And here we are.
The march of time has proceeded, as it always does, unabated. The days of our human-devised calendars have flipped ever onwards. Once again we have landed on that yearly marking of Christmas. It is a cold reminder that the universe doesn’t care about our pain and suffering. The laws that govern our Earth and its dance through the cosmos are unchanged by pandemics. We can only move in one direction, no matter how much we might wish otherwise. We are fractured, as people, as a society, as a global community, scattered like shards of glass into a state of disunity. The proximate cause is the deadly disease that has swept through our country with merciless horror, abetted by feckless leadership. It has leveraged our divisions into death and one of its ultimate cruelties is it requires us to stay away from each other when all of our human instincts yearn for connection. As we dig deeper, however, we see many different forces driving us apart, longstanding societal and personal failings of suspicion, hatred, racism, and selfishness, among others. We see chasms everywhere, and we wonder if we can ever regain a sense of cohesion. We must start by recognizing that we have always had far too many people who haven’t been allowed to fit in.
The sense of togetherness was always partly a mirage constructed by those who had the privilege of seeing it so. But still, there were moments like Christmas when the hope of our better angels and the tidings of the season often strengthened the bonds between us. This year, those bonds will have to be largely virtual, and for hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens, they are permanently broken by seats at family and friends tables that will hereafter always be empty. And yet, the human spirit still pulls forward. Many of us look to faith to fortify that spirit and guide us on a path to goodness. But faith is not a requirement to be agents of progress. My long life has overlapped with many other times of terror and seeming hopelessness. I am thinking back to wars, economic depressions, and social unrest. But I am remembering how those ultimately ended. I find myself thinking of the leaders of the past who, buoyed by the strength of those marching alongside them, were able to wrest our country and world onto paths of greater empathy and justice. I see leaders arising today eager to tackle those same challenges. I reflect in awe of the power of science, which has created a vaccine in record time. And I am hopeful we can use the powers of the human mind to find solutions to problems that now seem without answer.
On this day, Christmas Eve 1968, three human beings were improbably circling our distant moon. It was a triumph of technology and the yearnings of our species to cross horizons. It was also a moment of wonder at the end of a year filled with heartbreak, death, and despair. Those astronauts took a photograph of our planet which became iconic. It even has a name, Earthrise, and I share it here. I have written and spoken about this moment many times, including in my book What Unites Us, because I think it is the very definition of unity and hope. What better recognition that, no matter our jealousies, pettiness, biases, egos, and resentments, we have no choice but to be in this together. The universe after all doesn’t care. That is up to us.
I pray that those of you who celebrate Christmas can find some peace this year. I give a special prayer to those who have suffered losses, fear for their livelihoods, and are struggling with pain of any sort. I pray for a new year of hope. And with that, I cling to optimism that we can build a better, more equitable, and more empathetic future. It is an optimism that is tempered by reality. This will require hard work and determination. Success is far from guaranteed. But ultimately I believe in a well of goodwill large and resilient enough to sustain progress in the fraught moments that lie ahead.
The power of the human will may not be able to change the orbits of planets but it can nonetheless accomplish feats that seem just as miraculous. So let us embrace the best traditions of the season and resolve to strive to be even better. I am deeply grateful for all of your love and support. And I return it in equal measure. Merry Christmas.