Friday, February 7, 2014

Chinese New Year

The experience of Chinese New Year in Singapore is a singularly unique experience for someone unfamiliar with Asian customs and traditions. There are the more immediate impressions of watching people everywhere toss multiple Lo Hei ingredients, neatly stacked on a large common platter, with gigantic chop sticks while standing around a dining table. It’s a fun activity for friends and family, rewarded by the opportunity to consume the resulting mixture. There are also the more subtle activities, such as visiting friends and exchanging two oranges for good luck, the giving of small red packets with small financial tokens of appreciation, the lion dances, red lanterns, glittering shops and stalls in Chinatown, along with all of the games and food. All of these and more coalesce around that unique celebration of the beginning of the new lunar year.

The closest approximation I can come to it, from a decidedly U.S. perspective, is that it’s a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, all rolled into one. And with that mental picture comes a deep appreciation of the role that human relationships hold within our personal universe of meaning, something that is shared across all cultures and civilizations. During my occasional ramblings among the CNY stalls, I noticed that the vast majority of shoppers and visitors were families or couples. Even late at night, you could find people of all ages enjoying the atmosphere, browsing through the stalls, taking photos of one another with their cell phones. CNY revolves around families and relationships, which is not surprising but which, like most obvious things, is worth bringing to the fore every once in a while.
There is a current article in a recent Popular Science magazine that I’m reading. It’s all about the nature of “dark matter” in the universe, the 85% of “stuff” that should be there, based on all the scientific evidence from astronomical physics. The only thing is, we can’t find it. Dark matter is only known because without it, everything else wouldn’t make sense. “An invisible factor makes galaxies rotate faster than expected. It makes clusters of galaxies bend and distort passing starlight more than they should. It even seems to explain how those galaxies formed in the first place. Supercomputer simulations show that diffuse clouds of ordinary matter in the early universe did not have enough gravity to pull together into the ordinary galaxies and galaxy clusters seen today. Run the same simulations with a dark component stirred in and everything comes together just right.” (Nov 2013, pg. 38) The one thing scientists do know is that dark matter is radically different from the atoms that make up you and me and our entire known physical world. What we do know is that it has to be there somewhere, and there’s a lot of it.
May I suggest that the “stuff” of human relationships is as important, unknown, and vast as this “dark matter” in the universe? Although we cannot put our finger on it, we know that without it, everything else wouldn’t make sense. Human relationships are radically different from all other relationships (with goods, money, hobbies, technology, power, even pets) that make up our relational world. What we do know is that it has to be there in our lives somewhere in order for things to make sense, and there’s a lot of it. What would our lives be like if we recognized this reality and spent 85% of our energy on that cultivation of human relationships? My guess is that we would begin to experience a personal universe as vast, fascinating, awe-inspiring, and inviting as a clear, starlit night in the desert.
"The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life." (Einstein)