by John A. Ingram, Ph.D.

Got the seasonal doldrums or the blues often associated with the winter months? Take heart in these thoughts from Winston Churchill, pointing us to the encouraging lesson relevant to "the middle of the middle."

The great English statesman and leader Winston Churchill once likened writing a book to swimming a river. He described the stimulating and pleasant feeling of getting one's feet and ankles wet, wading in waist deep, and finally kicking off the bottom altogether, striking out eagerly toward the opposite shore. As the adventure progresses, however, the water can feel colder than it seemed at first and the current more swift than was initially estimated. Thus, nearing the center of the river may include thoughts about returning to the shore left behind, but looking back confirms that it is now nearly as far away as the opposite shore.

Resolutely gathering up strength, the intrepid swimmer forges willfully toward the inviting but distant shoreline. The "middle of the middle" is encountered, however, where both the shore left behind and the shore lying ahead seem much too far. Hope drains away and is replaced with feelings ranging from frustration to fear (or perhaps anger or seemingly overwhelming discouragement). This midpoint Churchill described as "the middle of the middle", and he commented that it seemed to him the most demoralizing and depressing part of the entire journey for the swimmer (or author, or anyone working through any significant sequence, time period or project).

From "the middle of the middle" on, one often has to rely on sheer strength and determination or other resources, as well as a more distant hope, to make it the rest of the way. Finally, when the swimmer feels totally exhausted, cold, and bedraggled, the opposite shore is encountered (or the hoped for better time that was originally anticipated comes) and the swimmer drags up on shore and collapses, not particularly caring whether or not the journey was victorious. The paradox here is that by the time the goal is reached, or the season passed, the person doesn't really care much one way or the other -- at least in the immediate situation.

I teach in a graduate program that trains clinical psychologists, yet we struggle with many of these same feelings and experiences. Depression sweeps the psychology building in January and February, and it often seems that September is too far back, while the end of May is much too far ahead. There is considerable hope out there for our cold, straining swimmer at just this point, however. For example, the seasonal "low point" in January and February is well known, and highly predictable. Mondays generally reflect the lowest self-reported mood level of the week. Therefore, even a basic analysis would warn us that Mondays in January and February are likely to feel like a "swimmer's cramp" in "the middle of the middle."

One study of self-reported mood changes over the period of a year revealed mood variations that lasted anywhere from two to twelve weeks from "trough to trough" or "peak to peak." The mood patterns were remarkably stable for each participant, with no person varying more than a week from her or his established pattern over the yearlong reporting period.

As a psychologist and professor I thought for long time that the traditional academic year fit Mr. Churchill's description very nicely, but that his notions were not as applicable to the rest of the world. In practicing and teaching these many years, however, I have come to note that our North American school schedule was originally designed to fit the prevailing weather patterns in order for children to be involved in "book learning" when crops were dormant, and available when harvest or other farm and ranch activities demanded. Even in corporate business and other environments seemingly increasingly distant from the family-owned farm, traditional work and vacation times still hold. For example, the time-share "red periods" (most desirable weeks for use or trade) in the United States and Canada are clearly set from June through August.

As we enter April, we may feel even more frustrated and fatigued, but the good news is that we are nearer to the opposite shore. Trees that appeared dead are coming back to life; temperatures are warming us once again, and daylight savings time is bringing long afternoons and easier contact with friends and family members. By summer, most of us will feel much better and be much more ready to make preparations for when the next seasonal or personal river presents itself.

A final thought is that, knowing these times are part of nature and will come regardless of our preferences, it makes sense to make appropriate preparations in the energized, more idealistic times. Building and nourishing a network of people who will be there when things aren't so easy is wise, as well as developing skills and resources that will help in time of need. Spring and blossoming has already begun this year. Take heart -- the opposite shore is nearing rapidly, and next time (with proper preparation) will be even better yet!


John Ingram is a Professor of Psychology at the Rosemead School of Psychology, Biola University. He teaches both graduate and undergraduate psychology courses, as well as provides psychotherapy and supervision at the Biola University Counseling Center. His Ph.D. is in Clinical-Community Psychology from the University of South Carolina, and he also has some seminary training. His main research interest is in the integration of psychology and theology. He is also interested in the impact of postmodern thought on psychological research and practice, as well as telehealth, telemedicine, and telepsych issues.


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