I borrowed John Banville’s new book Snow from the library over Christmas. It is a detective story set in 1950s Ireland. It has all the elements of your classic golden age mystery, a dead body in the library of a rural stately home in winter.
Winter is one of the key characters of the book. A lot of time is given over the cold of Winter and specifically the cold of the fading country house. The family in the story is not as rich as they once were and the house is falling down around them.
It got me thinking back to a visit I made to Lissan House, outside Cookstown. It was June when we visited but parts of the house were freezing, it was literally warmer outside. Trying to heat those massive houses must have been a real challenge. It seems what often happens in large houses is they live in a few rooms, especially during winter.
Central heating at the flick of a switch is a very recent invention. Many of us were brought up in homes with open fires, you might still be in one. One room was warm while the rest of the house was freezing. A trip to the toilet was an experience you wanted over as soon as possible.
I personally don’t like a lot of heat, much to the annoyance of my missus. I sleep with the windows open, even in winter.
I think you need contrast to feel alive. In the modern western world, we have eliminated most hardship from our lives. We have unlimited food available, we have machines for washing our clothes, cooking our food, we have cars to transport us everywhere in climate-controlled comfort, we can order anything we want online and have it delivered to our door the next day, modern medicine has cured most ailments that would have carried off our ancestors.
In her book, Dopamine Nation Anna Lembke argues that this comfort is a major factor contributing to the high levels of depression and ennui we have in our society. The cure is to be less comfortable and to challenge ourselves more.
I try to practise this in my own life by walking places instead of taking the car. I walk to the shops twice a week and hump heavy bags home. I deliberately strive to add hardship to my life. It does sound like a weird thing to do but to be truly alive we need to feel the complete spectrum of emotions. A state of permanent happiness is as unnatural as it is unrealistic.
I think people instinctively release that they feel better when they are doing something challenging. Look at the growth of all year round sea swimming. On Christmas Day thousands of people head into the freezing cold water. As any sea swimming knows at the time it is a shocking experience but you are on a high for the rest of the day, and notability you feel warm the rest of the day. Now the thought of a dip in the Irish Sea may not entice you but what about switching the shower to cold for 10 seconds at the end, or even splashing some cold water on your face.
The weather is absolutely miserable these days but you do feel better if you make the effort to get out for a walk.
Adversity is especially important with our kids who can be missing out on learning resilience. They call it curling parenting, when we smooth out the paths in life for our kids we think we are helping but we are just making them helpless when they eventually do encounter adversity. Around a quarter of University students now have mental health problems and many blame it on overparenting where every minute of their lives have been structured in some way – school, organised activities and sports, playdates etc. When they are set free at University they can struggle to cope with the newfound independence.
With my own son, I walk him to school every day, I try to teach him not to always reach for the easy option. Simple things like making him wait to get a new toy, or not letting him horse all the chocolates into him in one go.
Like all things, there is a happy medium. Very few of us would want to live the harsher lives of our grandparents. But if you have that meh feeling that a lot of us get these days maybe you need to look for a new challenge in the new year or find ways to add some extra friction to your life.
It is ok to fail. It is ok to not be ok. It is ok to be cold. It is ok to be exhausted.
It is when you feel nothing that you really have a problem.
I help to manage Slugger by taking care of the site as well as running our live events. My background is in business, marketing and IT. My politics tend towards middle-of-the-road pragmatism, I am not a member of any political party. Oddly for a member of the Slugger team, I am not that interested in daily politics, preferring to write about big ideas in society. When not stuck in front of a screen, I am a parkrun Run Director.