What to Trust In Times of Shadow and Light
I like to celebrate Groundhog Day. Not by visiting Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to watch a bunch of white men in top hats gather around a groundhog known as Phil, but by remembering that regardless of whether Phil spots a shadow or not, the day traditionally marks the halfway point between winter solstice and spring equinox. It is the time of the Imbolc festivals long celebrated by Celtic pagans to honor the nascence of spring, anticipating new buds and new birth (the word imbolc derives from Old Irish roots meaning “in the belly” and is thought to refer to the pregnancy of ewes).
This makes me wonder, “Who and what do we trust to tell us what is coming and when?”
The crowd gathered around Phil on Groundhog Day this year told us Punxsutawney Phil saw a shadow at 7:25 a.m.. They weren’t sure where it came from as the sun had barely risen and the day was cloudy, but some speculated (with an unspoken nod to Schrodinger’s cat) that it might have been the flood lights from all the news cameras present. So they predicted another six weeks of winter.
Phenologists beg to differ. These observant plant scientists have noticed this year, in parts of the U.S., green plants are emerging 20 days ahead of their normal schedule. The Washington Post noted that “In late January, daffodils were reported in Oklahoma, crocuses in Delaware and tulips in Boston.” While not yet blooming, these plants are showing their tender green tips and suggesting spring may not be so far away.
What and whom do you trust to advise you about the turning of the seasons, or about changing conditions and how to prepare for them? Do you trust the ones voicing alarm at the sight of shadows? Or do you trust green shoots breaking through hardened ground, or the lengthening daylight that so faithfully brings the return of spring each year? Do you place your trust in the observations of science or sages, of eyewitnesses or experts, of your conscience or your community? Or have you come to trust, as many do, some combination of the above along with other options too?
We are living through a tremendous shift in seasons and conditions, and we have no shortage of sources trying to inform and advise us. The question of which ones to trust is salient, sometimes difficult to answer and highly influential in determining how we will prepare, respond and proceed. (In the area of news sources alone, I’ve found one diagram to be useful in considering options.)
As my own inbox, newsfeeds and mind are flooded with sources trying to help me move forward in these polarized and troubled times, I know I need to carefully choose where I place my attention and my trust. What we trust, after all, is an active definition of our faith. Theologian Paul Tillich once wrote that “Faith is the most centered act of the human mind.” We can determine whether something is worthy of our faith, he said, by asking whether it leads to a loss of center or more deeply restores our center in a larger context.
I know of few things that lead to a loss of center as surely as fear. When our fears are heightened, as they are for many today, it is critical that we place our trust in that which restores our grounding in a larger context. Building on Tillich’s wise question, I have developed six tests for determining what I will trust and where I will place my faith (and my time, attention and energy) in these times of both shadow and light. I use these questions, not only for choosing my information sources, but also for naming which companions and communities, what practices and activities, and what teachings and traditions I will trust to guide me now. I ask:
- Does it offer reliable information and analysis to help me understand the changes going on around me?
- Does it help me stay centered and energized?
- Does it connect me to my own agency and inspire me to exercise it?
- Does it strengthen my healthy relationships with an ever-widening circle of others?
- Does it increase my understanding of and compassion for those within and beyond that widening circle?
- Does it open my mind, heart and imagination to new avenues for peace and justice?
Not everything or everyone will meet all of these tests; most will not. But the questions help me name what I need and to consider balance, quantity and timing, much the same as I might use minimum daily requirements to avoid a diet of too much salt or sugar or one lacking in calcium or vitamin B. The questions encourage me to alternate my news intake and social media exposure with time in community and spiritual practices. They remind me when I’ve been making calls to elected officials to also spend time reading poetry and history and playing with my dog. They challenge me to care for myself and my own needs while also reaching out to others not already included in the bubble I know as “my world.”
What do I trust? It turns out, I trust both shadow and light, the way one makes the other, and the way they shift over time in a world made of cycles and patterns as well as variation and relationship. The important thing is to not let fear overshadow my faith. If I can do that, I have a good chance of not following the groundhog back underground; if I can do that, I might just be able to stand up and stay up in the midst of the challenges and changes all around me, eyes and heart open, centered in faith and community and awareness, engaged and energized for the long haul of living with the shadows and the light the new season will bring.
What do you trust? Make a list of sources, people, teachings, communities and practices that you trust, drawing from science, nature, religion, history, your personal life, and any combination of the above. Then, looking over your list, choose one that is particularly important to you today, and write about it and how you might stay connected to it in the days ahead, beginning with the prompt, “What I need and I trust . . . .” On another day, review your list again, considering what you might propose as the minimum daily requirements that will keep you centered, energized, healthy and growing as you live through the challenging days to come. How will you keep what you trust at the center of your life and your heart?