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Season’s Greetings: Some Thoughts on the Darker, Slower Days of Winter

Some thoughts on winter from someone who newly appreciates the radical idea of slowing down.

It’s been a couple of months since I published an essay here.

This writing hiatus was unplanned and unintentional. It’s been hovering over me like a little dark cloud, a recurring thought and recurring regret that I hadn’t been able to keep my promise to you and my promise to myself to publish one longer essay every month.

I write for you, and it gives me no joy to realise that I haven’t sent one for three or four months now. I write for me too, and I’ve missed the benefits of the discipline of sitting down for a few hours to write about something that’s top of mind. Writing about the thing that’s top of mind has been my way of exploring that thing, understanding it, accepting it if I must or changing it if I can. Writing is, in part, my own therapy, and you as my reader are with me all the while on this journey to better understand the world and elevate my own experience within it, and if I can do that perhaps at some point I can help others better understand their place and elevate their own experience too.

The hiatus from writing this email could have gone two ways — I could have continued to hide my head in the sand and told myself that these emails aren’t necessary, and that you haven’t missed them, and what value could they possibly add to a world that is already heaving under the weight of writing and video and audio, and sure what’s the point in starting up again after missing a couple of months?

My promise to you

Or I could step forward and say, Sorry you haven’t heard from me. If it crossed your mind that I had missed a few months, thank you for noticing. I’m here again and thanks for being here. My promise is that I will try to add value over the next few minutes you spend here.

The hiatus stemmed from many places. Life, work, commitments, business, busyness. It also came from winter, and the sluggishness that seems to enter my limbs and sometimes my mind as the days shorten and dampen and the sun, when it does appear, offers little of the same sustaining warmth. It also came perhaps from a small crisis of confidence, of the kind which seems to come to me fairly regularly, and which now when I recognise it I try to greet it and embrace it and then move past as best I can.

Depression comes and goes, but it is never gone permanently. If anything, I’m learning to be fully grateful for depression. When depression lands, and when on the face of it there might be no logical reason for it to land, there is almost always something underlying everything, something vital but unseen, something to be explored, heard, heeded. If I’ve realised anything these past three years of writing and talking and thinking and writing again and thinking again and talking again, it is that depression should be no obstacle to a happy life. Indeed, depression for many of us could be a necessary stopping point on the way to that happy life. In the same way that grief is a vital component of a happy life, for many of us who are built a certain way, so is depression.

The semantics of depression

I don’t like the word “depression”.

To get semantic and pedantic about it, to depress means to “push down”. I would love if there was a different word. In the past it was called melancholy or melancholia, and I think that’s better, if still a little downbeat. What I think about depression now, for me and for many of the people I’ve met and spoken to in person, or who I’ve studied or listened to from afar, is that depression is a powerful and essential communication from within, encouraging us to see and encouraging us to feel. So as illogical as it may sound — and I do appreciate that without context this next statement could be seen as very illogical, and without context it could even be taken as offensive or insulting — but I’ve become extremely grateful for depression, because depression has been a symptom of great growth and awakening. Like a muddy swamp high up on the side of a hill, it can be the source of a great river of wonder and mystery and magic further down the line.

Johann Hari, the author of one of my favourite books of the year, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope, tells a story of a skirmish he experienced with violent food poisoning on a trip to Vietnam a couple of years back. It came via a bright red apple bought from a street trader, and it resulted in several days of severe nausea, delirium, hallucinations and a rushed trip to a hospital. “Give me something, anything, to make the nausea go away,” he begged of his doctors. “No,” they replied. “We need your nausea. Your nausea tells us what’s wrong with you.”

The sickness of our psyches

In the context of depression, he argued compellingly, within the deep psychological and emotional pain that so many of us feel — the number of people who deal with major depression is conservatively estimated at 300 million people worldwide — are the sources and signs of the solution to the pain.

Depression could be described as nausea of the psyche, and perhaps we need to experience that nausea to be able to uncover the reasons behind it. For what it’s worth (and you might argue the point, and I’m happy to hear your argument and engage with it…) I refuse to believe that depression should be indefinitely medicated away, partly because the medication might treat the symptom while allowing the underlying causes to fester away untouched, partly because it often isn’t an effective short-term treatment for the symptom in any case, and partly because the evidence that the medication offers long-term effectiveness is slight.

If we are sick in our psyches, and if we’re sick in our psyches in growing numbers every year, we are within our rights to ask not what is wrong with us, but to ask what is wrong with the world, what is wrong with society. While technology has allowed us to be connected almost 24/7, we are conversely more disconnected than ever before: disconnected from the real conversation and communication that comes from real-life human interaction; disconnected from nature by an increasingly urbanised and commuter-belt society; disconnected from ourselves as our attention is infringed upon every waking minute of every day (and increasingly during sleep time too by sleep monitoring apps and the insidious blue light of technology that so many of us allow into our bedrooms every night); and disconnected from a healthier lifestyle, where in our pressurized, time-poor lives we find ourselves reaching for convenient foods with long lists of additives than the wholefood options that over time could have restorative effects on both our physiology and our psychology.

A season made by man and universe

Season's Greetings: Some Thoughts on the Darker, Slower Days of Winter

Dublin in winter. Photo credit: Motorito (Flickr Creative Commons)

Which brings me to the season. The man-made season of Christmas, of giving and goodwill and excess and splurge, and the universe-created season of darker hours and shorter days.

In the past my expectations of me have led me to demand more and more from myself in the winter days: the new beginnings of the New Year created an energy and urgency and momentum, of goals and goal-setting and big ideas, which often ran aground before January was out.

This time around, in a new departure, I am trying to compel myself to slow down, to take on a little less, to be aware of my limitations a little more, to be present and to breathe and to enjoy the moment for what it is: the latest imperfect moment in a lifetime of countless such moments, but no less full of wonder or magic or mystery for all those imperfections.

The power of right now

I recently read a beautiful article written by a senior Facebook staffer. The world’s brightest minds are increasingly migrating to the world’s biggest companies, and while the net impact of the tech giants on humankind to date can easily be argued to have been a negative one, there is room for hope in the fact that the likes of Facebook are hiring people of the apparently sound intellect and deep emotional intelligence of Julie Zhou.

Julie writes about the search for rare and wonderful perfect moments, and I write here about the relentless imperfect ones that we can choose to embrace, but I think we’re on the same page in a way: we’re both obsessed with the prospect of making the most of right now.

Right now has worries and anxieties and beauty and mystery, it has pain and suffering and connection and healing too. Everything to this point adds up to right now, and all the right nows that are to come will add up to whatever happens next.

And when the sun gets shorter and cooler on our own stay here in this world, we will lie down somewhere and we will not rise again, and if we’re lucky we will get a chance to reflect on the blink in time that is a full life and be grateful that we were able to give it a good shot.

Wishing you the very best of the most important things this December.

Shane