These Long, Dark Nights

A couple weeks ago I wrote about winter as an opportunity to appreciate the lighter, brighter, more cheerful times of life during the darker, colder, more serious times. In doing so, we find value in cold and darkness, and therefore we can appreciate those times too. Winter is beautiful because it is dark; it allows us to see things from a different, quieter perspective.

I work in and around Freeport, Maine, and the other night I stopped at L.L. Bean after work to do some holiday shopping. I had read a headline that informed me L.L. Bean’s holiday light display would bigger and brighter than ever before. My errand stop was an opportunity to check it out for myself. Indeed it was bigger and brighter than I had ever remembered, but to me it had lost its appeal. L.L. Bean’s light display was so bright it almost felt like daytime. In fact, I had walked directly through the center of the light display before I even remembered I wanted to check it out. It was so bright I didn’t notice it. That is to say, there was not enough darkness to highlight the beauty of the light display. When I turned back to observe the lights, it looked more like Vegas than it did Christmas.

Experiencing opposites over time, like dark things and light things, allows us to enjoy the benefits of both extremes.

An alternative example would be the auditory version of such opposites. Most mornings I listen to music on my way to work. I enjoy the ride most mornings, sitting by myself, listening to any music I want, as loud as I want. But some mornings I choose to listen to nothing. I enjoy the quiet ride just as much. I will often ride to work with no music or radio playing for a number of days in a row. Then the tide turns and suddenly I am excited to listen to music again.

One of my grandparents, before he died, wrote to me about the cycles of life, and he told me, “you’ll understand some day.” I don’t know if this is what he meant, but generally, I think we fare much better going about our daily lives when we don’t have too much of a thing, good or bad. Laughter is delightful, for example, but generally our bodies prevent us from laughing all the time. If we did, laughing would be much less special. The same would be true about crying. It is said that crying is therapeutic too. But who wants to cry all the time? So we go around in circles; we get excited, then we calm down. We get sad, then we cheer up. We laugh, then we stop. We get hungry and we fill up and we eventually get hungry again. We work hard and we relax. We sleep and then we wake up. It’s when we mess with those cycles that things begin to fall out of our control.

I think about all the dangerous things that happen when I don’t sleep enough. I become hyper-emotional, easily frustrated, tired, less focused, less motivated, more susceptible to catching colds and feeling unwell, and I get hungrier. Research suggests we become less safe when driving. During times of sleep deprivation, I become dysfunctional. I have never had long term problems with sleeping, and I an very thankful for that. Sleep disorders, from what I hear, are somewhat torturous to live with and can have serious impact on a person’s overall mental and physical health. Sleeping problems are usually caused by conditions that can be controlled, but that is not an easy thing to do. Body fat can cause sleep apnea, for example, and sleep medications can further complicate one’s natural sleep cycle. Losing weight takes time and serious effort, and sleep medications can be very difficult to wean one’s self away from. Excessive alcohol can also impact one’s sleep patterns.

The brain condition referred to as narcolepsy is a rare example of a chronic sleep disorder and can severely disrupt one’s natural sleep cycle, but generally sleep disruption is not a permanent condition in itself.

Sleep as a body-regulated rhythmic energy rejuvenator is a pretty fascinating natural phenomenon. It’s one of those natural cycles that when disrupted, throws life out of whack. Sleep is another thing that generally benefits from darkness. Sleep is the darkness that our bodies and minds need. I find it interesting that for ages we have sought deep meaning from the dreams we have when we sleep. I suspect dreams are nothing more than our brains trying to make sense of various stimuli—like noises, temperature extremes, a partner or pet kicking you, a stomach ache, having to pee, etc—with extremely limited functionality. As we are falling asleep or as we are in the process of coming out of deep sleep, a small part of our brain is working beyond its means to create a scenario based on the apparent conditions. Since we sweat when we are under stress, perhaps the best the tiny part of our brain that is awake and on duty while the rest of our brain and body are asleep is interpreting the warm conditions as a stress signal, so it creates a stressful story to get our attention back. Or maybe that part of the brain interprets a stomach ache as a tragedy or an unfortunate outcome we might dread. Once I awoke to the banging sounds of winter pipes in my college dormitory after having just dreamed I was dragging a bag full of cans to be recycled up a flight of stairs and then witnessed someone being shot. I suspect my brain was saying, something is not right, maybe there is danger! Wake up! Whether our brains are trying to alert us to danger, or making sense of pleasant stimuli like adrenaline and other hormones in our system, dreams appear to be keeping us in check, much like our bodies keep us in check with fatigue and sleep as a shut-down mode.

Winter solstice occurs on the longest night of the year in the Northern hemisphere. In Maine where it gets cold this time of year, our lives tend to get complicated. The holidays are cheerful for some, incredibly stressful or even sad for others. Long, cold, dark nights are difficult for some, but one thing I have learned is that winter is also a great time for rest. I’m a better teacher, a better husband, a better athlete, a better musician, a better dog owner, a better writer, and a better friend when I am well-rested.

I envy those with impressive work habits. Working hard for long hours is honorable and usually results in high productivity. Sometimes those long hours can become problematic, and upset the healthy balance, or cycles, our bodies and brains are trying to coordinate. It is important, if possible, to watch for signs of imbalance and take full advantage of these long, quiet, dark nights.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.