Winter’s Invitation

“Here we are in February, the longest month of the year.”

A good-humored, middle-aged client I worked with many years ago, a spirited gentleman who returned to treatment around this time of year for help with seasonal affective disorder, opened each of his weekly February sessions with this pronouncement. As I worked with him through a handful of Februarys, I associate this month with him, along with a few other clients for whom the mid-point of winter proves especially difficult. 

And here we are again in the central USA, nearing what Marv Hiles refers to as “the very bottom of winter.” Even as intimations of spring hide in plain sight, nature doesn’t privilege the warmer seasons the way many of us might. She allows each to offer what it will, to unfold seamlessly and effortlessly, one leading into the next in a continuing, life-sustaining, cyclical choreography.

What is it that winter offers? And might we allow ourselves to accept the offering, as other living creatures and life forms seem willing to do? Is it possible to accept winter’s invitation, especially now, fresh on the heels of the year we’ve just moved through?

In her book, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, Katherine May writes:

Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential. 

As essential, I think, perhaps in any winter but particularly so in this one, might be our willingness to allow for the unfolding presence of normal human sadness. When you consider the abundant, unbidden aloneness of the past year, with so much of our previously-relied-upon cycles of daily living so dramatically disrupted, and for so long, if not lost altogether, and with so many whom we’ve collectively lost, it makes good sense that we’d find ourselves invited if not impelled into a place of sadness. We are perhaps among the most feeling of creatures, certainly so with regard to conscious awareness of feeling, and so making room for sadness, especially now, here, in the very heart of winter, could be to our benefit. The hollowed, hallowed inwardness of winter may be uniquely designed to invite us in, to help us bear the weight of our sadness and also our collective grief.

But won’t opening the door to sadness lead to depression? Maybe it’s better to keep a stiff upper lip, compel cheeriness and soldier on.

Depression and sadness are two different things. While depression is a serious clinical disorder with clear symptomatology and often requiring treatment, sadness is woven into the fibers of being human. In our eagerness to champion chipper-ness, even sometimes within ourselves, we can forget that  fears are real, losses hurt, and sadness, along with joy and hope, lives at the very heart of humanity. In the Pixar classic, Inside Out, sadness was the star of the show. 

I realized that in depression, nothing matters. And in sadness, everything matters. ~Gloria Steinem

Being able to accept feelings of sadness, and then tending to ourselves in ways that nurture and comfort and heal, can over time give way to what some experience as an enlivening of the human spirit, allowing for a sense of fullness and wholeness, as if all of our collective emotional parts now have a place and a purpose and even a welcoming. We can expend enormous amounts of energy in our attempts to ward off feelings of sadness, resources that would otherwise be harnessed for productivity, creativity, and so forth. Best perhaps to just let it in, and even to welcome it, especially in times like these, when its presence makes so much sense.

Katherine May adds:

I’m beginning to think that unhappiness is one of the simple things in life: a pure, basic emotion to be respected, if not savored. I’d never dream of suggesting that we should wallow in misery or shrink from doing everything we can to alleviate it, but I do think it’s instructive. After all, unhappiness has a function: it tells us that something is going wrong. There will be moments when we’re riding high and moments when we can’t bear to get out of bed. Both are normal. Both in fact require a little perspective.

Sometimes the best response to our howls of anguish is the honest one. We need friends who wince along with our pain, who tolerate our gloom, and who allow us to be weak for a while, while we’re finding our feet again. We need people who acknowledge that we can’t always hang on. That sometimes everything breaks. Short of that, we need to perform those functions for ourselves: to give ourselves a break when we need it and to be kind, to find our own grit, in our own time.

Looking more closely at winter’s invitation, within the architecture of cold and stillness and silent white, we see the unmistakable evidence of a coming spring.  

In the midst of winter I finally learned that I had within me an invincible summer.

Albert Camus