Do you ever feel bleak? Empty and barren inside? Looking out on a world that seems dreary and without hope? What can we do with these times – these desolate seasons of the soul? I intended to write this post about the “bleak midwinter” earlier but, ironically, I was feeling too bleak to write it! In this case, it was exhaustion and illness that had got to me. Sick as a dog (why a dog, I wonder? My dog is the healthiest of us all…), I lay weakly in bed, despairing of ever feeling good again. Even lifting my head from the pillow seemed a momentous task, let alone lifting a pen. And of course, in the true spirit of bleakness, I felt I had nothing to say that was worth the effort anyway.
My bleakness, fortunately, lasted only a few days. But there are times in life when we go through bleak periods that seem never ending. The poet Christina Rossetti captures it well in her poem “In the Bleak Midwinter“
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
There is a sense of desolation, of barrenness, of cold and frozen despair. Of being unable to move, and being smothered more and more with the sheer weight of living. Do you know that feeling?
One of our readers writes about just such a period in her life. “It’s a strange and difficult time. I feel like a drop of water in an ocean of tears. Sometimes I cry as emotions and beliefs, fears and stories I tell myself about myself and my life come up for processing. Then the storm passes, and I feel peaceful again. For a short while. Then an ad on TV, a photo on the Internet, a remembered conversation from someone’s sad story that I read in a magazine… will trigger a storm of intense emotional pain in me. It’s as if I am drawing to me all the sadness and pain in the world. I feel like I am engulfed by pain. As if I am a radio receiver tuned into that frequency of suffering….And it all leaves me feeling very tired. Confused. Weary to my soul”.
Bleakness and despair are often companions of grief. They can plunge us between extremes of frozen numbness and overwhelming feelings of loss, pain and confusion. They strip life of feeling, of purpose, of joy. Along with grief, they can arrive suddenly, with the loss of someone we love, a job, a relationship, a sudden change in health. They can also creep up, as small and large anxieties, disappointments and griefs accumulated over the years blanket us slowly one by one.
What to do? How do we cope with the bleak midwinter? I have two suggestions.
Firstly, in the creative, soul-filled life, I believe we have to make space for the winter of the soul. To allow some room for those times of bleakness and barrenness. (Please note, I am not talking here about clinical depression, which is a real health issue that needs professional treatment). Thomas Moore, in his book “Care of the Soul” (well worth reading!), suggests that we need to accept all the different colours in which the soul presents itself, and “resist the temptation to approve only of ….the brilliant colours”. He says the times of bleakness and melancholy have gifts – of insight, experience and wisdom – and that they “give the soul an opportunity to express a side of its nature that is as valid as any other, but is hidden out of our distaste for its darkness and bitterness”.
The gifts of these times can be found in the very sense of emptiness and stuckness that we run from – if we allow them space, lean into them, and let them be. When our regular ways of thinking and acting no longer work, and our ego defences are inadequate, we are faced with emptiness. But it is an emptiness that can be filled. New ways of being and new possibilities can begin to emerge. This takes time, it takes darkness. In the winter, things withdraw and slow down. On the outside, things can seem miserable and desolate. It is hard to believe that beneath the bleak exterior new growth is happening. In the darkness, in the depths, seeds crack open, roots are put down. In ways we cannot see, nourishment happens, life grows.
Like in nature, we need these times of emptiness in our lives. Times when our soul shuts down from outside interests and concerns, and plunges its own depths. When that happens, we can cling on to the knowledge that despite all that our senses tell us, life is continuing below the surface. The bleak midwinter of the soul will not last forever. Spring will come. New shoots will break forth. We will once again feel the warmth of the sun.
Secondly, even in the bleakest of days, we can do things to keep ourselves warm. We can light a fire that sustains us. We can allow ourselves the nourishment we need. But that will be the subject for my next post!
How did you feel reading this? Does any of it resonate with your experience? Should we have to suffer through bleak times? Share your thoughts in the comments below.