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Arnold Berleant, Ending and Beginning: A New Year’s Resolution


Service for Unitarian Church, 30 December 2001



I. New Year celebrations

This is the season, with the new year only two days away, when we customarily take stock of the past twelve months and express hope or make resolutions for the months to come.  For most people, wherever they live and whatever language they speak, it is a season of renewal.

A curious thing about the celebration of the new year is that the date and time of year vary considerably from culture to culture, just as the calculation of the year may change.  If we look back at some ancient civilizations, we find that the Babylonians began the new year in mid-March, the pre-Columbian Mayans in July, the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians and Assyrians at the autumn equinox on September 21, and the ancient Greeks at the winter solstice (December 21), while the Roman republican calendar began the year on March 1.

Many traditional calendars are lunar, based on the phases of the moon.  For example, the present Muslim year is 1379[1] and the new year is celebrated in mid-July.  The Jewish new year falls in September or early October, and the year 5762 was celebrated two months ago.  There are many other variations on this theme.  Depending on the region and tradition, the Hindu new year may be celebrated in October or in January and February.  In Japan, the new year is celebrated on January 1-3.  I remember joining the Chinese New Year street festivities in New York City in late January or early February in order to prolong the festivities of our January 1st holiday.  And this list is obviously incomplete.

What’s important is not the date that is chosen for observing the new year but the role that it plays in the yearly cycle and in the community.  Often these occasions recall or ritually re-enact the creation of the universe, using the opportunity to reinvigorate us individually, strengthen the community, and bind it to nature and the cosmos.  This last connection is no surprise, since these celebrations usually fall on or near the fall, winter or spring equinox.  With this perspective, it’s easy to see that the celebration of Christmas and the New Year in Western cultures is not much different from these other traditions.

New year celebrations often involve rites of purging the old, such as the fasting that is observed during the Muslim Ramadan, the Christian Lent, and the Jewish Yom Kippur.  But they are also happy occasions, infusing people with the feeling of a new beginning.  Think of noise-makers, kissing your neighbor on the stroke of twelve, toasting the New Year, and other rites that I hesitate to mention; and at more sober moments, New Year resolutions.  Everywhere this ancient and nearly universal festival is celebrated as a time of freshness and renewal.

II. Beginnings and endings in nature

Far be it from me to disparage such happy occasions.  Few of us would willingly turn up an opportunity for song, dance, feasting, and communal celebration.  What is interesting to notice, and this is one of my main points, is that there is nothing in the time of such celebration that is fixed or embedded in the nature of things.  There is nothing cosmic about it, or if it is cosmic, that is only because people have usually coordinated new year celebrations, as times of renewal, with some stage of the seasonal cycle.

If we think of my examples of strips and bands of paper, we can easily see that it is we who determine when the year ends and begins again.  There’s nothing written in the stars or inherent in the nature of the universe that decrees when it must fall.  Yet while the decision is our own, the function the new year plays is not incidental or arbitrary but serves our human needs.  Nature, including human nature, has patterns of change.  And while the changes proceed in a seamless flow, they are nonetheless actual and real.  There is a persistent pattern, yet where we begin or end it is entirely our decision.

So days follow one another, yet the diurnal cycle has no beginning and no end apart from where we choose it to be.  Whether the day begins at sunset, at midnight, at sunrise, or at noon is our decision, since these events follow one another with smooth continuity in the succession of days.  As the rotation of the earth produces day and night (or “Night and Day,’’ as the popular song of the 50s crooned), so the lunar month is based on the revolution of the moon around the earth in relation to the sun.  We could begin the month at the new moon, the full moon, or some time in between, and we could organize the year on the lunar cycle.  The Gregorian calendar reorganizes it into twelve nearly uniform months to make the year come out nearly right at 365 days.  All these patterns of celestial change – days, weeks, and months – are ways of ordering cycles of gradual and continuous occurrences.  These changes are beyond our control, but it’s we who decide on where to place the points of the division.

If the new year is a time of beginning, then something must be ending.  When the new year begins, the old one comes to an end.  We often personify this by an old, white-bearded man giving way to a rosy, bouncing babe.  As with human life, nature in general is replete with beginnings and endings, or should I say, endings and beginnings.

III.    Social beginnings and endings

But what about those other kinds of beginnings and endings, human beginnings and endings, biological ones like birth and death, and social ones like graduation, marriage, and divorce?   What’s true of the beginnings and endings we designate in the calendar is equally true of social beginnings and endings.  Important stages in the human life cycle are observed in rituals of baptism, confirmation, and marriage.  Yet these are established and defined entirely by the community, and they vary in their content and in the period of a person’s life at which they take place.

