I dread December every year.
Even though I love Christmas, and there’s something refreshing about the crisp, cold air outside, the last month of the year always brings a feeling of morose. It’s because I hate getting off work and going home in the dark.
Every year, as the days get shorter and the sun sets earlier, I look out my office window and sigh. It’s too dark to take my kids to the park. I’ve spent almost every daylight hour behind my desk rather than soaking up sunshine, however cold that sunshine may have been. I feel like it’s bedtime before I eat dinner.
I’m not alone in this. For most of human history (and prehistory), our bodies adjusted to survive the winter months by slowing down, conserving energy and stretching scarce food a little farther. So there may even be a biological link between the darker days of December and the feeling of dread I get every year.
I was programmed to hate December.
Until this winter.
(Here’s a photo I took for Lynchburg College’s Instagram account about one year ago.)
As winter set in at the end of 2016, when the days became noticeably shorter and I found myself biking home from work each day in various stages of darkness, I responded with a different thought.
Things will get brighter.
About two weeks before winter solstice, rather than complain in my brain about how dark the coming days would be, I said to myself, “In just two weeks, there will be more sunlight every day.”
(Yes, listen to this song while you read. You’ll feel great!)
Every night when I checked out of the office, turned on my bike light, and pedaled up the hill in darkness, I thought about how I could look forward to brighter days ahead.
As a result, I loved December. My mental energy was no longer wrapped up in feelings of discouragement or despair. I didn’t mourn the loss of sunshine. Instead, I looked forward to its guaranteed return instead.
I even discovered that a later sunrise meant I could wake up later and still witness beautiful sunrises while running.
A few days ago, I hopped on my bike at the end of the day and noticed how incredibly light the world was. At 5:30, the sun had barely started to set. And yet just a few weeks ago, it was as dark as midnight at that time. I smiled and said a little prayer of gratitude that bright days return.
I was amazed how much my outlook on life improved with just one change in my thought process. By replacing “it’s so dark!” with “things will get brighter,” I was able to look forward with anticipation and optimism.
This reminded me of a lesson I learned from The Now Habit by Neal Fiore (a book I recommend to anyone who would like to overcome a procrastination habit). The Now Habit taught me to adopt a new attitude toward work through one simple change in thought. By replacing “I have to do this” to “When can I start?”, I learned to embrace difficult tasks with a sense of opportunity.
Likewise, a simple change in thought turned my December thoughts from darkness to optimism.
The power of hope
The promise of more light ahead can change the way we experience life. It also changes the way we act. Whether we focus on the encroaching darkness or the hope for brighter days, we may establish a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who prepares for spring if they believe winter will last forever?
I think of Martin Luther King Jr., who said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He recognized that the path toward freedom and Civil Rights was long — longer than it should have been. But he knew it was worthwhile. In his most famous speech, he remarked,
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair … Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. … With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it—always.” As a leader of nonviolent resistance (and an inspiration to Dr. King) he kept his thoughts on the fact that bright days are ahead.
Goals: Remember and share the light
After pondering on these thoughts, I have made two goals for myself.
First, on the dark days of life I will remind myself that as surely as the sun sets, it will rise again. As surely as the winter comes, springtime will return. And I should look forward to that day rather than dread the current day.
Second, I should bring light, and the promise of more light, into the lives of anyone having a dark day. Anything I can do that will remind them that there is goodness today, and there will be more tomorrow, may give them the hope they need that makes their winter bearable.
Whether we see darkness gathering in political trends, personal trials, or family heartaches, we should take heart, as leaders throughout history have, in the hope that things will get brighter.
In the words of the Five Stairsteps, “Right now.”