Winter doesn’t officially begin in the Northern Hemisphere for another month, but the sun will set tonight in frigid Portland at 4:34pm, and it sure feels like Winter has arrived. Sure, the chairlifts on Mount Hood haven’t started running, no normal person has put up their Christmas decorations, and Trader Joe’s barely has their holiday seasonal offerings out. But you don’t need any of those things — less sunlight, decorations, or winter activities — to experience a winter. Sure, winter is a season on the calendar marked by certain experiences of the natural world, but Winter can also feel like something happening to us (or inside us).
I’ve had a few notable encounters in the ER recently taking care of some very depressed patients. In particular, one middle-aged man was really, really struggling when I saw him. He’d messed up some things in his life, he’d fallen off his sobriety wagon, he’d let some relational wounds fester, and he came in clearly feeling a lot of shame, guilt, and fear. There’s no medicine I can prescribe for that stuff. He wasn’t inebriated or psychotic. We started to talk about previous seasons in his life where he’d struggled, and he said something like “I never talk about those times, though. No one gets it.”
I’ve been reading a book called “Wintering: The power of rest and retreat in difficult times” by Katherine May. She’s been called a secular mystic. I started reading the book a few months ago because I knew Winter was coming and I traditionally haven’t had the best mental health in the winter. The friend who recommended it to me said it helped shine light on why Winter seasons are necessary, special, and healing. The book paints a beautiful picture of what’s happening in the natural world during Winter, but it mostly follows the author’s personal journey through some seriously rough seasons of her life. I see Jesus all over the pages as she talks about acceptance of our limitations and finding nourishment in our inward retreats, but she doesn’t necessarily use traditional Jesus language.
So what is “wintering”? She defines it as going through "a fallow period in life when you're cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider." I can think of a few fallow periods I’ve been through. The dictionary defines fallow as ground that has been “plowed but left unsown for a period in order to restore its fertility as part of a crop rotation or to avoid surplus production.” Read those two definitions slowly. Wintering. Fallow. To restore its fertility. Or to avoid surplus production. What does our culture have to say about those ideas?
Over the last few years, more often than not, I think I’ve become quicker to detach myself from patients who are really depressed. If I’m honest, I usually don’t want to dive into that stuff with a stranger, ya know? To engage it too deeply could pull me into it, I think. I’m part of a society that mostly says struggling is to be avoided. Keep planting! Surplus is king! Those who are “wintering” really aren’t well, in our collective opinion. But what I’m missing is the truth that wintering cannot be avoided, and the universality of it means it doesn’t have to be feared. Our God knows the seasons, both externally and internally. Everyone is going to mess up or have the rug pulled out from under them, usually many times! So what this “wintering” concept has done for me is to better normalize the cyclical pattern in our lives of getting beat down and having to re-learn how to care for ourselves, how to ask for and accept care, and how to just wait with God sometimes.
After sitting and listening to my patient my in that sterile ER room, I eventually offered him bits and pieces of this counter-cultural wisdom — namely that he wasn’t really alone in his struggles — and guess what? He didn’t believe me! He basically said, “That’s a nice concept, man, but it’s just words.” Talk about making me depressed… Sadly, there’s no great outcome to this guy’s story, at least not yet. The last few weeks I’ve been reminiscing on how hard it is for us to believe our pains or our screw-ups are normal, universal, baked into the cycle of seasons, part of how we interact with and know God. Katherine May, the secular mystic, writes this:
“We’re not raised to recognize wintering, or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend to see it as a humiliation, something that should be hidden from view, lest we shock the world too greatly. We put on a brave public face and grieve privately; we pretend not to see other people’s pain. We treat each wintering as an embarrassing anomaly that should be hidden or ignored. This means we’ve made a secret of an entirely ordinary process, and have thereby given those who endure it a pariah status, forcing them to drop out of everyday life in order to conceal their failure. Yet we do this at a great cost. Wintering brings about some of the most profound and insightful moments of our human experience, and wisdom resides in those who have wintered.”
At the Windrush retreat a few weeks ago Jesus’s first line from the Beatitudes was mentioned: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Again, do we really believe that? Those who are wintering and who have wintered may relate to the “poor in spirit” piece. Do we believe that wintering really leads to wisdom and blessing? Take time to go into the places your own soul may be wintering, to bravely share it with your loved ones, and to share in other peoples’ wintering areas too. You really never know who could change your life (or whose life you could change) by believing in the power of wintering.