Even in dead of winter, there is the promise of life renewed
There are many human experiences that are enhanced by scientific knowledge, and I try to celebrate them in this column. But knowing that the Earth’s axial tilt is 23.26 degrees does not make the winter more beautiful or Christmas sweeter. The fears and uneasy hearts accompanying dim days and dark nights are seldom mitigated by knowledge of why it is dark and that it will pass. The joys of warmth and firelight are seldom enhanced by facts and material circumstances.
No, there are realms of our existence in which science has very little to offer. When disaster strikes and hopes and hearts are crushed, science really has little to say. Our knowledge may help those who remain to live and rebuild a life, but it has little in the way of comfort. Also, when hearts are full science does not increase the sweet emotions. Science serves mankind in a material way, but often leaves us wanting more. Perhaps that is why so many scientists dabble in the arts.
In defense of science, other fields that offer solace to the soul often leave men suffering from the material world from which science offers relief. Grief is compounded by physical suffering and, science has greatly served mankind’s physical well-being. So I have struggled to find an appropriate scientific message for this special time of year. So here is what I came up with.
It is amazing the way living things tenaciously hang onto life during this cold and dark time. Our experience teaches us that not everything is dead, but that life waits to begin again. If life is sacred, then the DNA code is sacred. And there is no more purified and refined form of DNA in nature than that within a seed. Seeds are the basis of life, and they have become the predominant metaphor for creativity, inspiration, faith, renewal and resurrection.
Implicit in the Christian story for the past 2,000 years is the birth, life, death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ. But this is the same story celebrated by ancient traditions surrounding the winter solstice for unknown centuries. Both stories are entwined with the ideas of death and resurrection, of beginning again, the cycle of the season, dark giving way to light, repentance, growth and change.
Christ’s story reminds us that there is light in the darkest hour. But it also speaks to us of darkness and danger even as we rest secure in the cradle. So whether we are Christian, pagan, Jew or completely irreligious, this season can speak to our hearts in a way that science fails to do.
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Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.