Choosing to Let in the Light, Even in Winter's Gloom

How we think about our challenges leads us forward or keeps us stuck.

Posted Jan 22, 2018

In the bleakness of a cold New England mid-winter day, gray skies above and snow all around, it’s harder to find the light we need to guide us forward and keep us growing strong.

But it’s there if we know where to look for it. Like sunlight reflecting off the snow, it can be blindingly brilliant if we fully open our eyes to it.

Seeing the light on a gray winter’s day has everything to do with our focus. It will look dark indeed if we focus on the hassle and inconvenience of another snowstorm: It’s disruptive and doesn’t suit our plans. It’s not how we would prefer things.

A shift in focus, on the other hand, opens a whole new world of possibility. Instead of the downsides of the wintry weather, what if we focus on its beauty? What if we choose to see it as an opportunity to pause a moment? 

What if, instead of focusing on how winter weather disrupts our plans, we choose to recognize how tenuous all our plans are? Or to acknowledge how interconnected the world is as we rely on other people—to plow the roads, deliver the fuel we need to heat the house, or grow and process the oats we eat in a hearty cold-weather breakfast—to let us go about our lives?

What if we flip the very image of the wintry landscape on its head and see it not as bleak and gray, but as a time of rest when the earth itself seems to pause?

Even on the gray, bleak days of our lives, there is light—if we know where to look for it, and when we choose to see it. It’s there, and it’s all around us. 

It’s the smile of the cashier at Starbucks and the gentle prod of the physical therapist helping an elderly woman to overcome her fear of using the walker again after taking a spill. It’s a friend’s knowing laugh when you share another “You wouldn’t believe it” story from your love life. It’s in a man’s proud smile as he holds his new granddaughter on his lap, and in her own bright smile at being held gently and protectively by this big version of her own small new human body.

An Italian-American friend in New York, who is both a medical professional and an accomplished musician, told me his favorite word in music is sfogato, which in Italian means “light and airy.” It also refers to letting in light or air, as with Venetian blinds. He said he particularly loves the Italian pastry called sfogliatelle—wafer-thin layers of crunchy dough cuddling a soft sweetened cheese filling. “I love them not only to eat but to remind me ‘to let (allow) the light in,’" he said.

There’s the key: letting, allowing, the light in.

We choose either to let the light in—or to see only the gray and darkness. We can’t see so well in the dark, if at all. But the light illuminates our surroundings, lets us see things more clearly, puts things into perspective.

In Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song “Hallelujah” we hear a man describing the challenges of love, sex, longing, faith, and regret. There are dark feelings, and there is light. In the final verse, he sings:

And even though it all went wrong

I'll stand before the lord of song

With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah

The singer echoes Job, known for his profound suffering, who famously said, “Though he [God] slay me, yet will I trust in him.” There has never been a starker example of someone choosing the light despite the thick darkness that could easily pull him under if he let it.

Darkness, adversity, and trauma come to every one of us—multiple times over our lifetimes. But instead of being bent and bowed by them, we have the power to choose how we will respond to them.

“We all must face difficult events in our lives,” writes Stephen Joseph in his book What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth. “What has happened cannot be undone. Our only choice is how to live with what has happened.” 

The choice ultimately comes down to the story we tell ourselves about our suffering. “A lot of the time we might not recognize it as a story,” said Joseph, professor and co-director at the University of Nottingham (UK) of the Center for Trauma, Resilience, and Growth (and Psychology Today blogger on resilience). “But really so much of it is a story in which we are the hero, the victim, or whatever, and we can reframe it very differently if we choose.”

We alone can choose to see the light—even in the bleak midwinter, and in the darkness of our present circumstances. We alone can choose to be either sfogati, those who let in the light, or those who stay stuck in the darkness.