I don’t know if this is something that is on your radar or not, but today is the winter solstice–the shortest day of the year. Today we will see less hours of daylight than at any other time (at least in the northern hemisphere) until next winter. I have always been fascinated by the solstices–both summer and winter. They feel like a concrete reminder that we are part of a bigger world, a world that can affect us whether we like it or not. And this year, with news about hate crimes, terrorism, and global challenges, many of us feel very affected by the bigger world.
I have a special affection for the winter solstice. I know that may seem a bit odd. After all, it’s cold and dark. And if you’re in the Midwest, the cold and dark can often be accompanied by the worst of all weather phenomena: freezing rain. It’s in that pre-holiday stretch, where you can’t help being affected by stores that are picked over, traffic patterns that are out of wack, and busy schedules–no matter what traditions you celebrate (or dread). There is less light than any other day of the year. All in all, there appears to very little to recommend the winter solstice as anything other than a day to be endured.
There are two things that make me like the winter solstice:
We All Spend Time in the Dark
No one gets through life without time in the dark, both literally and figuratively. Darkness, whether it’s from emotional pain, physical pain, or spiritual pain–is a part of the human experience. And yet, I sometimes feel like we live in a culture that’s focused on artificial light. We don’t make a lot of room for pain. We’re uncomfortable and uncertain about how to talk to folks with disabilities or serious illnesses. We often expect people to “get over” grief–because we’re not sure what to do with their sadness and loss. When people ask how we’re doing, the rote answer is “okay.” Not because it’s true, but because we don’t trust one another to hear the truth. Or we don’t have the energy to speak the truth. Or we don’t want to be the “downer who speaks the truth. No matter the reason, we take our pain and darkness and hide it away from one another.
What I appreciate about the winter solstice is the reminder that the darkness affects us all. I see it as a great conversation starter. Older cultures used to observe this shortest day together. They would gather and share the experience of darkness. I don’t think that it’s coincidental that those cultures also made more space for emotional darkness, with rituals like formal mourning. In today’s culture, acknowledgement of darkness is sometimes dismissed as complaining. That dismissal isolates us and creates shame around genuine human experience. We can all benefit from the reminder that the darkness is a shared experience.
The Dark Diminishes
The second thing that I like about winter solstice is that it’s a turning point. Yes, it’s the shortest day of the year, but it also marks the moment when the light begins to return. The day after winter solstice is a tiny bit longer. And the next is even more light-filled. This is a powerful symbol of hope and renewal.
When people ask me “how can you do your job?” they are asking about how I can be comfortable with the pain and emotional darkness that brings people to therapy. For me, the answer to that question is in the winter solstice. I see pain and darkness as natural parts of our lives. We can’t avoid them, but we can move through them, make progress in our healing, and walk together toward the spaces where there is light. To go back to older cultures, one part of the winter solstice observation was to create light for one another, to hold the light even in darkness. I believe that therapy can be that light in the winter solstice moments of life. And I believe that we all come to our turning point, where the dark lessens. The change isn’t immediate or dramatic, but it’s real.
Holding the Light
I am immensely grateful to be part of several communities that are committed to holding light for one another. To allow a true acknowledgement of darkness, then provide companionship as we move through it toward light. If you’re reading this in a moment of darkness, I’d love to know who’s holding light for you right now. What kind of support do you need as you walk through the hard things in life? I hope that you find comfort and connection, that you’re able to reach out for whatever support you need until the darkness starts to diminish.