Parallels Between The Annual Cycle Of Nature And The Moments When Life Knocks Us Down

As we head into what is looking like another cold, harsh winter, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, we are ‘wintering,’ which is how Katherine May refers to this timely topic in her memoir.

‘Wintering’ – winter is not only a season, but also a feeling, a state of mind

In her book ‘Wintering’, May reflects on her recent bout with a personal winter, a time in her life when she felt down, overwhelmed, grieving for what was but is no longer, and dealing with the anxiety of what was coming, and how soon. Much like the feelings of distress we all experienced during the Covid pandemic.

By ‘wintering’, May is not only referring to the cold season, but also to the state of mind that results from "a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling sidelined, blocked from progress or cast into the role of an outsider.” This feeling can arise at any time in our lives and gradually take over our thoughts and actions. It can be the result of a sudden illness, the death of a loved one, a breakup, a job loss, or the slow burnout and stress associated with the Covid pandemic. While we once enjoyed the bounty of past seasons, we now feel a sense of stillness, even hibernation. Additionally, we worry that perhaps we may not be doing enough, as though we should be taking more aggressive steps to move our lives forward. But nature does not go straight from meteorological fall to spring. Winter is a necessary passage.

These periods of dislocation can feel unexpected and lonely. "However it happens," she writes, "wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful."

How does human life compare to the seasons of nature?

“We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.” –  Katherine May

May reminds us that we are just like nature’s seasons – we are prone to “stifling summers and low dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade.”

Regardless of age or time of year, life, like nature, has its seasons. The four seasons – spring, summer, fall and winter – follow each other at regular intervals. Every season has its purpose. Spring is the time of new beginnings, of growth and expansion, of infinite possibilities... Summer is a time of brightness and warmth, when everything seems effortless and thriving... Fall holds bracing changes and nostalgia for the days gone by. It's time to let go of the old – to prune back the dead branches of the past to encourage future growth for the upcoming season. Then, winter arrives, like a given. The cold, harsh season that indiscriminately tests the mettle of us all. It raises the question: how strong are you?

Human nature dictates that many of us see winter negatively. It's cold, it's dark. It's miserable, so it's easy to see why. Plus, winter is a time when we tend to feel more despondent and irrelevant, a time when the blues are probably running high.

“We’re not raised to recognize wintering, or to acknowledge its inevitability. Instead, we tend to see it as a humiliation, something that should be hidden from view lest we shock the world too greatly.” – Katharine May

The healing powers of nature’s annual cycle – Nature needs time to regenerate and so do we

“Nature shows that survival is practice. Sometimes it flourishes….sometimes it pares back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living.” –  Katherine May

If we take our cue from nature, instead of seeing winter as a gloomy time, we should see it as a time when nature slows down and regenerates. When trees shed their leaves, they are also preparing to begin a new life cycle. We too must slow down, reflect, and change our path if necessary to achieve our goals. The winter moments in life represent an opportunity for personal growth that exists in the liminal spaces of winter, as May calls them - the places between what was and what will be later, between "the mundane and the magical”.

Ultimately, ‘wintering’ invites us to revisit our relationship with our own fallow times. May models active acceptance of sadness, finds encouragement in understanding life as cyclical and non-linear, and sees a transformative power of rest and retreat. Wintering, she says, is a way to get through tough times by chilling, hibernating, healing, regrouping. "Doing these fashionable things - slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting - is a radical act now, but it's essential," she writes.

There are 3 things you can do to endure, or even perhaps enjoy life’s winter moments

Winter has a way of testing people's resolve, rewarding those with grit and determination with the hope of spring.

  1. Consciously embrace the change of season and its associated state of mind and relish the opportunity to hibernate for a while. Recognize that this is a prerequisite – a rite of passage – for the spring that will follow. We don’t have to pretend to enjoy winter if we prefer spring, but once we disassociate the negative evaluation of our winter moments, we can simply experience them for what they are, trusting the seasons to come.
  2. Trust your own resolve. You are much stronger than you think. Instead of focusing on your shortcomings, remind yourself of your strength and the steps along your journey that have helped you overcome challenges in the past. Sometimes it can help to take small actions every day in the direction that you want to go (Success is the product of daily actions). Small actions lead to small victories and successes build on themselves until a giant problem becomes much less insurmountable. The winter days gradually get warmer until we can see the spring on the horizon.
  3. Just like nature, our personal wintering will not last forever. Life’s tough moments will pass. In the meantime, give yourself a break and resist the urge to set overly ambitious standards and milestones.

Take home message

“To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but in fact they are cyclical.”– Katherine May

The key is to embrace the season we are in and accept its influence rather than deny it. Draw on the value and meaning of each season in our lives by respecting it, trusting it, and knowing that it is a rite of passage, that it has a purpose. We need to look at winter as an opportunity to retreat, rest, reflect and recharge to ensure that we are on the right track when we feel ready to venture out again.

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