When the world grows cold, many of us do something supremely stupid. Something that society has trained us to do. Something that amounts to self-sabotage.
The mercury drops and we gradually banish ourselves from the great outdoors, opting to imprison ourselves in the decidedly un-great indoors.
Like a shell-shocked snail, we curl defensively into the comfort of our shell-like homes and the security of our blankets. We begin a kind of waking hibernation. But not the kind that preserves or renews us. Quite the opposite.
Even I, self-proclaimed ardent nature lover, see the trend in my own habits lately. I can’t take the kids to the woods after work because I’m reined in by the early-encroaching darkness. That’s true and unavoidable. But I’m also reluctant to take them outside before work because of the cold morning air, and the hassle of getting them bundled up (even though they rarely complain about temperature). A wintry inertia has started to take hold.
The human body, and the human mind, were not meant to exist indoors for long periods of time. I have believed that fervently ever since I was 20 and I first truly discovered, for myself, the transfixing and transformative wonders of nature.
I spent that summer swimming in one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes and exploring the pristine Boundary Waters wilderness. I was working at a canoe outfitter, just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. (And let me tell you, no one would have gotten hit if I had thrown that stone. Except maybe a loon. This place was desolate.)
For 3 months, I basked in a wide-eyed reverie. I felt like I was seeing — really seeing — the natural world for the very first time. It re-wired my brain and re-calibrated my heart. I think that summer was when I started defaulting to an outdoor mentality rather than an indoor one. And I’d like to think that having experienced that magic, I’ve never gone back.
But I do go back. I do forget this central tenet of my ethos. I do hibernate for days or weeks on end.
And when I do, I pay the price. Anytime I don’t go outside for even 2 days in a row, my body reacts. Something starts to shut down. It’s as if being inside for 48 hours trips a breaker in some biochemical fuse box inside me. My lights go off momentarily. And I have to venture back outside, take a deep breath, and reset my inner circuit breaker.
Underneath our domesticated, carefully curated, climate-controlled civilization, nature is our natural state. Outside the 4 walls that hem us in, we discover the real world. Life itself is out there, hovering in the wild fresh air. A whole universe of un-managed, un-manufactured sights and sounds and textures await us, right outside our front door. A world of wonder and teeming beauty. Even in winter, when living things seem hard to find. And when life itself seems harder to live.
Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
– Dylan Thomas
Every fall, without fail, the daylight dies a slow and agonizing death.
By late October, it starts to show worrying symptoms. By early November, it’s admitted to the hospital. By Thanksgiving, it’s on life support. And by December, the daylight — that formerly youthful, vibrant, and warmly ubiquitous fellow — is sadly laid to rest.
I wear black and attend its funeral each year, offering a sprawling and bittersweet eulogy for all the good times we shared. All those long days when the sun happily wore out its welcome as we hiked and played and explored in the glow of its beams. All those endless evenings when I stayed out in the yard with the kids until the very last drop of dusk, sipping the daylight like sweet peppermint tea.
Every November, I bid my fond farewell to warm sunshine and short sleeves and green grass and pre-bedtime run-around-the-yard sessions. All those things that make the days feel endless.
And then I hunker down for the long December.
I’ve sometimes wondered why people get so excited about the holiday season. For me, December is a mournful month of encroaching darkness. A month where the operative thing is surviving. Keeping my mental health alive any way I can through the short days and long nights surrounding the winter solstice.
All those days when, no matter how fast I drive, I can’t make it home from work before darkness settles over the world. All those nights where going outside with the kids after (or even before) dinner is no longer an option. Keeping myself afloat all the way to January, when I can start feeling my cup slowly fill up again with daylight.
Perhaps that’s why we celebrate Christmas in December. Maybe it was decided that we needed a happy occasion to look forward to during the darkness. Something to offset the draining effects of diminished daylight. Brittanica informs me of the following:
In the 3rd century, the Roman Empire, which at the time had not adopted Christianity, celebrated the rebirth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) on December 25th.
As far as holiday celebrations go, that timing makes perfect sense to me. And it makes perfect sense that Christmas would have later, in 336 A.D., replaced Sol Invictus on that same date. Never do we need a holiday more than when December’s dearth of daylight has been pressing down on us for nearly a month.
I think this would explain why we fill December, and even November in recent years, up to the brim with cheerful red and green holiday trimmings. All sorts of (Christmas) bells and whistles to brighten our spirits during the darkest days of the year. Which is to say, actual physical darkness.
But for some of us, and maybe more of us than are willing to openly admit it, this can be a time of mental darkness too. All the cheery Christmas messaging that fills every inch of every billboard, and every second of television ad space, and every minute of Hallmark’s programming schedule, can make a person feel like he’s the only one who isn’t feeling entirely festive.
Studies show that mental health struggles spike a bit during the holiday season. And I can personally vouch that December is not usually a high point for me. But having flailed through the choppiest waters of my life last spring and summer, and feeling at times like I might drown, I am bound and determined to keep myself afloat this holiday season. To overextend (and perhaps hyperextend) the metaphor… I will not let my ship run aground.
I will do this for the sake of my wide-eyed kids, who deserve the same magical Decembers that I grew up with. I’m happy to report that we’ve already taken them on 4 Christmas light drives, to their utter delight! Thankfully, it doesn’t take much to fill their innocent hearts with wonder.
But more than anything, I will do this because self-care is vital. Especially when daylight is a precious, rarified commodity.
In fact, one could argue (if one was not concerned about being charged with yuletide treason) that self-care is the most sacred of all holiday traditions. Without it, each of us is a house of cards that will collapse in a stiff breeze. Or to use a more seasonal metaphor, a Christmas tree whose needles will quickly turn brittle and fall off because there’s no water in the base.
So my advice, to myself just as much as to anyone else, is to water the Christmas tree that is your soul. By any means necessary, keep your heart and your mind awake during these dull, darkened days.
Read a good book. Drink lots of water. Listen to whatever music makes you the happiest. Turn off your tiny screens, bundle up, and go outside to drink in the brisk December air at every possible opportunity. Savor whatever rituals of the Christmas (or Hanukkah) season warm your heart the most. Take care of yourself so that you’re able to take care of others at a time of year when every single one of us badly needs to be taken care of.
We are, each of us, like plants. We need sunlight (as well as water) above all. Which is why this time of year can be hard for us. The days of diminishing daylight often diminish our clarity, and even our ability to feel hope.
But these days are numbered. Winter solstice is coming. And off in the distance, so is springtime.
When the solstice does arrive, embrace the innate hope in knowing that every single day will have more daylight than the last, however slight those increments are at first. Try to wrap your mind and heart, even now, around the imminent fact that daylight is plotting its epic return. It will be the Comeback Player of the Year, hands down.
But if things still feel bleak…
if none of my words really resonate…
if this all still sounds a bit too optimistic to your darkened eyes…
I hope you can at least follow the sage advice of Dylan Thomas and dig deep to summon the best kind of rage.
Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.