Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Importance of Light and Sunshine

I was working out in the yard today. I'm not an eager gardener. I don't look forward to rushing out into the heat and humidity to prune shrubs, weed, or spray. But oddly enough, once I'm out there, I always enjoy it. If it's not the work I really like, though I do take satisfaction in it when I'm doing it, why do I enjoy being there with sweat running down my face and back?

There is one word for it: light.

Human beings evolved in the light, in sunlight. Sunlight is critical to life on earth, not just because it heats the planet, but because our bodies respond to light. Without light, we cannot see. Light, full spectrum sunlight, affects mood and health, creates vitamin D, and probably increases endorphins or something akin to that.

It's for the same reason that I prefer to swim in the outdoor pool instead of the indoor one. It's the same reason I enjoy going for a walk in a state park, though of course I enjoy the scenery and wildlife, too. It's the same reason that we enjoy riding our bicycles through the neighborhoods more than pedaling on a stationary bike at the fitness center while watching television.

There is something elemental and indispensable about our exposure to sunlight. Without it, we become depressed. Without a window to look out of, an office becomes oppressive. In the winter, many of us experience SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, from the lower exposure to sunlight.

I was thinking about Leif, and how sunlight deprived he was. He worked a job with hours from 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m. He worked in a cubicle with nothing to look at but a computer screen, virtually tied to a chair since he had to be on a headset. There was no window to look out of, no sunshine to brighten the day.

He got home around midnight and then he would stay up late online, playing computer games, watching movies. Between his late night hours and his insomnia, he would go to bed very late and get up late. Unless he had some errand he had to do earlier, something that couldn't wait until one of his days off, he didn't see daylight except for the narrow slit of time between when he got up and when he got to work.

As a boy and youth, he had always loved going out in the woods on hikes, going to the seashore, riding a bike, and later a motorcycle, and in high school, skateboarding and in-line skating. He played soccer. He was forced by school, work and his parents to get up in the morning and go to bed at night. He had exposure to that all-important light.

Of course, it would be a gross over-simplification to blame his death on the lack of sunlight in his life, but I believe it contributed to the depth of his depression and hopelessness.

Partly, he lacked the opportunities to be outdoors in the sunlight, and partly, when he did have them, he had no one to share the experience with, and he often sat at home in his apartment rather than go out and seek the light. As I have written before, when we are depressed, we don't feel like doing any of the things that ultimately would make us feel better.

There was a pool at his apartment complex. I asked him if he ever used it or went down there sunbathing. He said no. Partly, I'm sure, it was because he didn't want to be seen in a bathing suit after he gained so much weight, but partly it was the lack of companionship. It was easier and more absorbing to be online, watch tv. Television is entertaining, but it rarely lifts our mood the way being out-of-doors can.

My brother and our son Peter seem to think we are foolish for having a home with a yard we have to spend time on. I know I could use the hours I spend working in the yard to other advantage, and yet, each time I actually do it, I am grateful for the sense of peace, the appreciation of the light, the songs of the birds, and the greetings of the neighbors.

Go out into the light. Soak up the sunshine. It may be the best medicine, and it costs nothing but the willingness to walk out the door. How I wish Leif had done so.

This photo of Leif was taken at Busch Gardens in Virginia in June 1977. He was two-and-a-half years old.

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