During the first semester in my freshman year of college, I got involved with a local group of student writers. Once a week, we would meet to discuss literature, share poetry, and offer constructive criticism of each other’s work.
In the week following Thanksgiving break, as we prepared to enter into our first semester of college finals, we diverted our anxiety by indulging in a deep dive of Sylvia Plath’s work. We had just finished a read of Wakening in Winter when the professor charged with the custody of our literary well being posed the question to our small group: Why do so many poems in the Winter involve such dark undertones?
The group sat quiet for a few minutes, before I broke the silence, “Well, clearly because everything is dead…” At the time, it was a no-brainer — stating what I thought was the given obvious answer to his question. But the others just sat, in a sort of disparingly muted response. While I could not see their eyes, I felt the gaze of judgement, writing off my response as being over dramatic. They fumbled for their own responses, trying to override my initial assertion. However, it still stood as the best response in my own mind.
Depression is a serious thing for millions of Americans. And, December does not walk lightly into their mood spanning Thanksgiving and the New Year; when holiday parties and family gatherings are full of illuminations of joy, hope, and promises for future prosperity. We amber the season with the never-ending mantra of “Happy Holidays.” It rings like the Bells of St. Mary’sÂ — clambering out like a resounding gong in the souls of those walking along streets strewn with holiday lights wearing heavy boots on their feet.
My adolescence was mired with bouts of depression. And December amplified my melon collie sadness, making holidays that much harder to handle.
The week following final exams, I flew down to Mexico City, to visit my father who was living there at the time. His job would fly us down to visit for the holidays, and while there, I got caught up in a pilgrimage which lead me to the Shrine of Guadalupe.
At the time, my attitude was that of a freshman who felt like he had unlocked the answers to everything after surviving his first semester in college. I was an atheists, and had been for pretty much my whole life. College opened the door to new ideas and new expressions, as well as placed me in a circle of peers who were questioning their own values handed to them by their families, lion’s share of which were rooted in southern theological systems that pushed back against the intellectual pursuit of wisdom.
More the strange, then, that I, raised without such faith based bias would get pulled into a parade of pilgrims making their way all up and down the Pan American highway to this centuries old shrine that had begun to sink in the soft earth of the ancient wetlands that now comprised Mexico City.Â
By the time we made it through the line into the main chapel, being placed on moving sidewalks to control the massive crowd that tried to eye the shroud with the impression of the Virgin Mary, I became overwhelmed by the amount of sincere adoration over something so small before the eyes of so many thousands of humans weighed down by the pains of poverty and socio-political oppression. Needless to say, the experience was transformative. It helped put the holiday season into a whole new perspective, experiencing some power that transcended the human spirit, fueling it with a fire that radiated an abundance of happiness amidst such pain and anguish.
That trip was twenty-five years ago this month. It had influenced me so much, that a year later I would be enrolled in classes to enter the Catholic Church. In seven years, after graduate school, I would be on my way to study theology and philosophy with the Benedictine Monks of St. Vincent’s Archabby, as I entered into studies toward becoming a priest. Seven years after that, I would leave formation for the priesthood in search of a companion to walk with me in life. I married, had two children, and have sense been engaged with the business that life brings for any parent, spouse, or anyone just trying to make their way in life.
It’s been twelve years since I walked through the halls of basilicas and ancient shrines in search of some higher power of happiness. But there’s still that part that can smell the burning incense, feel the smooth cold granite floors on my knees, and hear the sound of calming whispers amidst the silence of a cavernous sanctuary.
Today, I went in search of that space, that calming space that use to quell my depression, and while not always bring me happiness, at least bring me a sense of understanding that was a step closer toward my search for joy in my life.
It has been sixteen months since I presided over my mother’s funeral. For some reason, her loss has been much more pronounced this Christmas season than last year. I’m not sure why, but it’s been harder to find a spark of joy. It’s ironic, as I have everything in the world to be happy for this year. I have an amazing companion in life who gives so much to make those in her life happy. I have two young sons who are adjusting amazingly well to our new home in Baltimore, doing well in school, and reminding me each day what unconditional love means. I have a job that affords me the opportunity to bring justice to the masses and help those in crisis. And yet, my boots are weighed down with heavy soles these past few weeks.
In my years of searching for answers, I have found more questions than enlightened affirmations. But, I have discovered one thing that has kept me going amidst the dark nights of the soul, against the winter that one wakes to each day when struggling with a heavy heart. Happiness is obtainable in even the darkest night. Perhaps this is why Christmas was placed in the dead of winter. we learned in seminary how Jesus of Nazareth was more than likely born in the spring – not that the hills along now what is modern day Israel face harsh gray winters like Boston or Pittsburgh. However, they are weighed down with a heavy reality that when joy is superseded by hate, darkness extinguishes any light of joy.
Happiness is a choice. It is a frame of mind, a state of being. Chemical imbalances can fall upon it like a setting sun into the night, but the human spirit is capable of finding even the faintest star in the sky, like finding a single candle flickering in the darkness of a giant basilica.
Of course, I know for those experiencing depression today, finding joy amidst the pains of darkness is easier said then done. The challenge, then, is finding that faintest star, that single candle, and gently stoking its flame, allowing it to get brighter and brighter without blowing it out.
I have found often times that acknowledging the darkness helps to take that first step. It’s finding the time and space to simply pause, affording the eyes the chance to adjust to the darkness.Some nights stars are to the east, or more to the south. There may be too much noise in the sky to see what lies beyond. But take a second, find your sense of direction, and pause and breathe. In that time, search for the one thing that keeps you going. Even when there is no sign of hope in the northern sky, remember that the act of stopping to pause and look into the darkness is a sign that some light of hope exists just beyond the horizon. And when we know that hope is on the other side of darkness, then we can make our way through even the darkest night, knowing firmly that even amidst all the noise that drowns out the evening stars, no noise is loud enough to hold back the break of dawn.
Happiness, therefore, is something obtainable for all.Even the blind, who may not see the sun rise, can feel its warmth, knowing that there is at least one star that burns bright enough with the radiance of a new day, new opportunities which hold within themselves new choices.
So, then, during this holiday season, when I walk the brick lined streets along Baltimore’s Washington Monument, done up in all of its holiday cheer, I find myself able to put aside my heavy boots, reminded that happiness, even on the darkest day of the year, still abides. Knowing this, it allows me to say with complete sincerity, may you and those you come in contact with today and in the days that follow have a happy and joyous holiday.