The same is true of individual human beginnings and endings, that is, of birth and death.  These, too, are not fixed in nature but are defined by custom or law.  When, for example, does human life begin?  (Notice that this question refers to human life.) With the desire and planning for a child?  With the effort to become pregnant?  At conception?  When the foetus is viable?  At birth?  At the onset of the capacity to reason?  When self-awareness is achieved?  When a moral sense has developed?  With membership in a particular society (i.e. my country)?

It’s important here to distinguish between a biological process or occurrence and a social or religious one, and yet recognize their connection.  As a biological event, human life exhibits a continuous course of development, shaped by many things we often overlook but that influence that biological process.  For example, marriage practices regarding the age of betrothal and marriage, the relation of the couple to one another, that is, as members of the same family group, tribe, community, culture, or as members of different ones – all these determine the genetic composition of their offspring.  Such social practices thus determine to a significant extent a person’s biological make up.

Other factors influence that course of development:  the diet of the mother, her intake of tobacco, drugs or alcohol, her state of mind, and her physical condition.  Of course when we think of the question, “When does human life begin?,’’ we are likely to look to institutions for the answer: the doctrines of a church, the laws of the state, the beliefs and customs of the community.  Whatever the answer that is given, it reflects a decision to designate a certain point in this continuous process as “the beginning.’’

The debate about when human life begins is usually conducted by dogma and not very thoughtfully.  Many assumptions lurk behind people’s passionate convictions.  One of them is the meaning of a human life, and this is often bound up with the quality of life.


Three clergymen conversing….

When does life begin?

Catholic priest: at moment of conception

Protestant minister: at birth

Jewish rabbi: when the children leave home and the dog dies


Humor often contains insights and this joke has more than the usual share.  Note how the Catholic view is governed by theological doctrine of a soul, the Protestant by biological fact, and the Jewish by an ethical value.

Interestingly, Aristotle distinguished three kinds or stages of soul: the vegetative soul, as in plants, when organic processes take place; the sensitive soul, present with the ability all animals share in being capable of sense perception; and the rational soul, when the capacity for intelligent thought is present.  Where in all this would our fellow humans fall?  I leave this for you to decide in individual cases.

Similar issues beset the question of when life ends.  Does it end with the cessation of vital functions, such as breathing or heart beat?  Does it end with brain death?  The Chinese government, for example, is now under pressure to change the definition of death from the cessation of the heart beat to brain death in order to make more organs available for transplants.[2]   The very same painful debate is going on in this country.  The decision that is made is literally a matter of life and death.  Human life, moreover, has to do with the quality of life, and this is characterized by degrees.  When the quality of life enters into consideration, does human life end with the gutter?  With schizophrenia?  With an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s?  With the end of brain activity?  With the classification of a person or a people as an enemy?

Moreover, if we regard a human life as more than a biological state but also as one that includes personality, actions, accomplishments, influence on others, and emotional ties, then the question of when life ends goes far beyond its organic meaning.   For life has more than an organic limit.  It persists in the effects a person has had on others and on the communities in which she or he has lived.  Some of these effects persist in the social world one has left behind.  Some persist in the lives of those people whom one has influenced.  For those closest to a person, that life persists in the habitual interactions of behavior and of speech, and, more generally, in the felt presence of that person.  And for most of us, they persist in the memories that remain part of the lives of those with whom that person has shared time and experience.

Like the cycles in nature, the life process has no sharp points of beginning or ending. To be sure, there are stages in the course of human life, but there is no break at their onset or termination.  Life is a progressive process, and so, too, is death.  Designations of life and death are made at various points of what is actually a continuous flow punctuated by some gradual and other more abrupt changes. The definitions of human life and death are established entirely by some social institution:  by a religious community, by a social one, or by a political one, that is, by the government.  Whoever decides on the definitions are the people who decide where the divisions shall fall.   Can we define people out of humanity?

My own view is, I think, harmonious with the value UU places on the quality of life.  As the biological process gradually approaches self-awareness and a significant degree of rationality, it approaches that value we extol by calling it human.  We are not born human; we gradually become human.  Or at least most of us do, and to different degrees.

IV. Beginnings and endings not absolute

One could easily multiply these examples of beginnings and endings.  Much could be said about human relationships, such as friendship, marriage, family ties, and professional life, to mention a few.  But much the same holds for these as for changes in nature and in the human life cycle.  It would be useful at this point, then, to look more directly at what these common features are.

Most important is to recognize that beginnings and endings are never absolute.  There is no first cause or final cause, no absolute start to anything and no complete and final end.  If governments succeed in exterminating the human species in a nuclear holocaust, the world itself will not come to an end but change into something else.  In the event of nuclear annihilation, I suspect that some mutated version of cockroaches will emerge from the shadows and inherit the earth.  And for those who believe in Judgment Day, its appeal lies in the ultimate justice that will follow.

