I remember fall in Connecticut when I was a child. I played outdoors until it grew dark, crunched leaves underfoot, and stared up at the brilliant stars overhead through a crisp, cold night. While I did loathe going back to school, otherwise fall was a beautiful season.
I spent most of my childhood in places like this — places where there were trees, and small farms, and snowy fields. But when I was 18, I went to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was my first time living in a city. Around the same time, I started getting very depressed during fall and winter.
When there are delicious fall smells, beautiful fields covered with frost, and incredible colors on the leaves, then everything feels in place. There is sadness that summer is ending, but also a sense of anticipation for the new season coming in.
But in the city, there is no context. No crab apples falling to the ground; no pine needles; no frost-covered fields. Snow isn’t beautiful, but just a pile of grey and black slush. Worst of all, in Cambridge there were no stars and no real night. The night sky glowed an unearthly orange.
So when fall came, it didn’t mean anything, and it wasn’t part of a cycle. It was just dark. It was just cold.
In a way, I wasn’t sensitive to the change of seasons as much as I was sensitive to the change of seasons out of context. Fall in the country felt like the turning of the year; fall in the city just felt like . . . death.
I suspect that part of reason people get SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is that the physical body needs context and meaning to deal with change. Right now, the treatment for SAD is to try to replace the sunlight that’s missing: get a person under sunlamps, have them take a vacation somewhere sunny, etc. And that is certainly helpful. But I suspect that if you take a person with SAD, and let them spend a week outside, working with the land, putting their hands in the soil, walking in the woods, and eating seasonal foods, their symptoms will also improve.
This need for context and meaning is also true for life. For example, how do we deal with aging as a culture? In America, it’s about denial. Dye your grey; get a facelift; do pilates; fit into your skinny jeans. This is because we’ve lost the context that gives aging its meaning. Life is supposed to be a cycle, where each age has challenges, but also benefits. Old age is supposed to come with gifts; grandchildren, respect in the community, lifelong ties and shared experieces with family. But in this modern age, where the elderly are so often shut out of life, there is none of the consolation of age. Without meaning, aging is just cold, and dark.
So often, we try to fix things or cure them. We cannot fix loss, and illness, and death — but we can create connection. Everyone experiences misfortune, but not all misfortune causes suffering. Whether the journey is ultimately healing or crushing depends largely on the context and meaning of the experience, and the sense of being connected to something larger than oneself.