One of the lines I have heard (and seen) from Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion that has always stuck with me in his commentary about Lake Wobegon is his insistence that unlike the people of the Sunshine State, the people of the Midwest are not a sunshine people. That has always given me a wry smile and a bit of a scoff. After all, it is not as if everyone (or even most people) who are in the Southeast are sunshine people either. Nor is the Midwest devoid of people who are sanguine, even if most of the Midwesterners I have known have been rather phlegmatic and matter-of-fact sort of people, without a great deal of flamboyance but also without the dark and brooding melancholy that other people have to deal with.
Here in Oregon, one of the more striking comments I have heard has to do with the weather, as people talk about months without sunshine and incessant cloudiness. Having lived in plenty of summer monsoonal climates (Florida and Thailand spring most readily to mind), I would like to comment that Oregon is simply a winter monsoonal climate instead of the more familiar summer monsoonal climate, where it is hot and dry in the summers and cool and wet in the fall and winter. But even in its cool and rainy season there are times (like yesterday) where it is warm enough that one can wear shorts and short sleeve shirts without being completely ridiculous and where there is blue sky and sunshine. Despite not being a sunshine person, I enjoy the sight of the blue sky and the sunshine, as a reminder that while the clouds are close to the earth, the blue sky goes on for miles and miles after that.
I have often been moved and amused by songs that deal with the weather. One acquaintance of mine, for example, brought the amusing song Mr. Blue Sky to my attention, as it had not been one I was familiar with, and I can totally understand how an Englishman like Jeff Lynne (whose climate is fairly cloudy as well) would feel overjoyed at seeing Mr. Blue Sky again after so long an absence. And I can also empathize with some who find rainy days and Mondays so depressing. It is quite natural for us to view our lives in terms of weather, as we feel there is nothing but blue skies when things are going well, or struggle to face the tempests and storms of our lives when things are not going so well.
As human beings we are in the position of having a native temperament as well as being affected by what is around us. We all have a default way of dealing with life that has strengths and weaknesses, benefits to ourselves and others and also detriments to living a good life. In order to find a good balance we have to tap into our strengths and find some way to cover or overcome our weaknesses. That is vastly easier said than done. I often say to others, when they ask, that I am a phlegmatic melancholy person myself, and that is something I suppose that is easy to understand. As a person who generally projects an outward sense of calm (that I suppose can be easily confused with complacency or laziness), I am nonetheless a person with deep waters beneath the calm surface, and a fair amount of brooding and concern about the state of my world and my place within it. But neither am I completely without a sense of feistiness or sunshine as well. Finding that balance is hard, but it is worth it both to be able to express the full range of feelings and thoughts within ourselves as well as to be able to understand and relate to others who might express themselves very differently than we do.
It has struck me how important frame of reference is to the way we react to different situations in life. While we are certainly shaped by our experiences (both for the better or the worse), we are not determined by our circumstances. The experiences that break some become the fire inside that spurs others to greatness. Some are dispirited by failure or ruined by success, and some are not. Perhaps in this life we spend so much time thinking about and judging others by their temperament–whether they are cheery or appear to be warm and loving on the outside–that we often neglect the far more important elements of character that are often revealed in important moments of life because they are less obvious and less easy to characterize.
There is a vital role that all temperaments play within institutions and society. We need sunshine people who are naturally sanguine to provide the encouragement to keep going when things look grim, and to see the silver lining in the dark clouds that threaten. We need phlegmatic people to stay calm amidst the drive to hurry or panic, and to keep ourselves from being driven to distraction by our times and circumstances. We need choleric people to fight for what is right within our corrupt and unjust societies and institutions, to remind us that some things are worth fighting for. And we need melancholy people to reflect deeply on this life, to see what is beneath the surface, and what patterns underlie our world and lives. And better yet, we need to cultivate those qualities within ourselves, while recognizing that if any of those tendencies is out of balance, that it will lead to serious weaknesses and problems, whether it leads one to be flaky, lazy, combative, or depressed. We can do better than that. So, even if we are not sunshine people, at least we should have a little bit of sunshine within us, because we could all stand to be a bit more resilient and carry a bit more genuine cheer within us to share with others, just as we should all have some depth, some fire, and some calm within us as well to use when the time and situation demand.