We Celebrate the Light

Twenty hours after arriving in Iceland, I was starting to feel enclosed by the darkness and anxious for dawn to finally arrive. I had seen the sunset from the airplane mid-afternoon, but by 10:30am the next day, the night felt far too long. Even when the sun came up, it was a dim light, hushed by the cloudy sky.

That night my friend Johanna and I joined a French couple that we had just met and together we drove out to a lighthouse, sat in the car and looked into the dark, hoping to spot some Northern Lights. We were again surrounded by darkness and not even sure for what we were looking. Would they appear like a shooting star, there and then gone again in the blink of an eye? Would they come in slowly or as a flash of lightning? All we knew was that we were looking for some impressive light display, in whatever form it might appear. We were not successful, so eventually we gave up and drove home.

The next morning, Dec. 26, I again found myself staring into the darkness, even though I had been up for hours. I was on a bus to the Southshore of Iceland and was listening to many interesting stories and anecdotes from our tour guide. Then we passed a small church and cemetery. Each tombstone was lit up with Christmas lights, usually outlining a cross. The tour guide explained that in December, the darkest month of the year, it is a tradition to light up the cemeteries like this. She went on, “Perhaps it appears that we go a bit crazy with the Christmas lights here, but in the midst of so much darkness, at Christmastime, we celebrate the light.”

We celebrate the light. Those words stuck with me for the rest of the journey. My thoughts immediately went back to Paris, which has been stained by dark acts of violence and death in 2015. I will never forget in the days following the attacks, the scenes of hundreds of candles scattered throughout the city of lights helping to illuminate those dark places.

And then I thought again of Christmas, which Icelanders celebrate for two full weeks until Epiphany on January 6. And how Jesus, the person traditionally at the center of this celebration, claimed to be “the light of the world.” Celebrating Christmas is to celebrate this light, even though the destiny for baby Jesus would include a night of such profound darkness that even his closest disciples would flee the scene. The light that followed at his resurrection is a light eternal, a light that Christians celebrate every day of the year.

Yet it is interesting that it takes darkness to recognize the light. Or rather that darkness is the absence of light and that light casts out all darkness. So it makes sense that the darker the darkness, the brighter the light shines, the more it is appreciated, and the more we are even at times desperate for it. In so many ways, 2015 was for me a year of darkness and light, so spending the last few days in Iceland during their celebration of light was ever so fitting.

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Human

This song has a redemptive message for me. It speaks to my tendency to be a workaholic, to the drive that doesn’t know when to stop and the obligation I feel to “be there” for everyone at all times.

But even more specifically, it proclaimed a specific rebuttal to a message that was spoken to me almost a decade ago.

I have never worked myself as hard as I did when I was in college. I regularly worked graveyard shifts at a residence hall desk during which time I completed my homework, and then when I got off, sometimes I would go running or to class. At one point I was taking both sleeping pills and caffeine pills to survive. And then I was starting to prepare for graduate school auditions. So I would lock myself away for hours and get lost in my repertoire.

On one of those days, a friend called and asked me to leave the practice room to go hang out with friends that evening. That was a lot to ask, but after a bit of persuasion I agreed, “just for an hour.” I started to get stressed out when an hour turned into two, and then three. Finally I insisted on resuming my practice. As we walked back to campus together, he asked me how I am able to keep going at the pace that I do. I was annoyed by the challenge, and tried to explain that I was just doing what I needed to do. Maybe he was annoyed with me as well, or just wanted to make a point when he said,

“You’re more like a machine that keeps producing and producing and producing than you are a human being.”

Ouch.

No one wants to be called a machine, no matter how much they act like one.

Those words have echoed through my head ever since.

A few weeks after this scene, I was rushed to the emergency room in the middle of the night, and then transferred by ambulance to another hospital. The machine had reached its limit.

I’m only human, and I bleed when I fall down.
I’m only human, and I crash and I break down.

I’m not a machine, and in her single hit, Christina Perri voices both sides of this struggle that many of us face. For me, the imagery of a machine in the music video was especially powerful.

Of course, “only human” isn’t the complete picture. I believe that being human is also something to be celebrated. It’s amazing what humans can do. I added this song to my running playlist and when it started playing during an 18-mile marathon training run the other day, I realized what a bad idea that was. I started seeing images of myself tripping over a pebble and crashing to the ground, knees scraped and bleeding. That’s not the way to get through a difficult workout. In some moments, we do well to celebrate the extraordinary capabilities of humanity.

But as humans, we also have limitations, and as someone who constantly struggles to respect my own limits, this is something I need to hear from time to time. Although I hate falling down, I’m thankful for the reminder that I am not a machine.