On Melancholy

It would seem strange that in a world where a third of my people will have at least one depressive episode during their lives, and where a significant number of people (myself included) struggle with chronic depression, that there would be the need to justify the worth of such a temperament. And yet melancholy, which has been stigmatized for decades as depression (as if melancholy were something unnatural and deviant), and which has long been medicated by drugs and alcohol, and is now being treated regularly with psychoactive drugs to attempt to rewire the brain, as if a melancholy one were defective, is in dire need of a defense. And who is better qualified to speak in defense of melancholy than one who has long had to wrestle with it, and who has decided to do so without medicating the pain away through alcohol or anti-depressants, the better to experience the full gale.

If I had not been born a melancholy, as I believe I was, my life would surely have made me one. It is hard not to be melancholy if one is born to see the ruin and wreckage of one’s nation, one’s civilization, one’s churches, one’s family, and one’s own personal life. Melancholy, far from being irrational in such circumstances, is precisely the rational response to mourning over lost innocence, years wasted to the locust, and a lifetime of gloomy memories and terrifying nightmares and oppressive loneliness. We should not stop there, but we must start there. It is from the raw materials of life that we build our worldviews and perspectives, and the materials I was given to build left me far more predisposed to build dark and gloomy fortresses around my heart than it was to build swing sets and jungle gyms for carefree play. Judging from the raw materials that so many people around the world start with, it is not a surprise at all that so many are so melancholy—to be otherwise is to be delusional or in denial. Those of us that steel ourselves to face the bitter truths of our existence cannot be but saddened and mournful from the experience.

I am a little too old to have been involved in the “emo” movement, but it is one I definitely relate to. For what difference is there between an emo who finds friends of similarly melancholy disposition with whom to share their love of depressing songs and the melancholy of the nineteenth century who were moved by the dark and gloomy poetry of Robert Burns or the souring pathos of Johann Goethe? Not much—in both cases those who have melancholy tend to be driven to indulge in their emotional state by listening to music and reading works that reinforce their existing worldview. For me, that means bands like Keane, while musing over dark realities or deeply meaningful literature. For more cheery sorts of people, there are many superficial ways to indulge such sanguine perspectives. Those of us who spend more time in the valley of sorrows must justify ourselves to a world that believes in putting on a fake smile and greeting one’s customers with a plastic cheer or repressing one’s feelings with a stiff upper lip.

Considering that God does not make junk and that a significant portion of people (myself included) are naturally inclined to be melancholy, we might well ask ourselves the purpose and worth of melancholy. We do this not so that everyone may be melancholy—some people are not so inclined, and this world has need of many perspectives. What I merely wish to do is defend those of us who are inclined, as I am, to be melancholy, so that no apology needs to be made for our being so. What is the good in being prone to be pessimistic, to reflect on storm clouds instead of sunny days, to think about how things may be corrupted or perverted from their purpose by evil, to think of how things may go horribly and tragically wrong. Most people would prefer not to muse on such matters, but some are driven (perhaps even compulsively) to do so. What is the worth of it?

Let us first reflect that we live in a fallen world. We do not live in a perfect world. All of us are flawed and imperfect beings, and we live in a world that has been influenced and corrupted and damaged by evil and sin for thousands of years. We are pushed and prodded into wicked patterns of behavior by dysfunctional families, schools, churches, and a demented and debased culture and society. There is a lot to be melancholy about, whether we survey the course of our own lives and our own personal experiences, or we look at how people are exploited and abused both among us and in distant lands. Imagining the world to be a happy and beautiful place will not make it so—the evil of this world must be faced squarely, confronted, and overcome (and we are not powerful enough to do it alone—we need help from another place).

And that is the true insight of the melancholy, and their true worth in this present world. The melancholy does not pretend that the world is all sunshine and daisies, does not storm angrily against those who are merely fellow tempest-tossed vagabonds in the hurricane, does not placidly keep their composure like a frog boiling little by little in a pot. No, the melancholy feels the sorrow and evil of the world and is (often) compelled to face it bravely and grimly, perhaps even fatalistically. It is not happy work, but it is the work the melancholy has been created to do, work that is made more difficult by the false cheer that is so widely promoted and induced on people who would wish to do their work openly and honestly. Indeed, the vast majority of the worthwhile culture in this world, the improvements made against savagery and against want, have been made by gloomy and melancholy people who carried their burden and sought to turn the irritating sand of the world’s absurdities into precious pearls of wisdom for others to share and enjoy.

For we must not see the melancholy as an outcast, outside of the bounds of society or concern for other people. Rather, we must see the melancholy as that lonely old man of the Swiss village who quitely and unobtrusively cleans the alpine springs, only to be recognized when he is rejected by the absence of clean water because no one else is willing or able to handle the muck as well as he. A melancholy is generally appreciated only in absence, as people fret that no one is willing to do unpleasant work, after decades of telling everyone to put on a happy face. If we are not willing to do unpleasant work, it is because we have been told for so long that what is unpleasant is evil, and that unpleasant reality needs to be denied or spun into something more pleasant. Thus we are unprepared to wrestle with unpleasant truths or do those deeply unpleasant actions that occasionally need to be done, not with a smile, but with deep mourning, not with self-justification and empty lies, but with sorrow, deeply and honestly felt and shown.

For we cannot deny that for many people on this earth, of whom I am one, the world is a deeply sorrowful place, full of trauma and deeply felt loneliness. Some of us are instinctively drawn to muse, to ponder, and to consider. When one takes the state of our world under heaven as the raw material of those musings, one cannot help but be deeply saddened. Even the knowledge that things will be made better does not make the task of improving it any easier, or make the sad truths about our world any more pleasant. And yet we ought not to revel in the sorrow, or to exaggerate it, as if there was nothing at all that was good or happy. We ought rather to be honest about it, to face such darkness as we are called upon to fight, and to shine a light so that other may no longer have to grope hopelessly and blindly. For it is only those who see the darkness as what it is can help others make the world a better and happier place, about which there may be less to mourn and more to celebrate with honest joy rather than with false cheer.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to On Melancholy

  1. David Lewis says:

    Can certainly relate to this.

    • I can believe it. A fellow called me a “romanticist intellectual” yesterday, after I had written this post, and when I heard him, I thought, does he mean to say that I’m someone like an Abraham Lincoln or a Johann Goethe? After all, they too were melancholy intellectuals. I suppose if it is true of me it would also be true of you. I would not be surprised, in fact, if historians in general tended to be of the melancholy persuasion, as well as archeologists and classicists. There is something deeply melancholy in tapping from the deep springs of our culture and civilization and in looking back at the past to understand the present better and to make (if God wills) a better future.

  2. Pingback: The Golden Thread | Edge Induced Cohesion

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