we stand on the precipice of another year and take a breath before we plunge in anew. If only in imagination, time stops. We need that. We can't always be in motion. Whether we choose to party wildly or to sleep through that magically imbued stroke of midnight on December 31, we can all look forward to a fresh start, a mental re-set.

The new year makes me think about the differences between the digital and analog worlds. Right now I'm typing on my computer, and it knows exactly what the date is and what time it is. I click "save" and, voila, the date and time are associated to the document. Though I could get lost in thought and lose track of time, my computer has a chip that never loses track. Even when the machine is off, that clock keeps keeping time. It is an instrument of admirable precision. But it will never provide the satisfaction of taking the dog-eared calendar off its nail on the wall and putting up a nice new one.

Is it an innate characteristic of humans to mark time, to set milestones, to measure our lives every which way? The rituals that acknowledge beginnings and endings provide both the comfort of repetition and the courage to face the future. Where there is a juncture - a meeting of one thing with another, a divergence, or a break of some kind - there is opportunity for change. Here again I find myself appreciating the analog mode, where milestones are experienced, not simply tabulated.

Take my journal as example: Each time I write my way to the end of another blank book, I get to celebrate my own private New Years. I literally "close the book" on however many months it took me to fill those pages. I like this better than keeping a typed journal. While there surely is a limit to how large a digital document can get, as far as my perception is concerned, the file might as well be infinite. I have no sense of pages piling up in the wake of my entries, noticeably expanding in size from ink and handling; and no physical indication of a diminishing stock of paper ahead. Shall I write forever? Will I never get to the end of my thought?

The perfectionist in me adores the exactitude of the computer. The digital age, like the industrial revolution, has freed us and increased our potential in more ways than I can possibly list here. But these innovations entrap us as well. Machine time is perfectly monotonous. Does anything in nature have such a relentlessly even beat? In the human-computer partnership, we may start to wonder which of us is programming the other.

Real life covers the same temporal distance as our computers' clocks, but with many hitches and skips. The variations give us something on which to hang our memories and dreams. When breaks in the pattern don't come frequently enough, we invent some - a holiday here, a special personal ritual there. Time marches on, but we humans are always doing the cha-cha.

Happy New Year!

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Copyright © 2014 Zelda Gatuskin

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