The Deeper Meaning of the Winter Blues

Four years ago, I wrote a short essay on the winter blues. I posted it on my other websites, www.deeperquestions.com and www.platosattache.com, but not here on my blog. If I had more time, I’d write more and wouldn’t be recycling the old stuff.

Anyway, I wrote it when I resided in Binghamton, which being in Upstate New York, sure gets some frigid winters. Here in Louisville, Kentucky, they’re lot milder, but it still gets dark early and cold, and people do suffer from seasonal depression. And so, here is the essay:

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“Winter is icummen in, Lhude sing Goddamn.” — Ezra Pound

Alienated though we urbanites may be from the primal rhythms of nature, the four seasons still do resonate in our soul, manifesting themselves in a variety of feeling tones. What interests us here is not the long, warm, sunny days of summer, when Eros, the life principle, is ascendent, but the cold, dark, short days of winter, which is the reign of Thanatos, the death principle. For that is when we are most prone to gloom.

Furthermore, winter — which means shoveling snow, shivering on cold, dark mornings, while our frozen hands scrape the ice off of windshields, slipping on the sidewalk on our way to work, large heating bills, and all else that is endemic of the season — can not only be an emotional low, but a downright annoyance.  Are we, then, to suffer, each year, another “winter of our discontent”? Should we sing “Goddamn,” as Mr. Pound recommends? Or is there a more cheerful side to winter?

Ecclesiastes declares that “to everything there is a season.” If he is correct, winter has its place in the scheme of things. It is suited for great labors and important projects, for sad remembrance, and for merriment with friends and family. But, it is especially a time for reflection, for thinking deep thoughts, for wrestling with life’s ultimate questions. For in winter, when life dies, the spirit comes to life. Summer, spring, and fall have their own challenges. To be attuned to these three, and winter too, is to be a “man (or a woman) for all seasons.”

If there is not wintry reflection, then spirit lies dormant, and the result is melancholy. That, indeed, is what happens when the spirit issues a challenge to us, and that challenge is refused. That is the real cause of seasonal depression, as well as what some doctors and therapists are labeling as “S.A.D.” (Seasonal Affective Disorder). This is not to suggest that their various treatments for the malady — the most popular consisting of viewing a device that produces a very strong artificial light — cannot be “effective,” at least temporarily, as can spending most of the winter in Florida. But such therapies are treating a symptom, i.e., depression, rather than the cause of that symptom, which, we contend, is a failure to address the deep questions that winter invites.

At best, such therapies merely defer the questions. Sooner or later, often in March, the spirit comes to collect its dues. It casts its frozen shadow on us, and addresses us such, “You, who are doomed to die, have you yet discerned my secrets? We have spent the winter together, allowing you ample time for reflection. Have you, yet, figured out what this phantasmagoria, called ‘life and death,’ is all about? Or shall I continue to haunt you in the spring, summer, and fall?”

We may not yet have discerned the answers to the ultimate questions, but a valiant effort does not meet with winter melancholy. It is only our turning away from those ultimate questions that causes melancholy. Be, then, of good cheer, this winter, fellow voyager.

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