The Doldrums

This article was originally published in Delaware Communion (January 2019)

The Doldrums

Sailors of old—the ones who fought pirates with rum running through their veins—had a colloquialism for the windless, calm periods: the doldrums. Their masted vessels, sails luffing, stagnating in the water pushed by the whim of the tides.

To many of us that’s what this time of year feels like, the doldrums. The excitement—religious and commercial—of Christmas is over. We’ve already cast off those pesky New Year’s resolutions, and it’s a long way until the feast days of St. Valentine and St. Patrick (if one can even be bothered with such Hallmark holidays) or the biggie: Easter. There’s no wind. Our ship drifts as it appears there’s nothing stretching before us but cold and dark. A bear’s routine of crawling in a cave and sleeping until springtime starts to make sense. I mean, why bother?

But there’s hope. The wind will pick up and the doldrums will pass, for everything is cyclical. Our lives are supposed to consist of yin and yang (if you’ll permit me a Daoist reference), albeit the valleys can be a bit boring. The changing nature of our lives is affirmed in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes 3, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…” The author of Ecclesiastes is telling us that no matter what we’re doing now it will change and that’s natural. Our lives are in a constant state of flux, doldrums and all.

We’re born, we die. Ecclesiastes promises us there are times for those events. Birth and death are the bookends, so to speak. But in between is the process of growing, maturation, and aging, things Ecclesiastes 3 promises too. When my kids were babies we used products from a company called Summer Infant. It specializes in baby accoutrements (monitors, car seats, strollers and the like), and no you don’t have to be born a summer baby to use their swag. I believe the product name is meant to infer the parents are in the “summer” of their lives (careful research of the product website yielded no supporting data for my hypothesis). Things are “in bloom” in the parent’s lives as they are having offspring. And in that stage of life—summer—one typically has stabilized in other areas such as financially and professionally. To continue the seasonal parable, people enter the autumnal time of their life—sometimes called “the golden years” —where they retire, travel, pursue hobbies and volunteer endeavors and enjoy their grandchildren. Autumn turns to winter, and I’m reminded of the old Protestant prayer that opens many funerals, “Eternal Father, before whom all generations rise and fall…” The cycle continues as winter turns to spring and another generation rises.

Within the seasons stretching across our lives, we experience daily and yearly patterns.

Perhaps one of the most ingrained patterns is that of school. We’ve all gone to school and had the academic calendar pounded into our heads, so it probably won’t come as a surprise when I tell you I’ve been working for a decade and a half but as August wanes, I still think, “Back to school time,” and as Christmas approaches, I still think, “Christmas break.” Even though I don’t get a nice two week break like we did in school, I still think of that period of time surrounding the last two weeks of the year as just that: “Christmas break.” And as I watch my kids settle into their school routines all the sub-routines of school are re-visited. Scouting, fall is for football, baseball spring, all leading up to the day kids cherish the most: the last day of school.

Of course, many professions have cycles, or routines throughout the year. Accountants are beyond hectic during tax season, hoteliers are busy during the summer break when everyone is on vacation, retailers generate the lion’s share of revenue during the holiday season, and of course, clergy members follow their respective religious calendars. The Christian clergy having just finished up Advent and soon to be heading into Lent, culminating in Holy Week. It’s their version of tax season. No matter what business you’re in it all ebbs and flows. Sometimes it’s nice to re-charge and enjoy the downtimes though it seems like our connected world pushes us more and more to do and do and do. It’s OK not to be constantly doing; you need the yin for the yang.

Don’t let the doldrums of winter get you blue, in fact, enjoy the quite now while it lasts. The sails of your ship will fill once again; spring is right around the corner. To quote the French philosopher and writer Albert Camus, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” For now is the time to plant which you will pluck up later.