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James Carroll

Surviving the dark winter solstice

By James Carroll
December 8, 2008
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NOW BEGIN the darkest days of the year. This phenomenon of the revolutions of the Earth has long defined one pole of the human psyche. For the next two weeks, the days shorten, the nights grow longer, and the eyes of all people lift to see what's coming. Now is when theaters should mount "Waiting for Godot," or "Waiting for Lefty," bringing alive the national melodrama, which could be called, "Waiting for Barack." In fact, it is appropriate to these weeks that America's election euphoria has given way to the low-key stasis of, as we say, an administration-in-waiting.

Of course, what the nation overwhelmingly awaits is the economy's recovery, a hope that has been magically tied to the coming inauguration. Waiting is normally the most passive of experiences, yet in these weeks ahead of the comeback of the sun, waiting is positively exhausting. The seasonal observances - whether religious feasts, the festivals of light, the parties, or only shopping - all give expression to a fundamental longing, which in turns reveals the built-in contradiction of awareness.

On the Christian calendar, this is the time of Advent, which means coming. The genius of the sacramental imagination is to recognize in the givens of nature signals of the transcendent, and so the birth of the Lord was located at the winter solstice so that the lengthening of days could be seen as an emblem of the coming of the absent God, also known as Light of Light. But Christianity was merely lifting themes that adhere in the broad perceptions of the planet's cosmic dance. Before God's presence can be felt, God's absence must be reckoned with, and absence is the first present of December. "Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel," Christians sing, picking up on Isaiah's prophecy, but primordial longing for what does not yet exist is the point.

What does the season's shopping frenzy reveal, even in an economy when shopping makes little sense? Humans are conceived with a constitutional inability to be satisfied with the present moment ("conceived," as the tradition says, "in original sin"). That in-built dissatisfaction is so efficiently appealed to by ideas of acquisition and consumption that an entire financial system has been constructed around it. The darkest days of the year, when the unconscious is most at the mercy of longing, inevitably trigger the commercial mechanism of desire. Shoppers are after not what they buy, but the pure effervescence of buying. That lightheadedness substitutes for light, but it is fleeting. Capitalism is founded on an illusion. It is not only the delayed pain of the credit card bill that comes later, but the inevitable regret when, once home, the purchase disappoints. Is it possible that the present economic crisis is a final reckoning with the lie that happiness can be purchased?

Curious, isn't it, that depression is the word for both economic collapse and nervous breakdown. Of the latter, they say that depression is a three-part disease: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's. Our bad luck this year is that the economic and emotional letdowns have arrived together, perfectly timed for an epidemic of the solstice blues, which are sometimes diagnosed as seasonal affective disorder. Poignantly known as SAD, that condition is directly tied to the absence of light, and the provision of light is its treatment. But perhaps darkness is less the source of our anguish than the medium in which it is most painfully felt. Memory and expectation define the days of December - nostalgia for holidays of yore, the letter to Santa - because the past and the future are the unpolluted zones of consciousness. The present is always less than we imagine it could be, and that aspect of awareness most profoundly shapes the human condition.

I began by saying that darkness defines one pole of the psyche. Darkness is not its axis: there is something else. The double-mindedness that insists in the time of long nights that long days are surely coming back is itself the antidote. Humans cannot have the experience that something is missing without supplying it through an unwilled act of imagination. That is why, finally, longing and desire weigh so much more than nostalgia and regret. To want, in the true economy, is already to have. What we know of the light, we learn in the dark.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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