I keep the Christmas lights on through Candlemas. That’s always the plan at least, though sometimes in mid-January I reach a point where the Christmas decorations just seem sagging and sad. Then I put them away. It’s better to face the gloom head-on than to cling to a last, pitiful crumb of leftover holiday cheer.
As a Minnesotan, I regard January as my earthly purgatory. Actually, it’s more like the start of purgatory; usually, we can expect a solid three months or more of cold and drear, which takes a serious toll on my mood.
As far as I’m concerned, April Fools’ Day is one of the best days of the year. That’s not because I have a particular penchant for wacky practical jokes. It simply marks the end of purgatory and the beginning of the nine other months in which I like being a Midwesterner.
Except for late winter, the Minnesota calendar is delightful. Coming out of the dead of winter, springtime always seems to be exploding with energy and joy. Summer brings the pleasures of garden vegetables, backyard cookouts and peaceful afternoons by the river. Fall is packed with seasonal fun, from corn mazes to community football games. Then come a string of exciting holidays, followed by, yes ... purgatory.
I realize that I have little grounds for complaint. I get nine happy months and three sad ones; that’s a very favorable ratio overall. I am blessed. But I still find it hard to trek through the purgatorial months without some sighing, and maybe a little bit of grumbling.
Minor hardships like winter are actually quite salutary for illustrating how needy I am and how prone to ingratitude. I live in a world that’s filled with small miracles literally at every turn. Even the snowflakes, if we pause to think about them, are wondrous creations.
Behind the bare branches, life is just waiting to spring forth in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile, my home represents a triumph of engineering, keeping my family dry and warm throughout the winter as we eat oranges and play board games. I listen to symphonies in the morning while making oatmeal on my always-working gas stove.
At night I kick back in front of my fireplace, browsing through offerings from humanity’s greatest minds. (Which spectacular work of philosophy or literature would most please me today?)
Seriously though, God. What have you done for me lately?
It can be a little bit terrifying to contemplate our own neediness. What I deserve in life seems so meager compared to what I need. As a new parent, I regularly had the thought, “My goodness, but children are needy!”
For a young child, almost every moment seems to bring some new desire that needs meeting or some insecure feeling that calls for reassurance, while every refusal is experienced as a crisis. A few years into motherhood, though, I had the realization: “I’m not actually so different.”
I can make my own peanut-butter sandwich and survive a put-down without dissolving into tears. I have surpassed toddlerhood. Nevertheless, my demands for food, stimulation, comfort and love are no less voracious.
Even minor deprivations make me cranky and disagreeable. Skipping breakfast counts as “fasting.” Three cold months in an otherwise-delightful calendar have me reflecting darkly about my personal purgatory.
Modern people have a bad habit of converting need into entitlement. If I genuinely need something, I presume that it must be given to me, for reasons that usually are not spelled out with much clarity. This tendency is unfortunate, for lots of reasons.
Humans are so very needy that we will always perceive ourselves as having unfilled needs. If we see all these as entitlements, we will be perpetually resentful and narcissistic. It’s far better, of course, to feel gratitude for what we receive. Better still, we should use our gratitude as a propeller, driving us toward a deeper faith in God.
From a certain perspective, the truly amazing thing is not my neediness, but the fact that God keeps providing. I squander so many of his blessings, but he keeps sending more. And when I consider the ratio of “needs filled” to “deprivations suffered,” the balance is a happy one indeed. It appears that God does not really mind so much that we are needy.
Indeed, Jesus has reassured us many times over that God has every desire to provide for us, rewarding our trust with ever more blessings. He returns to this theme in some of the most critical moments of his life.
At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” In the Sermon on the Mount, he reminds us to imitate the lilies of the field, trusting ourselves to God’s providential care.
Every time his disciples try to shoo the riffraff away from Jesus, he scolds them and invites the “unwanted” persons to approach. Even in his final hours on the cross, suffering for the sins of all mankind, Jesus still is not too busy to tend to the needs of particular humans around him (such as the Good Thief and his weeping Mother).
Jesus never berates us for being needy. He berates those who seek their own good at the expense of others’. But he also shows special tenderness toward children, the sick and the poor. God’s solicitude seems to fall especially on those who are needy.
Contemplating all of this, I can at least feel a certain peace about the desolation that creeps into my soul in the dead of winter. Sure, it’s a little ridiculous to feel like that, given the general luxuriance of my life. What can I say? I’m needy. I know God understands that. I don’t think he’s sneering at me.
Recognizing that, we can try to use these “chilly evenings” of the soul to remind us of our finitude and dependence on God’s providence.
Then we may find ourselves able and willing to pray for a deeper trust and a greater openness to whatever God may have in store for us in the near future, when the leaves spring forth once more.
Rachel Lu, Ph.D., writes on politics and culture
from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.