Settling Into a Pandemic Winter

This winter may be calling us to experience long neglected emotions.

Posted Jan 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

Sometimes, after dinner, the dishes washed and the kitchen reasonably cleaned, a window of time opens. My family disperses into the various corners of our home, allowing me to settle into the living room. I switch into comfortable clothing and I wrap myself in the soft, oversized blanket my wife gave me for Christmas.

Tonight, I look outside, into the darkness, where the only light comes from the faint glow off the newly fallen snow. I listen to the breeze shaking the trees, rattling the house, causing the chimney to whistle. 

Unsplash | Takemaru Hirai
Source: Unsplash | Takemaru Hirai

During an awful pandemic that mostly restricts, in the midst of a Minnesota January, freedom can sometimes be found. There are options for what to do that I don’t remember always having.

There are times when I light a fire in the fireplace and drink some herbal tea before settling into some pleasure reading, writing, or Netflix. Occasionally, a family member joins me for a game of Yahtzee or Quirkle. Some nights I go upstairs and settle into my tub, surrounded by candles, smells of lavender, and classical music played by Alexa.

In the past, I probably would have interpreted these unstructured, unplanned, unexciting nights as “boring.” However, I’m now finding power in reframing them as opportunities to “settle.”  

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) counteracts voices in my head telling me to "never settle," referring to the act of getting “yourself… comfortable in a new position,” “calm or relaxed.” When things “settle,” the OED adds, they “come to rest,” “stay for some time,” or “sink slowly down.”     

I resonate so strongly with that last phrase. How lovely, how centering, how rejuvenating to allow my self to “sink slowly down” into the core of my being.

Stanford psychological scientist Jeanne Tsai’s decades of research show how individuals in the West are more likely to prize high-arousal positive states such as elation, euphoria, and excitement. Perhaps part of the reason why so many people in the West struggle with quarantining and physical distancing during the pandemic is that opportunities for these high-arousal states have diminished. Restrictions prevent us from dining out, parties, concerts, sporting events, and travel, for instance, and we have no perceptible alternatives for good living.

Tsai finds that, in contrast, individuals in the East are more likely to value low-arousal positive states such as calm, contentment, and peace. Other traditions also focus more on striving for these states. Danes famously report being among the happiest people in the world, for example, and some happiness researchers attribute this to their emphasis on practicing “hygge,” sometimes translated to “cozy contentment.”

In her recent best-selling book, Wintering, Katherine May similarly suggests the following:

Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season in which the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things—slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting—is a radical act now, but is essential… It’s one of the most important choices you’ll ever make.

A choice to settle may seem like privileged activity, particularly for those overwhelmed by pandemic stress, such as many health care workers, teachers, and parents. And, yet, those who are overwhelmed may be most in need of a day, an hour, or even five minutes of calm. These moments could make all the difference between order and disorder, even life and death, for some.

In light of public health recommendations, I want to use this Minnesota January to self-quarantine and physically distance as much as possible, for sure. But, at the same time, I also want to recognize the choices I have to reflect, recoup, and replenish, which are perhaps unique to this time. There are emotions I can experience in these moments I’ve neglected. These may seem romantic or idealistic to some, but maybe that’s because part of us longs for them. To settle well is my new aspiration for this winter season and this pandemic season of life.

For while I don’t necessarily see any obvious life as I look at the snow outside my window tonight, I know it’s there, dormant, waiting to spring forth. When a new season comes, I want to be ready.