Why So Seasonal? (A Plea To Learn The Rules Of Discernment)

Admit it. You've already forgotten it even happened.

Two months ago our “clocks went forward”. For most of you, that’s just a weird and somewhat misleading expression. You took to social media to complain about “losing an hour of sleep”.  You asked why this change was necessary.

You continue to sleep like babes.

For me—and the rest of the roughly 5% of Americans that suffer from the cruelly and unfortunately titled Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD for short (and for jerks))—“clocks went forward” is synonymous with life resumed again, or I stopped being a miserable ass to all my friends, or…you get it. The daylight stretching into the evening hours breathes life back into our souls. Or, more literally, Serotonin into our brains. Spring brings a spring in our step, a smile on our face, and ~good vibes~ in general.

But here’s the thing: Before I put a name on what I was experiencing during those insufferable non-DST (non-Daylight Savings Time for you uninitiated folk) months, I really suffered from November to March each year. The depression and exhaustion, the moodiness and despair would creep back in each year… and I believed in it. Bathed in it. Made my bed with it.

I was convinced that I was a moody and desperate mess, that the sadness was coming from something I was doing wrong. I was a failure, a disappointment, etc. I was unaware of what was really happening, and this ignorance led to poor decisions and unwarranted self-loathing.

The truly, uh, depressing part of it all is that this whole mess of feelings and thoughts I felt and thought so deeply were only occurring because of the lack of sunlight, which caused my brain to overreact and pump out more melatonin than was necessary. That’s it. I was being personally pushed around this way and that, riding the choppy sea of emotion and despair—all because of faulty biology.

Once it was confirmed that my symptoms were classic SAD, Me-suffering-from-depression-come-Winter was surpassed by me-reflecting-on-me-suffering-from-depression-come-Winter. And this new and extra-hyphenated me changed things drastically.

Now aware of the cause of my feelings, I could seek out responses. First came the Therapeutic Light Box—the sunlamp, as they call it on the street (and for the $150 price-tag I wish I could purchase it there as well). Use this sucker once or twice a day for 30 minutes and the brain relents on its melatonin-riddled overreaction. The light box has proved to be a big help in moderating my mood come winter, though it certainly doesn’t eradicate all symptoms entirely.

Winter still sucks, but at least I don’t nap twice a day anymore.

More importantly came self-control. Now, when I find myself inexplicably down or tired, I’m able to step back and recognize why I’m feeling the way I do. And this itself is a great power. I know that I don’t have to blow up my life and start over, or turn to that drink or cigarette or tv show or 5th slice of pizza to fill the emptiness that seems as oppressive as the 4:30pm Boston sunset itself. It’s just a feeling caused by my screwy brain that craves sunlight.

And so I can move on confidently with my day, even if it is difficult. Even more, I can endure the depression knowing with certainty that it will pass come March, as the sunset moves later and later into the evening and, finally, the clocks spring forward.

Admit it. You’ve already forgotten it even happened. 

A few months ago you woke up on that rainy morning and just felt down. You collapsed at your desk at work and dreaded everything that was about to happen. You skipped your usual prayer before lunch. The thought of attending your usual daily mass that afternoon made your skin crawl.

God didn’t seem just distant, he seemed unimportant.

But then some banner ad on a website reminded you of something Father said in his homily on Sunday, that word that really stuck with you and lifted you up, and you moved on cheerfully with your day by lunch. 

The desolation hasn't only passed, it's a distant memory.


Spiritual Desolation—that intense and sometime crippling feeling of being distant from or abandoned by God—is an awful lot like my S.A.D. (For some people they go hand in hand.)

In his excellent The  Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living, Fr Gallagher lays out how Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment help us react properly to desolation.

Desolation is a thing, a real, challenging, disturbing thing that every Catholic has to deal with. It comes and it goes. But when we’re in it we are convinced that all is lost, that God has given up on us, that there is no hope of attaining the lofty goal of holiness. And usually we believe in the desolation, we feel it and think it: that we aren't good enough, that we’ve failed as Christians, that God really is far away… 

That he really has abandoned us.

But the moment we become aware that desolation is a totally normal thing that God permits, that everyone experiences it, that it happens for a reason and that consolation will absolutely soon return—that moment is like the day I put a name on my seasonal depression. We go from being tossed around by our mere emotion and feelings of worthlessness to the feelingless certainty of being loved. We go from being-in-desolation to reflecting on ourselves in desolation, and even this tiny shift in perspective provides us the distance from our feelings that is required for us to not be mastered by them.

Knowing the Rules and how to maturely apply them to your day-to-day life will remind you to turn back to that favorite passage of yours that lifts your spirit each time, or to talk to your spiritual advisor promptly, or to stick to your spiritual commitments that you laid out that morning before the desolation hit.

Much like the measures I take to counteract my S.A.D. don't completely eradicate the depression but rather enable me to more confidently endure the temporary affliction, so the Rules enable us to act strongly against the spiritual desolation that comes our way and free us from dwelling in the feeling of desolation.

As Gallagher explains, spiritual desolation is like a rainy day: it’s both normal and necessary. There is zero shame in experiencing desolation. Really. What a liberating reality. You’re not abandoned.

He is still working, permitting your experience of desolation for some reason. And if you use the Rules of Discernment in the mature and prayerful way Gallagher lays out, you’ll come to identify that reason (or at least trust that there is one) and react appropriately.

I really can’t recommend the book highly enough. Even if it can be dry at times, the content is too important. My own encounter with this content (over a handful of conferences last summer) was exactly like the day I read up on S.A.D. for the first time. I finally had a name for what I was experiencing. I wasn’t alone in that anymore. I was freed from being pushed around this way and that by my fragile feelings.

Learn Ignatius’ rules of discernment so that you can react appropriately and flip on your spiritual sunlamp when desolation comes. Buy Fr. Gallagher’s book


--By Greg H.