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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

The Black Dog


Winston Churchill described those periods of his life when he experienced dark moods as the arrival of the “Black Dog”. Apparently, the expression, which Victorian nannies used to describe everything from depression to acting out behavior—was first used by Samuel Johnson referring to a mythological canine from British folklore. Lacking such a colorful description, I have often referred to those days when the world seems not quite right and I am weighed down by concerns as the Fugue. It helps to give such days a name—so that we can recognize them for what they are. It is hard to imagine Churchill as someone given to such feelings—it might be said that it was his will alone and convictions of a brighter future that sustained Great Britain through its own dark days of WW II. But it is also true that from time to time any of us can find ourselves feeling oppressed by a gloomy disposition. Especially on days like today—when it is grey and the colors of Fall have not yet appeared to brighten the outlook—it is perhaps best to find some place to retreat, good book in hand, a fire burning in the fireplace and a glass of port or mulled cider perhaps by one’s side. Lacking such, seek out a friend or take yourself where you can energize your optimism—a gym, a museum, or perhaps a movie theater. Unless you enjoy brooding, these are not days it is good to be without companionship, even if it takes the form of a really engaging novel.

By nature, I am an introspective person—maybe too much so. Knowing this, when I find myself encountering the Black Dog I can generally reflect on the cause and I have found it is more often than not a familiar one. Far be it from me to speculate on what took Churchill there, but for me it is a feeling of helplessness—an awareness of my limitations in the face of some challenge. To be clear, the challenges are often not mine but rather an over inflated sense of responsibility for making things right in my world. Faced with the serious illness of several friends and lacking any skills or means to alter the course other than prayer and friendship, it is easy to slip into a sense of futility. Of course, these feelings are self-indulgent and thankfully brief. Usually I can occupy myself with something constructive-allowing time to regain perspective.

Acceptance, of ourselves and our limitations is the path back to reality. I say reality because the fugue state is anything but real except in a distorted emotional sense. One of the hardest lessons I am continually in the process of learning is to give up to others what I cannot alter. I cannot prevent difficult things from happening, I am unable to cure, fix or remove hardship for anyone-even myself at times and it frustrates me endlessly. There is hubris in this, and I know it. Trusting in a positive outcome—as hard as it may be in the near term is frankly the only thing I am able to do that is worthy. This is not to say that everything is going to go as I wish or that there will never be sadness, grief or stress in the future. Rather, it is becoming aware that each day offers us opportunities for gladness and sadness-and we are free to choose which of these we will entertain.

Perhaps the best counsel on days such as this is simply to let it be. Let the day be what it is—let those feelings of darkness wash over you neither indulging in their gloom nor fighting against them. Find something, however small, to celebrate—a minor triumph in the face of adversity. Although we seldom acknowledge it, we are not captains of our own destiny or the fate of others, but we have the power to choose how we will live this day.


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