"A new year, full of things that never have been," but also, things that have yet to be: momentous things that will frighten us, some that will enthrall us, others that will benefit us in various ways. For example, consider what the year 1915 gave us one hundred years ago:
-- a vicious escalation of World War I
-- artistic creations in literature, art, film, theatre, and music, including Masters' "A Spoon
River Anthology," Frost's "North of Boston," Chagall's "The Birthday," Griffith's film "Birth
of a Nation," Novello's war song, "Keep the Home Fires Burning," Richard Strauss' "Eine
Alpensinfonie," and the emerging development of New Orleans jazz
-- And in science and technology, Einstein presented his General Theory of Relativity, the
chemist Kendall discovered the dysentery bacillus, Junkers built the first fighter air-
plane, Henry Ford put on line a farm tractor, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas
Watson completed a transcontinental telephone call between San Francisco and New
York, a wireless service connected the US and Japan, while Henry Ford rolled off his
assembly line the one millionth car.
(These facts and many more interesting ones may be found in The Timetable of History,
Touchstone Book, 1979.)
You will notice the dichotomy of human pursuits in my lists above. I begin with the catastrophic barbarity of World War I followed by the would-be helpful inventions of the transcontinental telephone and the farm tractor that greatly increased our agricultural production while lessening the crippling labor of the human body. But, then, there was also a listing of the development of the fighter airplane as well as Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, made public in 1915, even though he had actually formulated his theory years before.
This last listing of the General Theory of Relativity is worthy of reflection as we ponder what a new year might bring. What a profound discovery Einstein's theory was. Looking for an elegant and profound formula that would accurately interpret the workings of the universe with simplicity and beauty worthy of the subject, Einstein postulated the quite brief formula: E=mc2. In his description of the theory of relativity, Einstein revolutionized how we view gravity, space, and time, allowing for the relativity of viewpoints as they are influenced by the subjectivity of the viewer. Time and length are not as absolute as we think they are, and -- further -- energy and mass are not separate but identical quantities. With these insights, Einstein opened the door to our modern studies of astrophysics and cosmology. But, to draw upon two ancient metaphors to describe the implications of his discoveries, we can also say that in the "new year" when Einstein brought forth his discoveries of relativity he opened "Pandora's Box," or we might say, "he let the genie out of the bottle."
You remember the myth of Pandora and her box. She was the curious, human creature who opened a box containing the evil spirits of hatred, envy, disease, and plague, that became a punishment for humanity to prevent it from becoming like gods. Zeus had set up Pandora, so to speak, counting on her curiosity to see what was in the box he had labeled "Do not open." His motive was to ensure that human beings would become preoccupied. And, sure enough, Pandora's curiosity resulted in immense suffering for her people. Similar to this idea is the old idiom of "letting the genie out of the bottle." This idea probably may be traced to the ancient Arabian myths in which a magic spirit could be released from a bottle or sealed container for the purpose of granting a wish, only later to act independently of human wishes often to the detriment of the human liberator.
These mythic themes serve to remind us of the double-edged potential of opening the door to the hidden riches of our universe. Of course, we are curious; of course, as Einstein prodded us, "The important thing is not to stop questioning." On the one hand, our curiosity and determined pursuit of investigating the mysteries of the physical world have led us to developments such as I mentioned in my lists above. But, on the other hand, our curiosity and developments have also led to heinous destruction of human and animal life, as well as the planet itself. Einstein's contributions to the modern world of physics, for example, opened the door for the development of atomic weapons that are capable of annihilating life on earth. This became his fate, to live not only to have become a world famous personality that would elicit acclaim but also the burden of living with his growing alarm of an arms race that would turn the potential for world peace and human betterment into a savage escalation of potential to make war. And, despite his own personal standing as a pacifist and his strong vocal opposition to the arms race, he could not turn back the forces that pushed nations toward the brink of nuclear war, a prospect that you and I have had to live with all our lives. The box had been opened; there has been no turning back. So much for the new year of 1915 and the developments it brought.
Now, 100 years later, here in this hopeful January, 2015, with the month's two faces, one that looks to the past and another to the future, we wonder with the poet Rilke what the new year will bring. Like you, of course, I have no idea, but I do have a wish that I will leave with you. It is an old folk ballad sung often by Pete Seeger. It is an old wish that may yet turn our new year into a most hopeful one.
Oh, Had I A Golden Thread
Oh, had I a golden Thread
And a needle so fine
I'd weave a magic strand
Of rainbow design
Of rainbow design.
In it I'd weave the bravery
Of women giving birth,
In it I would weave the innocence
Of children over all the earth,
Children of all earth.
Far over the waters
I'd reach my magic band
Through foreign cities,
To every single land,
To every land.
Show my brothers and sisters
My rainbow design,
Bind up this sorry world
With hand and heart and mind,
Hand and heart and mind.
Far over the waters
I'd reach my magic band
To every human being
So they would understand,
So they'd understand.
-- Pete Seeger
From my "rainbow design" to yours, Happy New Year!