Thinking about beginnings and endings, it might appear that beginnings come first.  While that seems to be the logical order, actually it’s not usually the case in experience.  Things tend to start with something ending.  A new job replaces an old one or simply being unemployed; marriage ends the single life; birth starts with the end of pregnancy; children radically change a childless marriage.  Beginnings and endings are what we call correlative terms.  We cannot have a beginning without something ending; and nothing can end without something replacing it.

We live, then, in a world of change.  Change is embedded in the course of things and we never can catch up.  As Heraclitus famously commented in the fifth century B.C.E., we can never step twice into the same river.  Nature, like Heraclitus’ river, has no sharp divisions.  Moreover, we are part of that continuous flow of changes.  Since nothing truly begins and nothing completely ends and stops, beginnings and endings are but the ideas we use to give structure to change.  They are our way of interpreting change and of dealing with it.

Since this flow of experience is continuous, so are the endings and beginnings that we place on that stream.   That is why John Dewey argued for the continuity of means and ends.  The means that are employed affect the kind of end that’s achieved.  One can’t use violent means to achieve peace, since the violence cannot be contained but spills over to affect the outcome, and it takes a long, long time for those patterns of action and reaction to subside.

IV B. Can we go beyond ending and beginning?

Are there some things can take us beyond endings and beginnings?  It might seem that the arts and religious beliefs do.

Some offer us escape, as in the Hindu Nirvana, which consists in escape from the cycle of death and rebirth; or the religious ecstasy of certain mystics, many of them Christian, who strive for a transcendent state of union with the God, the One, or the Cosmos.

Another path beyond ending and beginning lies in our encounter with the arts.  These can be precious times of peace, when we can participate in a carefully cultivated process of change that takes place in our engagement with a work of music, painting, poetry, or other art.  Such moments of respite slow down the relentless process rather than cause it to stop.  It is a short time of a certain equilibrium, an eddy in the relentless rush of the river of life, part of that stream and connected with it, yet momentarily suspended from its ongoing course.

These occasions in which we engage with art are not absolute escapes from the human cycle but a momentary relief, somewhat of a breather under the glow of great values, perceptual in the case of art, cosmic in that of religion.

Yet art and religious experience substitute one order of change for another.  These experiences have their own relative beginnings and endings, and so they become microcosms of the universal process, strengthening us in dealing with the wider world.  Celebrations have much in common with these artistic and religious occasions.  Indeed, we may think of them as a form of community art.  When they embody noble human values, they become happy occasions.

V. Conclusion

What, finally, is the value of beginnings and endings?  Like those associated with the new year, they are positive ideas and give us cause for hope.  With an ending, something is over.  Perhaps it has been completed.  Perhaps it has merely concluded.  In any case, it is finished as it was.  Whether we relinquish it painfully, as in the necessity of accepting a death, or embrace it hopefully, as at the end of an illness or other difficult time, ending is a time of freedom, a time of choice.  It prepares us for the future.  And at beginnings, everything is possible.  The future is indeterminate and lies to a significant degree in our hands.  Beginning is the start of bringing the future into existence.  It places us in charge of our fate.

I have interpreted ending and beginning in positive ways because these are not writ in the stars; they are in our hands and can be chosen at any time.  We have altered the dates for celebrating Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays (Do you remember when we actually observed those two days?) in order to combine them and turn them into a long weekend.  (Some folks even change the day to celebrate Xmas for reasons of family scheduling.)  And we pick a date out of the sky to begin and end daylight savings time.

The positive value of beginnings is recognized in such homely bits of folk wisdom as “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.’’  And in Alcoholics Anonymous, one learns to realize that, if your day is going badly, just start it over.  As we choose beginnings, we at the same time choose endings, since for something to begin, something else must end.

Some endings and beginnings that are forced on a person are not happy ones:  being drafted into the military service, starting out again after a divorce, or the death of a loved one.  But because endings and beginnings are human meanings and not cosmic myths, there is reason for optimism.   Neither the Fates nor the stars decide our future.  We do, on some occasions as individuals, on others as groups, societies, or nations, and ultimately as the human species.  And as significant choice lies with us, so we are to a significant degree free, free to consider, free to decide, and free to act.  While such freedoms are hardly total, they are nonetheless real within the limits of time, place, and immoveable circumstance.

And so, in two days when it’s our custom to celebrate the new year, let’s truly purge the bad with the old year and choose a better course for the new.

[1].  It is dated from the Hejira, 622, the year in which Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, emigrated from Mecca to Medina.

[2].  Until now, organs had to come only from executed criminals, a mere 5,000 annually.