Winter Solstice

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(HOST) In the darkest part of the year, commentator Peter Gilbert thinks about those who are discouraged.

(GILBERT) I asked an old colleague of mine, a movie expert, what his favorite movie was. His answer: Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“But isn’t that a little, you know, silly,” I said. “I mean, an angel comes down and shows a man what things would have been like if he hadn’t been born?”

My friend replied with passion: “Oh, yeah! I’ll tell you a silly story! The ghost of a murdered king comes back and tells his son, ‘Revenge, Revenge!’ Now, that’s a stupid story!” He was referring to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which begins as a ghost story. Point taken.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a wonderful movie. After all, it’s got Jimmy Stewart in it. I’ve seen it countless times, but for years I overlooked one powerful exchange near the beginning of that holiday classic. One angel asks another angel about George Bailey, the Jimmy Stewart character: “What’s the matter [with him]? Is he sick?”

“Worse,” the other angel replies. “He’s discouraged.”

It’s easy to forget that the plot of that heart-warming film – an affirmation of family, community and American idealism – stems from George Bailey’s intention to kill himself by jumping into the river. It’s easy to forget that because, in the end, it’s a redemptive story. After former Reagan National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane tried to commit suicide in 1987, some well-wisher sent him a copy of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It was a helping hand, a hopeful gesture.

The winter solstice is near, the darkest day of the year. It’s an easy time to become discouraged or depressed. It’s also the holiday season, which can be a tough time for those dealing with loss. Depression isn’t rare: fifteen percent of us suffer from it at some point. And it’s not new. Many famous people have been plagued by depression, including, arguably, the two greatest men of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Lincoln suffered from bouts of melancholia, which he called “the hypo.” And Winston Churchill, used to call depression “the black dog.”

The matriarch of the Kennedy clan, Rose Kennedy, who knew something about loss, said that God doesn’t give us a cross greater than we can bear. It’s a wonderful notion. It’s also something of a self-fulfilling prophesy: if you believe it’s true, it’s more likely to be true. But that perspective doesn’t take into account depression or other mental illness.

Then what’s to be done? First, it helps to recognize consciously that life inevitably involves sorrow as well as, we hope, joy. Grief is an unavoidable part of being human. Second, when you can, choose to laugh rather than cry. You can’t always choose, but when you can, laugh. But when sorrow spirals downward, then we’re talking depression, which is an illness and not a personal weakness or character flaw. And then it’s time to ask for help. Because, as some have observed, “Help helps.”

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council.

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