February 2, 2013: Groundhog Day. It was 19°F this morning; and overcast. Although I live only a few hours from the celebrated home of Punxsutawney Phil, I don’t know why I would have a reason to visit there; particularly in February. Quite frankly, I can’t remember if I’m rooting for him to see his shadow or not. At this point, I don’t really care. This time of year always seems to be full of days that get me down.
Even seeing other people enjoying life can get me down. My daughter Caity posted this picture on Facebook last night. She and Pete are visiting friends Brian and Lisa in Hawaii. Damn it!!
When I was a Midshipman at the Naval Academy, the 10-week period between the end of the holiday break and the beginning of spring break was ominously referred to as The Dark Ages. The days were shorter, the drab-gray stone of Bancroft Hall bleaker, and gravity just seemed heavier. The walk across the historic Yard, stunningly beautiful in fall and spring, was plainly miserable as we fought the soul-piercing cold winds whipping off the Chesapeake Bay. It didn’t matter which direction I was heading, when I was a Plebe, I always had a headwind. As I recall (way back before the internet) even the Postal Service played its role in the Dark Ages, allowing only bad news to be delivered from the outside world. Everything seemed harder and more arduous in the first half of the new semester. Nobody was immune; at some point during the Dark Ages, everyone succumbed.
Of course, having reported to Annapolis from Hawaii, I strongly suspected I had it tougher than most. In fact, as it turns out, I am pretty good at that – thinking I have it tougher than most. Self-pity is one of those character traits that just come naturally to me. I’m pretty adept at feeling sorry for myself.
Midshipmen, historically, are quite capable of idly passing time during this period of gloom. In fact, when two or more Mids are gathered together during the Dark Ages, anything can happen. While some stories are unsubstantiated (my father, a Mid in the 50’s, once spoke of the group that trained a cat to be a paratrooper, by strapping the unsuspecting feline to a home-made parachute and tossing it out of a window from the 4th deck), some antics were recorded. Here are a few pics from the Dark Ages of 1978. No captions are necassary.
I’m told a sign of emotional maturity is rational problem-solving. First I need to admit I have a problem. Only then can I chart a course of action to remedy the situation. Admittedly, maturity has not congruently accompanied my aging process. That being said, even in my case, the basic forces of evolution have spawned various coping mechanisms to get me through this annual recurring season of malaise. Changing views can change perspectives. From reading inspirational books and setting personal resolutions and business goals, to changing up my exercise regimen and adding a weekly trip to the tanning booth. Sometimes I make changes to trick my body into fighting off the winter doldrums. In short, I try to trick my body to feeling happier.
It doesn’t really work that well, this trying to think my way to better living.
A month ago, after 8 years of working from home, I moved into an office building with my business partners. While the change of view, the collaborative atmosphere, and the hot pursuit of business goals are genuinely exhilarating, what’s left of me at the end of the day is not so hot. I found myself falling into old habits that breed self-pity. Rolling in around 7:00 PM, exhausted, I eat dinner then unceremoniously mosey into the family room to plop in my new chair. I spend the next few hours mindlessly flitting between the television, twitter, and texting; and nodding off. Void of any perceptible energy, I have no desire to read, write or otherwise engage creatively, I start to feel sorry for myself. Even Leigh, as she walks by shaking her head, steers clear to avoid any possible contagion. Clearly this is not the package she’s looking to cozy up to. Now pissed off that passion and romance hasn’t spontaneously broken out right there on the family room floor, I seamlessly transition into victim mode; “Poor me, poor me!”
It’s pretty pathetic. As I heard recently, “The smallest package in the world is a man all wrapped up in himself.” Boy does that sting!.
What I’ve come to realize is there is no “one thing” I can do, or have, that will pull me out of this self-absorbed funk; I’ve never been able to think my way out it – I have to act my way out of it.
Somewhere on my path the mantra, “Gratitude begets grace” was planted in my brain. The depth of this truth often escapes me in its simplicity. The key for me is to redefine what gratitude is, or more importantly, what it is not. I used to believe that gratitude was the feeling I had when I got something I desired. What I’ve come to (re)learn is to be grateful for the way things are, as opposed to being grateful for something I have received.
Gratitude is an attitude toward the present moment, no matter the circumstances. Gratitude calls for both awareness and for action; I need to pay it forward. Gratitude is not a weigh station for me to rest on my laurels and bask in the sunshine of getting something. While technically ‘gratitude’ is not a verb, it is something I can only keep by taking action. The bottom-line truth is, I can’t always think my way into good living, but I can live my way into good thinking. And good thinking makes me a more attractive package; and that can make me happy!
As for Caity and Pete on their mid-winter Hawaiian Holiday – I honestly couldn’t be more pleased for them. I’m just saying that I could probably experience some Groundhog Day Gratitude in Hawaii as well as I can in Pennsylvania…
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.