For some species, winter is a time of hibernation. And even though we don’t hibernate (most of us, that is), our rhythms do change: the days are shorter, we stay inside more, we’re less active. I think it’s fitting that winter is also when we end one year and begin the next. What better time to slow down and reflect on our lives, right?

Winter on Shelter Island…it’s difficult to explain what it’s like here this time of year to people who haven’t experienced it. There’s the good–that soothing silence when you step outside the morning after a big snowfall. The bad–the inconvenience of stores closing earlier. And the ugly–no late ferry on the weekends.

In my travels off-island, I’ll often meet people who’ve visited Shelter Island. Maybe they’ve visited for a day trip or vacation during the summer, or even stayed at one of the bed-and-breakfasts during the “off-season” of spring or fall. But when they learn that I live here year-round, they’re usually surprised.

“What’s it like in the winter?” they ask.

My response is always the same. “Have you ever seen the movie The Shining?”

As the twenty or so others of you who live here year-round know, the winter months can start to feel…quiet. That’s one word for it!

Now I know it’s not really as desolate as I’m making it sound. You have to understand my situation. Before I began my full-time life coaching practice, I worked in the Center and frequently interacted with other people on the island. But now most of my contact with people is by telephone–that’s just the nature of my business. And although I take my walk each day, I hardly see a soul during the winter months. A couple of days of this routine and Shelter Island can start to feel…desolate…lonely. (I’ll confess, sometimes I wonder if there’s some deep psychological cause that’s led me to this isolated place in my life. But that’s a topic for another time.)

I’m not complaining. I love my career, and I enjoy time to myself. I value time alone to reflect and write. But as someone close to me told me very recently, there’s a fine line between wanting to be alone and feeling ignored. And I believe that line warrants a closer look.

Why would simply being along cause one to feel ignored? Let’s start by asking what it means to be ignored. It means other people are not interested in your company. They don’t value your contribution. Or maybe it’s that they don’t value you at all. Why is it important to feel valued? Isn’t wanting to feel valued just another way of saying we want to feel loved?

So when we feel ignored we are afraid that we are not loved. But there’s a problem with that logic. Is simply not being ignored enough for us to feel loved? Some people yes, others no. Let’s go even one step further. Is it possible to be surrounded by people who love you and still feel unloved?

The sad answer, of course, is yes. People commit suicide every day, leaving behind friends and family who are devastated by the loss. To many, it’s baffling how those people could have felt so unloved they chose to kill themselves. Yet they do.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I think the same is true for love. Until you allow yourself to feel love, it doesn’t matter how many people actually love you. But what does it take to allow oneself to feel love?

Let me ask another hypothetical question. Is it possible for someone to be stranded alone on a desert island yet still feel loved? Again, some people yes, others no. It depends on whether or not they love themselves, doesn’t it?

Last week I went to my niece’s baptism. I’m not a religious man, so as the priest began his sermon, I was listening but not finding it too relevant to my life. He was talking about how when God speaks, powerful things happen. He said that when we are baptized, God speaks to us. He tells us that we are His beloved, that we are loved. I didn’t really know where the priest was going with this, and I admit I was beginning to zone out a little. Then the priest told us a story from the autobiography of a recovering alcoholic.

When the author was a boy, it seems he’d been a talented artist. One evening, in an effort to get his father’s praise, the boy showed him his drawings. His father flipped through them cursorily, made a vague comment like “very nice,” and then went back to drinking his beer and reading his paper. Clearly this had been a pivotal moment in the author’s life, or else it wouldn’t have stayed with him as an adult. The priest wondered how this man’s life would have been different if his father had instead hugged him and told him he was his beloved, that he was loved. The priest continued by saying that God speaks to us all the time to tell us that we are His beloved, that we are loved. “All we need to do,” the priest concluded, “is take the time to listen.”

This sermon affected me deeply. I admit, I felt “spoken to.” But even if you don’t believe in God, the message of the sermon is still profound: We are by nature lovable.

I don’t believe we need to do things to be lovable. But I also believe we can do things that make us less lovable–hate, judgment, violence, etc. Fear drives us to do those things. (And the terrible irony is that it’s often a fear of not being loved, a tragic self-fulfilling prophesy.)

We must let go of our fears. We must stop doing so we can just let ourselves be. And we must “take the time to listen.” When we do that, we will feel the love that shines on us like the sun on a clear summer day.

Even in the dead isolation of winter.

©2006 Curtis G. Schmitt


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