Despite T.S. Eliot's claim to the contrary, for many of us, January, not April, is the cruelest month. January is burdened with following the most emotional time of the year. Just past are Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and other major end-of-year sources (for the majority of us) of joy, togetherness, family-ness, and nostalgia as well as a host of other soul-warming kinds of experiences. (It must be said and recognized that, for some people, all these holiday-time emotions, though typically as intense, are not always positive, but the recommendations I make below apply to them as well, I believe.) But come January 2, a day after that ball dropped in Times Square, the strong positive feelings felt by so many are suddenly gone. The IRS starts sending out tax forms. Employers issue W-2s and 1099s. It's cold outside. It's cold inside. It's flu season. It's six weeks until the faintest formalized cultural excuse for human warmth and interaction -- Valentine's Day. Talk about a cruel month.
There are ways to deal with these post-holiday doldrums, however, but they require our active participation. First of all, we must realize that "downs" are natural aspects of life. Everyone experiences them. But there are ways to ease them. For decades, I have been involved in the study of ways in which people, families especially, deal with the ups and downs of life. Our research at the Center for the Study of Myth and Ritual at Emory University showed that among the most powerful forces that can be brought to bear in helping us through down times are family gatherings, family dinners, stories and rituals. It further turned out that it's not the dinners or the gatherings, per se, that make the difference. Its something more fundamental; something universal; something obvious. Simple human contact.
One of the most influential psychotherapists of our time, Irvin Yalom, once wrote that when it comes to the health-giving and healing effects of human relationships, it is hard to tell the "container" from the "contents." He would ask, for example, whether we get together (container) with friends to have dinner (contents), or if we invite friends to dinner (container) so we can be with people (contents). Is it that specific movie we want to see or is it the time we spend with the person sitting next to us? Likely, this is a nature/nurture kind of question where both are important, but all too often we lose sight of just how important it is to find reasons and ways simply to be with people, especially in these early months of the year.
I am sure that different people would describe a variety of ways they find the kind of human contact that I am prescribing, but I will use myself as a convenient sample. For me, as for many others in the 50+ age group, gathering together to play music and sing seems to be a fairly widespread phenomenon. Among our age cohort, there are literally millions of frustrated rockers, folk singers, classical musicians, choristers, composers, even critics. In this group resides the makings of uncountable garage bands, song circles, dancing clubs and other gatherings centered on music old and new. (In London, there is one singing club that is only for people who can't carry a tune!) Speaking as an aging guitar player (and I refer here to the player not the instrument!), I attend one of these groups almost every week and enjoy the hell out of it. Speaking as a psychologist, however, this music group represents exactly the kind of non-family ritual-based community that each one of us needs to stabilize our lives -- no matter how old we may be. To be sure, there is singing, but there is also talking, discussion of news, mutual support, nurturance, concern, encouragement, empathy, sympathy and all the other things that make communities "therapeutic."
My group comprises a lawyer, teachers, a doctor, business people, Christians, Jews, northerners, southerners, moms, dads, grandparents, some who grieve and mourn recent losses, some who anticipate upcoming weddings, births and graduations. Sometimes we sing sad songs, other times hokey ones, other times songs of love and joy. We remembered Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary when she passed away and this past year, we spent an entire session singing Pete Seeger melodies. I have personally and professionally experienced formal group psychotherapy -- 1960s-type T-Groups, Gestalt therapy groups, encounter groups, etc. -- but I can tell you that, for people looking for psychological wellness at any age, three hours of playing music and talking with the same group of people week after week is way more powerful a force than any of these.
Specially relevant to my purpose here of encouraging gathering together (in any form) as a pure and simple psychologically healthy thing, is that there are among my music group several people who regularly perform together at retirement homes and farmer's markets and the odd wedding. They specialize in bluegrass and country music and they call themselves the Bitsyland Band.
I have always loved that name. It sounds so country, so down home. At first, that was the sense I had of it. But over time, I have come to a different meaning in that the word "bitsy," itself, means very small. As such the group's name, purposely or not, can mean "tiny land" or, more academically, a microcosmic place. To me this means that, regardless of their size, be they music circles or church services or basketball games, all gatherings of people for some shared purpose are like Bitsyland -- places where we can go to be with people -- not to be alone. In some of these places people gather together to play music; in some, to make quilts; in some, to talk about books; in some, to watch and discuss movies. In an Ecclesiastes-like sense, there is a "place" for every purpose under Heaven.
In truth, these places we gather are all what Yalom might term "containers." Regardless of the things that bring us together, however, the "contents" are always the same -- the warmth and reassurance that come from simply being with other people -- from simply knowing that there can be predictable, controllable and regular times when we will not be alone -- from simply knowing that there is always a Bitsyland somewhere for each of us. There, when the good things have been taken away. There, when the joyful times are less frequent. There, even in the Januarys of our years. Even in the winters of our lives.