Higher Living Reflections

Warming the Winter Blues

The contrasting emotional states and sensibilities expressed during this time of year are striking. We are acculturated to believe tis the season* of cheer and good will, to be festive, celebratory. Deck the halls and jingle bells. Tis the time for coming together, embracing, and sharing, albeit not so much in 2020. Its spirit is built upon anticipation, offering a prospective respite from one’s toils and troubles.

Paradoxically, the season can be draining if not depressing for those not “feeling it.” Classical stories such as A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life capture those conflicting spirits. Such tales wrap with happy endings, which can cause those not feeling it to feel more unconnected.

A truth holds, though, for all: The season invariably ends, and routines and drudgeries of life begin anew. When the trimmings come down and the tree hauled to the curb, emotional deflation can cause what Peggy Lee asks in “Is That All There Is?” to set in.

We have been enduring a social meltdown since the pandemic began its debilitating and lethal assault. With the plug pulled on socializing, hugging, shaking hands, and high fiving a full-term pregnancy plus ago, anxiety, sometimes coupled with fatalism, have become endemic. Most hold themselves together and troop on. Others crash but not burn. Then there are those who quit.

Data show suicides do not spike during the holiday period; they do, however, afterwards. Psychologists offer reasons that correlate around mental and emotional fatigue or letdown and a disconnect inducing a sense of hopelessness.

The phenomenon is not a by-product of our complex, interwoven, high-stressed society, though it exacerbates the condition. The ancients also felt mental ennui, particularly in spiritual centers of all places.

Jonathan L. Zecher, a researcher at the Australian Catholic University, relates the tale of John Cassian, a fourth-century monk living a cloistered life in the Egyptian desert. Cassian noted that by midday he was depleted. An ascetic in a judging tradition and unaware of Darwin, Freud, and Jung, he concluded his condition was a moral flaw.

John dubbed it the “Noonday Demon” since it was then he felt ennui after tedious hours of prayer and contemplation in a baking-hot environment. He called it acedia. The word is a derivative of the Greek kēdos, meaning “care, concern, or grief,” preceded by a, indicating “lack of.” Since then, acedia has carried a moral overtone. A malaise or indifference towards one’s spiritual practice.

Zecher suggests acedia connotes more than apathy and provides a fitting name for what many are currently feeling. Susan Greene, writing in the Colorado Independent, calls acedia the “pits” one feels in his/her stomach.

Crises can cause polar effects within the human psyche. When in the proverbial fox hole, some immerse themselves deeper into prayer. Some question their faith while others give up and in. Then there are the acedics – coining a word – who meander aimlessly, listless nomads wondering if that is all there is.

The answer lies within us. The human body and brain have not evolved and kept pace with humans’ technological and cultural advances over the past 100,000 years. While society says go, go, go, the body and brain plead for time out.

Both daily and seasonal exhaustion in the temperate zones is natural. The Spanish, who largely lived in a stifling clime like ol’ John, created the siesta to address the daily letdown. Sipping hot chocolate while reading a book snugly by a fire has been a winter salve. But the pandemic and social-political unrest are compounding the seasonal winter weariness.

Humans are not like bears. We cannot or should not hibernate ursine-like. But we can pull back, slow down, decrease our physical exertions, and redirect our minds to more indoor activities.

Though hard to define, one knows acedia when he/she feels it. It ought to be acknowledged since dismissing it can lead to greater complications. You might not be feeling what you are told what and how you should feel. But you are still feeling something.

When the blues grab hold, perhaps treat yourself to a siesta followed by curling up with a good book while sipping hot chocolate. It works wonders for me.

Fun Aside: Click this link to read why we say, “Tis the season.” Tis the season, after all, for a bit of word frolic.

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  • Melanie Mulhall
    December 15, 2020 at 1:54 pm

    I first wrapped my brain around the concept of acedia thanks to the teachings of some of the nuns/monks at Nada Hermitage in Crestone, Colorado. But I hadn’t related it to what some people have been feeling with the pandemic–and now the holidays on top of it. You’re right. We’re not like bears. We’re hard-wired to be social. Books and hot chocolate are good, but reaching out to others is also a good strategy.

  • Becky Cook
    December 15, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    This was a nice reminder that “ we’re all in this together” and even though the pandemic has heightened our isolation, this season has long had emotional challenges.
    Sending warm wishes to you, Jerry!

  • Ruth Rosenfeld
    December 15, 2020 at 4:52 pm

    I suspect that depression was not unique to the spiritual community or were they especially prone to it. Those were the most literate and educated, and most likely to write about it.

  • Steven Craig
    December 15, 2020 at 7:14 pm

    Like Melanie (above), I also have been to Crestone and find much solace in the Buddhist teachings I reinforced while there. But please remember that you always have a friend, and you know my number. These Covid days are tough, but your community reaches farther than you could ever imagine. Much love and light during the holiday season and beyond…
    -Steven

  • Rick Posner
    December 15, 2020 at 11:54 pm

    A good friend of mine suffers from post polio syndrome and has to take two serious naps a day! He calls them “brown-outs” as he grapples just to do simple things or even to speak. I think we all need a “brown-out”or two – especially these days. Thanks again Jerry for reminding us that we are human.

  • Donna Taylor
    December 19, 2020 at 12:35 am

    Jerry, you are very good at identifying and putting into context (even historical context) seemingly amorphous feelings. It helps to give them a name and realize their commonality. For me, acedia is indeed a noon or midday occurrence, although luckily not too often. Oddly I’ve had this feeling during much anticipated travel or vacation – maybe a feeling of letdown, similar to anticipated holidays. Good wishes and thanks.