Anatomy of the January blues

If there is one use for the calendrical New Year, it is provided, unintentionally, through the media, and through the accidents of social life. Towards the end of the old year, and bleeding into the new, we are exposed to a higher density of “signs of the times” than at any other time of year. Partly this is a by-product of the media habit of looking backward and forward: precisely twelve months back and twelve months fore. It is an arbitrary thing, but usually their cycle is twenty-four hours, or less with the advance of consumer electronics. Christmas, now for many years an essentially secular holiday, with little pretense of Christian thanksgiving but a modicum of “traditional” good cheer, adds more to this density. In some moments, even for those whose Christian affiliation evaporated before childhood, there are juxtapositions, contrasts.

In the media, or if you will, at a Christmas Party, or on New Year’s Eve, a lot of human experience can be compacted into a very small space, and much quickly passes before our eyes and ears. One has glimpses of the radical opposition between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, the true and the false, exhibited as if on signboards that anyone can read.

There is, especially in cold northern countries, a kind of post-partum depression that sets in after the holidays have passed. The weather plays some part in this: we who live in the vast conurbations do not look with relish on the next few months. In the countryside, a fresh snowfall can be uplifting; can be the making, for instance, of a “white Christmas”; in the city it can only mean service delays, traffic hell, dangerous sidewalks. The let-down after excessive eating and drinking comes into this, too: the sense that the party is over, and it is back to work for us.

But I think something deeper also contributes to our sense, however mildly it is taken, of emptiness, loneliness, hopelessness.

Even if we were not looking, we saw something in passing, and it haunts us still. Perhaps it was a vision of old age, in a season when long past memories were rekindled, and people were remembered who are no longer here. For that memento mori becomes a part of the “twelve days of Christmas,” as the years pile on. And with the summoning of memory comes the summoning of sorrows, especially sorrow in irretrievable events. (A woman weeping outside the nursing home, six months ago: “How many stupid last words I said, when all I wanted to say was, ‘I love you’.”)

But for the present the experience of “density” is enough. Something has passed by that we did not act upon. Something happened that we did not prevent. Something didn’t happen we had the power to make happen. Somehow, we missed it, when we had our chance. I would call this a form of “survivor’s guilt,” that exists within us at the metaphysical level, though confirmed in events, day after day.

To put this most plainly: we have seen good and evil, and not chosen the good; we have seen beauty and ugliness, and not chosen the beautiful; we have seen true and false, and not chosen the truth. We have chosen instead, with a grieving resignation, to “get on with it”; to play it safe; to avoid any kind of overreaction. Or as Christ put it, with spectacular poetry: we have taken our places with the dead, and are the dead, burying their dead.

It wasn’t a choice, according to most people. Just what were they supposed to do? “Most people” (the phrase itself makes me think of an ethnicity) did their bit, exactly as required. They weren’t late for work, even in the snowstorm. They did their shopping, bought their presents in time; they did not overlook anyone. Did not get hammered at the office party. Did not say anything to seriously regret. Suffered a few indignities without freaking. Blew the diet, perhaps, but they’ll soon be back on it.

How many people have said, “I am basically a good person,” without noticing that no one ever asked? And it is true that real monsters are a small minority, though I often think they are closer to being saved.

What we haven’t confronted, is that very emptiness, that loneliness, that hopelessness — together with the self-pity that explains it all away. For the modern man is a childless orphan, and the modern woman is a modern man, and this goes double when they are married to each other.

It is not that we did not see. I don’t think that excuse will hold for anyone. A policeman, from a former generation on the mean streets of New York, put this very nicely with his pet aphorism: “There is no such thing as an innocent bystander.”

And what is true with any subtlety is true in the overt, as I’m reminded by a video from the New York Daily News. It shows people stepping over the expiring body of a man freshly shot in a shop doorway, and the cashier continuing to process his sales, through the five minutes before some Good Samaritan decided to call emergency services on his cellphone. …

But what of that? Such events elicit attention only because they turn up the volume on our background noise.

And that is anyway not what we saw, or even if we did see it, only part of what we saw. Instead, there is something larger: how can it be described? For we saw it as if in fragments, glimpsed it as if through pickets in a fence, somewhere to the side of where we were looking as we went along our way. Our mind was elsewhere, and it remains elsewhere: saddened, and yet we don’t know why. (For there was light there, too, it wasn’t only darkness.)

I had a dream like this, the other evening. A baby was lying in the snow and slush. He’d been left there, accidentally discarded. People were busy, they were passing him by. I thought, he is cold, he has fallen on the sidewalk. Some woman must have dropped him on her way home. She’ll want to have him back, I must get him to her. But it was Christmas, there were legs on all these shoppers; the baby on the sidewalk kept sliding out of reach. I was trying to tell them, but no one could hear me; I could not even hear myself. Why can’t these people see there is a baby? A living baby, right at their feet? Why does no one stop for this baby, why doesn’t someone pick him up? And I awoke, thinking, “Jesus!”

But what I refer to is not a dream.