Three nights ago as I was walking home, I saw patches of grass glinting back at me for the first time in months. Winter is almost here, and the golden leaves which hang like an archway over my beloved Prairie Path will linger for a week or so more before giving way to the bracing Chicago wind. Even now, the blankets and fleeces which I had put away for months are again serving their purpose, insulating fragile flesh from the stinging cold just outside. The hardest season of the year is about to begin.
Winter is particular difficult for those who, like myself, struggle with seasonal affective disorder. For the last six years or so, I have entered into a depression around November and come out of it in May (give or take a month or two). If I had never learned to look for a seasonal pattern, I would never have known that these depressions had any rhyme or reason to them, for both the entry into depression and the exiting from depression feel unoccasioned, as second nature. The only part of it that truly feels unnatural is when the birds chirp, the flowers sprout forth, the church celebrates Easter and I am still in a rut. My reaction to the lack of sunlight is delayed about a month, it seems.
Perhaps I might take a lesson here from hibernating mammals, for when they perceive the spectral leaves and feel the nights grow longer and colder, they scavenge with extra diligence and prepare for a seasonal slumber. There are two lessons to be gained here: to surrender to the darkness that is to come, and to make ready for its coming. The response of surrender to impending darkness is a wise one, for it channels the energies of the mind away from its vain efforts to keep the inescapable at bay. As mindfulness theory contends, the intellect often spends itself trying to fix what it cannot affect. This leads both to frustration over not being able to change the thing one wanted to change, and frustration that one’s efforts have been squandered. Alternately, when the mind’s exertions are drawn away from what it cannot fix, the sense of failure is supplanted by that of calm recognition. To adapt this realism—one might even call it courage—in the face of suffering is to suffer with Christ, the lamb who “did not open his mouth.” But passivity in the face of impending darkness is only half of the equation; the other is preparation. Just as those hoarding mammals preserve as much of the fall fruit as possible to sustain their slumber through the winter, so I might cling to those things which perpetuate human existence and my fragile existence in particular. Can one make an exhaustive list of them? I think not. Here are a few that I would like to consider: meaning, companionship and perspective.
Of course, these three staples of human existence are not disjunctive: considering one necessarily entails considering the others. Meaning might be considered as that which encompasses the other two, for it is as to personhood as molecules are to an object. To say that meaning is the stuff of our existence is a truism, for without meaning life would be… meaningless. But the thing about meaning is that it does not depend on us. My actions have significance whether I see that significance or not, because they put me in relation with others. In fact, I would argue that the development of personhood (which is to say the development of a self that exists within ethical space) is simply understanding the import of one’s actions for other people. Even if I do not feel like making dinner, the act of preparing a meal is inherently meaningful: it puts me in relation to others. Even if I eat on my own, I am in a relation for good or for ill with the people, animals and habitats which are involved in producing the food that I consume. One might call the most significant of relationships companionship, for companionship is a relation of commitment. This commitment leads to constancy, which results in trust. You do not fear the abandonment of a true companion, for companionship transcends contingency and thereby promotes authenticity. It is from these relationships that we derive perspective, for in them we gain a safe space from which to contemplate everything from our existential angsts to our everyday foibles. From the safety of relation, we are able to see where true meaning lies and align our emotions accordingly.
Now I see the expanse of the winter before me, likely a tundra of confusion, loneliness and even terror. But significance does not depend on the presence or absence of hardship, nor does the loving kindness of companionship. These elements of life cling to me stronger than I could ever cling to them, and they will see me through until the warmth of spring.
Click here for information about Seasonal Affective Disorder.