Until that day dawn – and it may not dawn at all while I am in this mortal flesh – I shall go on hoping. Hope deferred is good enough for me.— Dom Hubert van Zeller
What is it about February anyway? It can’t be just the weather, although that’s certainly a factor in South Bend. Grey, gloomy, cold, snow, snow, snow. Then the snow starts to melt a bit, but you’re stuck with grey, gloomy, cold, and slush. Yeech.
But we have thermal underwear and Thinsulate gloves. We’ve got space heaters and fireplaces. We’ve got full-spectrum lamps to take the edge off the light deprivation and our battered circadian rhythms. And, besides, February seems to be rough on everybody, even those in sunnier climes.
So, it is liturgical? We cling to Christmas as long as possible — stretching it out to Candlemas if we possibly can. Even then, however, we know that the subsequent burst of greenish ordinary time will be short — that Lent is just around the corner. It’s an awareness that wasn’t helped any this year as February was ushered in with this Sunday reading from Job:
I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me. If in bed I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn…. Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.
Whatever the origin of our February blahs, it does take its toll, especially on those of us already inclined to melancholia. If it’s a dip in mood of clinical significance, then we can take advantage of appropriate pharmaceuticals – and thank God for ‘em, I say. They’re not a crutch; they’re not a surrender to weakness. Targeted prescription after thorough diagnosis can — and often is — a lifesaving measure. Lifesaving! Taking drugs for depression or mood disorders is no different than taking insulin for diabetes or beta blockers for high blood pressure. Where there’s physiological dis-ease, there’s medicine to facilitate recovery and even cure. How is that a crutch? How is that weakness?
But what if our blues don’t reach a clinical threshold? What if our February funk is simply a seasonal existential slide, peppered with doubts – about ourselves, our relationships, our God – and inching us toward despair?
For one thing, you’re not alone, and you can take heart that more of your neighbors than you think are going through the same thing. Trust me on that. Confide in a friend and – voila! – your friend confides in you. Already you have that reassurance of solidarity with an empathetic soul. Ask for prayer; pray for each other. Pray for your friend’s relief – demand it, even – but also pray for his endurance if relief is not forthcoming. Your friend will be praying the same for you.
And do endure. Here I’m taking a risk, for there are few things more annoying, few things more exasperating, than someone who is not depressed dishing out advice to those who are. I know this because I’ve been on the receiving end, and it’s a rare form of unpleasantness. “Buck up,” someone will say. “Count your blessings.” Or worse: “Hang in there. Things are bound to get better.”
But sometimes they don’t, and, as Van Zeller notes, “It’s the endlessness of darkness that constitutes its peculiar pain.” Sometimes the funk never fully lifts; sometimes the winter blahs never quite fade away; sometimes February stretches on into April and May, even July. Months turn into years. The sun lamps and the pharmaceuticals have no effect. What then?
It was St. Francis de Sales who got me thinking about this. Spiritual deserts aren’t exactly the same as emotional ones, but they’re certainly related and they almost always overlap. “In the midst of spiritual dryness and sterility,” De Sales writes, “let us never lose courage, but wait with patience for the return of consolation.” He goes on to recommend a “holy indifference” with regards to deliverance – not “that we must not even wish for a deliverance, but that we should not set our heart upon it.”
That’s sounds reasonable, albeit raw, but then he goes on to make this causal connection: “When God beholds this holy indifference, He will comfort us with many graces and favors.” I was bothered by that determinative “will.” If we’re banking on comfort and deliverance eventually, then we’re not all that indifferent, are we? That’s especially the case if we’re expecting comfort as a form of recompense – as if to say, “OK, God, I’ve been suffering through this dryness (melancholy, depression), and I’ve been ‘indifferent’ about being freed from it for, lo, these many weeks (months, years). I’d say it’s high time you pony up with the graces and favors.”
That can’t be what De Sales means. There’s no guarantee, no contractual obligation on God’s part, and while we must not give in to despair — no matter what — we can’t delude ourselves that we’re owed some kind of surcease after a reasonable waiting period.
For help in unraveling this knot, I turned to novelist Walker Percy — that stubborn Southern Catholic much acquainted with melancholy and funk. “There are two possibilities: either commit suicide or not commit suicide,” he writes. “If one opts for the former, that is that…. But if one opts for the latter, one is in a sense dispensed and living on borrowed time.” Borrowed time — that’s the gift! And maybe that’s the grace and favor that De Sales was talking about. For what can we do with borrowed time? Here’s Percy’s prescription:
Here I am washed up, it is true, but also cast up, cast up on the beach, alive and in one piece. I can move my toe up and then down and do anything else I choose. The possibilities open to one are infinite. So why not do something….
Yes, do something — why not? It’s borrowed time — like recess or, better yet, a snow day — and one is “not dead! One is alive! One is free!” Like our friends in A.A., we take one day at a time. No need to fake holy indifference while secretly counting on divine payback. We wake up, we curse the funk, and we make a pot of coffee. Hope is a virtue because there are no guarantees. Please God, lift our February melancholy sooner rather than later. In the meantime, give us strength to do something with your gift of borrowed time.