Stories among the darkness

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The autumn equinox last month marked the official end of summer, and thus we began the journey to the shorter days of winter. The change in daylight hours comes rapidly, urging us toward the darkness while the endless days of the season past seek refuge in our memories to become part of our life stories.

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Sunlight provides a vital source of emotional energy. As it leans farther to the southern horizon, the longer nights can also etch a shadow around our moods. The loss of daylight naturally impacts our state of mind. When the oncoming darkness lowers us into depression, it's aptly called SAD, the acronym for the clinically labeled seasonal affective disorder.

The Mayo Clinic describes three possible culprits to the disorder. The reduced level of sunlight may disrupt the circadian rhythm, our natural body clock. It may cause a decrease in serotonin, a natural chemical in our brain that affects our mood. Or it may be that our bodies usually produce more melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, when darkness prevails.

What's evident in all these descriptions is that the "disorder" is in a contentious mood, fighting the changes directed by our biological response to the increased darkness. Could it be that the resistance to the natural loss of daylight hours creates the sullenness we might feel? Is seasonal affective disorder a symptom of something more than biology going on?

Indeed, the Mayo Clinic's advice is aimed at managing just the symptoms. It describes light therapy as one of the primary treatments, which "mimics outdoor light and causes a biochemical change in your brain that lifts your mood."

But before technology allowed us to "mimic" daylight, all we had was Edison's incandescent light, which we could find at the flip of a switch. And how did people of a more distant past cope with their depression? Did they have to?

We're a culture highly dependent on artificial light. Our city streets remain ablaze until the dawn gives way to full daylight. Our homes are brightly lit throughout the night until we finally turn in. We can't read without light. The television beams a bright light of another kind so that we can see the stories we're being told without relying on our imagination.

Our children's nights often include stories read under the bedroom light. Is it the story they enjoy, or the delay of the night's arrival? They're often left with a tiny nightlight glowing to ward off the complete darkness. It seems to give them, and many of us, comfort before we give into the world of our dreams, which are stories of another kind.

Like our dreams, we don't need light to think about our own stories. The reaches of our imagination are full of them, threads of our lives sewed together from events held in our memories. But alone these aren't stories we're prepared to tell. Our past must feel meaningful to us to weave the events into a story, to turn what merely happened into experiences worth sharing.

Our stories may seem void of value when they're placed beside those told by pop culture's persistent reach into our homes. But the meaning to our lives won't appear on a flat screen that distracts us from wondering about it. And although the stories strangers tell us may be entertaining, they also diminish the time that we're available to listen to the people in our lives that we're closest to.

Psychologist and best-selling author Thomas Moore explains that you can "tell your story, again and again. Over time you may tell it more effectively, and its sheer beauty will help connect you with the people in your life. You will find unexpected pleasure in the aesthetics of your thoughts and words and that, too, will keep you going deeper, looking for further insights."

We all have stories, and after our one and only departure from this life, that's all we'll be, a story imagined in the minds of those we've left behind. But we have to discover them before they can be told and listened to. Perhaps the darkness arrives to ease the strain on our eyes so that we'll seek out the meaning in the stories we live.

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