Ritual Report 2012: Life, Death, Light, Darkness, and Love.

One winter ago, twenty aspiring rationalists gathered in a room, ate some food, sang some songs, and lit some candles. We told some stories about why the universe is the way it is, and what kind of people we want to be.

I wrote some things about the experience. But here’s a fairly succinct description:

Like most things, winter was once a mystery.

The world got cold, and dark. Life became fragile. People died. And they didn’t know what was happening or understand why. They desperately threw festivals in honor of sun gods with all-too-human motivations, and prayed for the light’s return.

It didn’t help. Though we did discover that throwing parties in the middle of winter is an excellent idea.

But then something incredible and beautiful happened. We studied the sky. We invented astronomy, and other sciences. We began a long journey towards truly understanding our place in the universe. And we used that knowledge to plan for the future, and make our world better. Five thousand years later, the winter isn’t so scary. But the symbol of the solstice—the departure and return of the sun—is still powerful. The work we have done to transform winter from a terrifying season of darkness into a modern festival of light deserves a reverence with all the weight of an ancient cultural cornerstone.

Last year, we had fun. A few people reported being emotionally affected. By and large, though, the dominant conclusion was “This was good first effort, but much, much more is possible.” In truth, I considered it a dress rehearsal, more a proof-of-concept than a finished product. I spent the last year working to do something better, but worried that I wouldn’t be able to. That maybe people don’t create holidays from scratch that actually latch on because it’s just damn hard to do and I wouldn’t be up to it.

And I was worried that either I wouldn’t be able to make the experience as grim and intense as I wanted, or that I’d succeed, but then not be able to lift people back out of it. This was a problem for some people last year, and last year I didn’t push things nearly as dark as I was planning to this time.

I worried that even if I succeeded at creating the experience for other people, I wouldn’t be able to experience it myself. A year ago, I didn’t feel like a participant. I felt like an anthropologist—clinically detached from the bonding ritual I had created.

But six months ago, four friends and I acquired a large, three story house named “Winterfell.” And one week ago, fifty people squeezed into that house to celebrate humanity. The house seems a lot smaller once you crammed fifty people into the living room. But we managed to fit.

And then… I feel a desire to maintain some kind of modesty here, but honestly, I spent a year stressing about this and I think I’m just going to say that it went beautifully.

Not perfectly—nothing is ever perfect, and now more than ever it is clear how much more is possible with this endeavor. Yvain wrote a pretty good review of which parts went well and which parts needed work. But I got emphatic gratitude from people who had been merely lukewarm about it last year.

In the darkest section of the evening, people cried, and held each other, and I was one of them. And I was one of them as we watched time lapse footage of the stars from the international space station, and sang about a tomorrow that could be brighter than today.

This will be the first post of another short mini-sequence (either one or two additional posts elaborating on the design process, what comes next and what I’m concerned about). For now, I’ll just note the one biggest flaw with this years was that it was too long. (Last years was too short, and I decided to err on the side of “test a bunch of ideas at once” so that future Solstices could settle into an ideal, traditional state faster).

I would like to note that I want to strongly encourage people who are weirded out by this to speak out (if for no other reason than to be counted as people who are turned off by it). If you have specific negative consequences beyond a vague dislike of the idea, I’d like you to articulate them, after looking through my post from last year—The Value and Danger of Ritual.

Below is a link to the 2012 Ritual Book, and a collection of links to online media for the songs and videos that we listened to and watched during the event, which you can follow along with as you read to get something (vaguely) resembling the actual experience. (Plus side—you’ll get to experience higher quality of music performance. Downside—you miss on the warm experience of singing with a group of people).

I couldn’t find links for all the songs, but there should be enough to give you the idea.

2012 Solstice Ritual Book

First Litany of Tarski—If the sky is blue....
Why Does the Sun Shine (part 0)
The Grinch
The X Days of X-Risk

Ballad of Bonnie the Em
Second Litany of Tarski—If I’m going to be outcompeted by simulated minds in a Malthusian Hellhole race to the bottom...

Mindspace is Deep and Wide
One Wish (I found a Baby Genie)
Build That Wall
Quantum Entanglement

Third Litany of Tarski—If the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is true...

When I Die
Why Does the Sun Shine (part 1)
God Wrote the Sky
Blue Skies

Metalitany of Tarski—If reciting the Litany of Tarski is useful...
Beyond the Reach of God

Blowin’ In the Wind
Stonehenge (The Sun is Going to Go)
Gods Ain’t Gonna Catch Ya (slightly altered lyrics)
Take My Love, Take My Land (Mal’s Song)
Collect a Little Echo
The Drummer’s Little Boy
No One is Alone (dramatically abridged)

Gift We Give Tomorrow
Moment of Darkness

A View From Above—Time Lapse Footage from the International Space Station

Brighter Than Today
Still Alive
Lean on Me
A Still Small Voice
Gonna be a Cyborg
Move the World
What a Wonderful World
Seasons of Love
The Sun’s a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma (altered lyrics for singability)
Forever Young (*slightly* altered lyrics)

Final Litany—If human values will survive for five thousand years...
Five Thousand Years (Sun is Gonna Go, Reprise)
A Brief Recap (Our Story in 1 minute and 30 seconds)
The Road to Wisdom