Lessons From the Midwinter Blues

midwinterblues2Lonely blue jays and cardinals mark the days of midwinter, spreading color sparingly with their fretted flights above browned lawns and bare, grey trees. Even silver-haired snowbirds are growing weary of southern hibernation and long to return to the blooming laughter and hustle of families and children along street corners, park benches and backyard barbecues.

The world moves with stiff joints and shallow breaths through mornings where the step from bed feels like an arctic swim, while our motivation to change seems as stuck as a Prius on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in an ice storm. With many weeks of cold still ahead, we are already growing irritated with wool coats, early evening’s darkness, frosted windshields and the settling reality that our hopes for the New Year have long since faded.

The midwinter blues can get to everyone.

The Polar Eskimos even had a word for this sensation, “perlerorneq,” which is translated by some to mean “feel the weight of life … weariness or a miserable sadness.” If that sounds depressing, then consider that Eskimos probably didn’t practice New Year’s resolutions! Remember those grand decisions about our lives several weeks ago that have fallen flat: to quit drinking, stop obsessing over Facebook, start attending church, break up with a boyfriend, or look for a new job? (Barely 8% of Americans are able to stay true to their New Year’s vows through the first week of the year.) Most of our hopes seem as frozen in winter lethargy as the green space at the park.

Despite the trials of this season, I have learned that the midwinter blues can also enrich our spiritual life if we will allow it to. Here are three ways we can embrace winter:

Winter reminds us to embrace the great pause

There is stillness to these shorter days that can be rejuvenating if we will tune our hearts to the silent symphony of the winter world. Carl Jung extolled, “Busyness is not of the devil; it is the devil.” While the earth is nestled under white blankets, all is still, and we should value these moments to listen and to rest because we know that God ultimately resides in stillness. Our souls long for a moment’s reprieve from the tumult of busyness, and something meaningful happens when we remove ourselves from the feverish pace of 21st-century life to remember the realities that make our lives rich. The modern world has left very little space to respond to the Creator’s call to “be still and know that I am God.” I have discovered a joy in slowing down and embracing days when winter allows no place to go and nothing to do but sit by the fireplace, read a book, play a game with my kids or listen to a record, and permit the pause of the season to invade my hurried life.

Winter reminds us to embrace our sense of childlike wonder

Nothing reminds me of my childhood like peering through a frosted window in the early morning hours to discover a pristine coat of snow unmarred by footprints or tire tracks, masking broken bottles on street corners, glossing over decayed leaves, casting ghostly shadows across the rooftops of suburban neighborhoods like icing on gingerbread houses. In that moment before we curse all the ways that it will impede our commute to the office, the silent, white, weightless arrival stirs our hearts with the transcendental curiosity of snowmen, sledding, hot chocolate, and days without schedules. It makes everything seem fresh to find the world in a blanket of pure winter magic. Perhaps it is the sensation of curiosity and sacred wonder Jesus was speaking of when he urged us to receive the kingdom of God as children. We spend so much time plodding along through the expected routines of adulthood, unwilling to notice the marvel of life’s great possibilities that lies just beyond the simple act of pressing our nose to the frozen frame. Winter can help us remember that we are at our best when we approach the world with a childlike faith and wonder.

Winter reminds us to move past our sin and failure

We endure winter’s long residency precisely because the coming warmth of new life is inevitable. Winter teaches us that spring eventually arrives in its own time and there is nothing we can do about it except walk willingly in the cold and allow it to run its course. This lesson sounds simple, but it is often so difficult for us to grasp in the daily grind of our lives. We hold tight to our personal winters: our addictions, our sins, our failures, even our unsuccessful New Year’s resolutions, as if they are as permanent as Siberian exiles. In my book, “Holy Nomad: The Rugged Road to Joy,” I examine the frequent words of the New Testament’s main character each time he heals a broken person: “Now go,” Jesus pronounces in one way or another, “and sin no more.” It seems odd for us to focus attention solely toward the “sin no more” part of Jesus’s words, yet that is what we do. We hold tight to the bitter winds of the season. We miss the truth that spring is coming by ignoring the equally powerful aspect of Jesus’ healing mantra: the command to “go.” You see, in each of these stories, the healing is already complete. Spring’s arrival is inevitable. The essential command from Jesus is to “move past all this” — to put one foot in front of the other with the knowledge that we are changing, like all of creation, falling forward even, into the next season of our journey. Winter reminds us that sin and failure are not our destination.

William Wordsworth wrote, “Let nature be your teacher.” These words could easily be drowned out by the crunch of snow and ice, the bitterness of the winter breeze, and our morning’s sub-zero commute to the office or school. A quick glance at the calendar makes it clear that there are many days of cold still in front of us. Even wrapped in arctic glaze, the poetry of nature is still at work and there is plenty of time left for us to embrace winter’s lessons before things begin to thaw.

(Originally published January 30, 2017)