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(Part of the Ask Mark Anything series)
Q:Does living in sun filled days really make you happy? I live in Indiana and winter is here, need I say more. -Sherry from Avon, Indiana
In a previous life I was a full-time youth minister. You folks who do this kind of work (yo Mike in St. Louis) or who teach in a middle school (shout out to Charlie), or who supervise any workforce whose vocabulary consists primarily of the word ‘like,’ are positively impacting some people who need to be positively impacted. Sometimes they seem more in need of the kind of impact that involves a fist, so thank you for taking the high road on that. In a ‘eureka’ moment (this word is traditionally shouted when we discover something wonderful, as in “Eureka! I can quit my youth minister job and become a professor!”) I read these words, written by a fellow Indiana youth minister: “Never quit your job in January.”
To give you some context, I grew up in the Sun Belt, as in “the Sun Belts you in the face, every time you go outside, regardless of the season.” Seriously, it’s really sunny, which I never thought about it until we moved to (hey Sherry!!) Indiana, which is part of a region known informally as the “Winter depression is an actual clinical condition” Belt. Slow learner that I am, it took several years for me (and my long-suffering bride) to notice the pattern: every October, like clockwork, I became a grouch, and it pretty much continued until May, when I returned to my usual joviality. This made for some interesting holidays….
If you live down South I don’t think you can fully comprehend a Midwest winter. The cold was a given, but snow that lingers in big brown piles for weeks was new to me. Many days I would drive to work in the dark and come home in the dark. The dominant colors in the fall are beautiful oranges and golds, but the palate of winter is fifty shades of gray, as in overcast skies for days on end. Our kids didn’t share our legacy of sunshine, but we knew it was bad the morning our young daughter informed us that someone had built a campfire in the back of our yard; through the trees she was seeing the rising sun for the first time in over a week.
I coped with the brutal Indiana winters, in part, by drinking. A lot. And I learned that all that diet Coke messes up your sleep, which made my depression even worse. Every winter I considered quitting a job I really liked. Seriously, every January I would order catalogs from various graduate programs and start plans to go back to school, and by March I would be better, and by May I would throw them all away.
In my worst case of winter blues ever (one enhanced with a 12 time zone case of jet lag) I called a realtor because I was convinced that the only solution to my despair was to sell our house. Fortunately the jet lag resolved before we got the house listed. To me it’s not at all surprising that dark, overcast places have higher rates of some ailments (see Alaska and alcoholism, or West Virginia and depression, or Indiana and diet Coke abuse).
I eventually adapted to living in the near-Arctic. In my office I installed (no kidding) a 1,000 watt halogen light, which I used to help keep my clock regulated during the dark months, and to interrogate misbehaving 14 year-old boys year-round. The light did little for my tan but wonders for my mood, and I had the best-behaved middle school group in the Midwest. We eventually moved back South and the wimpy winters here suit me just fine, thank you very much.
In 1965, The Byrds (a group with great voices but poor spelling) released a single entitled Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season). Fans were put off by the awkward title, but loved the groovy tune and pushed it to number 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. In Canada it only reached number 3, as most Canadians were too winter-depressed to hitch the reindeer to the sleigh and go to the record store. Trivia fact: this song holds the US record as the #1 hit with the oldest lyrics, since all but two lines of the song were lifted directly from the King James Bible. Fortunately for the writer, the copyright on the Bible has expired.
The original passage (it’s from the King James version, which includes classic lines like “What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth,” and every middle school boy’s all time favorite Bible class reading: “And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass…”) goes like this:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;……and so forth.
If you have ever heard the song, these lines will now be humming through your head for the rest of the day. Sorry.
These verses are part of perhaps the strangest book in the Bible (yes, I know about Song of Solomon), in which an unknown writer describes his attempts to discover what makes life meaningful and worth living, and one of his major contentions seems to be that life has a certain rhythm to it, and you better just accept that. For most of the couplets in the passage the writer pairs things we generally consider good (healing, laughing, dancing) with their polar opposites (killing, weeping, mourning), and I think his point is well taken: hills and valleys are normal, expected parts of life. Unless you are driving anywhere in the vicinity of Amarillo. And if you read the whole book you come away with the idea that instead of seeing this as two lists (good things and bad), he has come to view them as a single list of things that just are part of life.
- Don’t be an idiot, which I find to be good general life advice. Recognize the seasons and behave accordingly. If you move from the South to the North, learn to wear socks. Don’t plant your crops in November (unless you are planting winter wheat). If you have small kids, see this exhausting time of life as just one season, and enjoy it. If you have junior high aged boys at home, I am so sorry. If you suffer from winter depression, get a light box or exercise more, and if nothing else helps, talk to your doctor because there is medication that can help.
- Accept what life brings. “Embrace winter,” I was told, which means actively seeking out and appreciating the good things about winter. Both of them. When you do this, you will not only discover new things to enjoy (and Indiana winters actually have some), you will spend less time pondering the parts you don’t like. If concentration camp survivors were able to find positive aspects in their hellish circumstances, I’m pretty sure I can find one or two in whatever I’m facing today.
To close, let me quote the singer Cheryl Crowe, who is nicer looking than The Byrds but whose name suggests she also has spelling issues, on the key to finding contentment in life: “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.” That pretty much captures it.
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