A Rationalist’s Guide to New Year’s Sentimentality

Having read all the Op-Eds and magazine articles mocking millennial emotions as so much numerological bunk, Culturebox is well aware that this New Year’s Eve is, strictly speaking, meaningless. She knows that the year 2000 arrives at least 2,005 years after Christ was actually born; that due to an error in calculation stemming from medieval ignorance of the number zero, the new millennium doesn’t start till next year; that the Gregorian calendar is filled with arbitrary adjustments and slippages; and so forth.

But Culturebox also knows that when she raises her glass at 11:59:50 p.m. the day after tomorrow, she’ll feel a wave of excited anxiety. She suspects you’ll feel it too. She does not believe that the obvious culprits–Y2K, terrorism, the usual New Year’s hype that makes you feel that everyone else is having a better time than you–are entirely responsible. Like most of the rest of America, apparently, Culturebox won’t be flying or driving or congregating downtown or eating at some ludicrously overpriced New Year’s extravaganza. She’ll be at the home of friends, standing beside her loved ones, etc. And when New Year’s arrives and she experiences that brief sense of being overwhelmed by something she can’t explain, she’ll be tempted to dismiss it, as she does every year, as sentimental and superstitious.

But is it? What is New Year’s, anyway, if not a reminder that time has passed, which is to say that death has drawn that much closer? New Year’s 2000 is just New Year’s to a higher degree. For lack of a better reference point, Culturebox has spent her entire life dividing it into before the year 2000 and after. New Year’s Eve is the moment this personal temporal marker arrives, for what it’s worth.

It’s actually not unreasonable to feel awe on this New Year’s Eve, even if you don’t believe that it is the 2000th anniversary of the birth of the era of our savior. The great religions are a product of the same sense of awe. They were invented in large part to help us deal with the terrifying fact that time propels us toward our own destruction. The revolution of Judaism was that it transformed time from cyclical to historical–a history belonging to man but directed by God–so that the Jews could think of a future beyond mortality. Christianity posited two shining moments, one in the past and one in the future, when human time meets up with eternal time. Those are, of course, Christ’s appearance and return. Before Islam, the Arabs believed that the passing of time led them inexorably to a horrible fate; their God was created partly to guarantee that the fullness of time would be good, rather than evil. The Hindus banished time altogether by calling it unreal.

The Greeks had a word for a moment in time that seemed to stand apart from other moments. They called it a kairos–an auspicious moment, le moment juste. The existential philosopher Martin Heidegger translated the concept into the German word Augenblick, an instant that occurs in the blink of an eye. To Heidegger, this is an interval in which the world opens up and we are allowed perceive it differently, to grasp it more authentically. Maybe New Year’s Eve 2000 is one such blink of the eye, an opening in time which forces us to grapple with time–and death. Enjoy it if you can.