It has been a deeply ingrained habit to wish everyone ‘Happy New Year’ and I confess to enthusiastic participation in this annual ritual for a long time. Increasingly though, I am beginning to suspect I really don’t understand the phrase or the words it is made up of at all.
I get the point that, thisgreeting, is basically a nice little tradition to hope for the best in the days ahead for oneself and others, as the calendar turns yet another page. The best part is, one can’t be sued if the person very optimistically wished, turns out subsequently, to have had an unhappy year. There are no guarantees attached to this symbolic, harmless gesture, which at worst can only be called a mild sample of fake news.
But what confounds me is far more basic in nature. I don’t know what the terms ‘Happy’, ‘New’ and ‘Year’ mean anymore. Yes, I have been throwing this phrase around at all and sundry much of my life but what I am actually trying to say?
To some of you out there who may assume I am writing this after imbibing more than my fair share of the spirits that flow around this season let me elaborate a bit.
Start with the word ‘Year’. According to most dictionaries this is the time it takes our Planet Earth to circle fully around the sun – a period of about 365 to 366 solar days. As per the Gregorian calendar this is then further divided, into 12 months of roughly 30 to 31 days each, starting with January and ending with December.
The Gregorian calendar however is neither the oldest nor most accurate measurement of the year around – with the Mayans having the most ancient and the Persians the most precise among traditional calendars. Further, the Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese and Islamic calendars are also partly or fully based on the lunar cycle i.e. movement of the moon around the Earth.
The only reason why the Gregorian calendar has become the global standard instead of any of its rivals is simply the fact that it was popularized first by the colonizing powers of Spain and Portugal and later Great Britain. The calendar was first adopted in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII (hence the name) as an improvement on the Julian Calendar, introduced in 53 BC by Julius Caesar, with much of Europe following suit soon. (If the Hindus had conquered the world, New Year celebrations would have been a few more months from now, in considerably warmer weather and maybe involved feeding a cow at midnight)
In the modern era, the measurement of time has become far more accurate, using processes at the atomic level, which deviate only 1 second in up to 100 million years. The ‘second’, which is the base unit of modern time-keeping is defined as the time it takes a Cesium-133 atom at the ground state to oscillate exactly 9,192,631,770 times.
All this is very fine, but I am still stuck with the problem of trying to make sense of all these concepts of time, both ancient and modern, in my own life as an ordinary human being, of flesh and blood, subject to the stresses and emotions like all forms of life. Can astronomical events, mechanical devices or even atomic events really measure the biological, emotional and cultural time that humans or other living creature’s experience?
Is there not a difference between time measured as a function of remote processes outside the human body and the intimate ones that happen inside it? Why has technology not just become more important than human biology – which is the basis of our very existence- but even ended up controlling our idea of time?
It is common experience for many, that waiting for some things to happen – where we are personally involved body and soul – seems so much ‘longer’ than for other things. For example, a thirsty customer ordering a whisky at the bar will always find the service much too slow compared to the apparent speed with which the bill arrives.
To give another, more political example, just three years of the Narendra Modi regime in India seems too many citizens like the passage of several centuries, given the extraordinary amount of pain it has involved. On the contrary the first six decades after Independence, a period of hope and civility, compared to what is happening now, seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye.
Desire or undesirability of various events and processes thus play a big role in human perception of time – even though the actual quantities involved – as measured by the clock and calendar – are the same down to the last second.
The overall point I want to make is basically that while we still think of time in quantitative terms, in the context of human and other life, it is ultimately quality that matters. A lifetime spent battling disease is not the same as that enjoyed in good health, even if there is no difference in overall ‘life expectancy’ involved. Quality is what makes life meaningful and while quantity does have a role (as in obtaining sufficient nutrition, income or physical security), it should not be placed high above the former as is the case in our times.
Which brings me to the next question of what is really ‘New’ out there in the world for us to so blithely use this term while greeting each other ‘Happy New Year’? As we already discussed in the context of conventional notions of time, the universe seems to be made of grand cycles of all kinds. The earth repeatedly going around the sun, the moon around the earth, of death chasing birth, apart from of course the endless cycles of eating, sleeping, bathing, crapping and so on.
As my teenage daughter asked a bit despondently, a couple of years ago, “What can I do when I grow up that has not been done before by someone long ago?” A difficult question but my answer was, ‘Life is like a football game, ninety minutes long (not including Sudden Death) and it is your time to go and play the game to the best of your abilities”. As a hedge against possible disappointments I hastily of course added “And darling, scoring goals is not the only objective, enjoying the game is more important”.
In other words, while the world and its processes are cyclical, each one of us is a completely new player in the field and everything we do or that happens to us is occurring for the first time ever in the history of the Universe. There is nothing ‘New’ about the year out there but we are the ones who are constantly born anew, every breathing moment of our lives, provided we are able to bear witness to this magical process without getting distracted. Not an easy game to play but if you can do it, then the idea of ‘New’ does hold special value.
The meaning of the term ‘Happy’ then, is linked closely to our concepts of both time and novelty. If you are of healthy body, have quality as your measure of time and are willing to live in the present, unfettered by the past and unburdened by worries of the future – happiness could indeed be possible.
However, the additional trick involved in being happy is to keep memory out of the entire process, as happiness cannot be captured and stored in any form. So in 2018 if there is one resolution you really need to stick to, it is simply that of resisting the temptation to take ‘selfies’ with your happiness. For it is precisely in that uncouth moment that, this extremely shy but precious thing called happiness, disappears forever.
So then, here is wishing you all a ‘Happy’, ‘New’, ‘Year’