In Praise of Melancholy

Melancholy is not exactly a word on everybody’s lips. People don’t go around gossiping about how melancholic the new regional IT director is or drawing up lists of the more melancholy-inducing bits of natural scenery (Brighton Beach on an overcast morning; Rannoch Moor in Scotland; the West Siberian Plain).

But we should pay more attention to melancholy and even seek it out from time to time.

Siberian fritillary

Melancholy is a species of sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult and that suffering and disappointment are core parts of universal experience. It’s not a disorder that needs to be cured.

Modern society tends to emphasise buoyancy and cheerfulness. But we have to admit that reality is for the most part about grief and loss. The good life is not one immune to sadness, but one in which suffering contributes to our development.

Sometimes you feel sad and you can’t quite put your finger on why. It’s not one acute sorrow that’s eating you. You feel in a way the whole of life calls for tears.

Melancholy is a key mental state and a valuable one, because it links pain with beauty and wisdom. Our suffering isn’t merely chaotic – a mark of failure, an error – it can be linked to admirable things. Often, sadness simply makes a lot of sense.

We feel melancholy when we consider:

The things we love are transient

Yesterday will never come back. Every day you take a step nearer to death. The people who cared for us when we were young are getting older. We’ll be following their path to decline soon enough.

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Ansel Adams, Aspens, Dawn, Autumn, Dolores River Canyon, Colorado, 1937

The darker truths of the human condition

No one truly understands anyone else, loneliness is basic, universal. Every life has its full measure of shame and sorrow. We spend our lives striving for things we mostly don’t get – and if we do, we are soon disappointed.

Boys shooting marbles

They’ll grow up; they’ll encounter money worries, the difficulty of making a career, addictions, political conflict, illnesses and relationship frustrations.

Ultimately, nothing we do matters. Our lives – our loves and cares, our griefs, our triumphs – will be washed away.

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Hiroshi Sugimoto, North Atlantic Ocean, Cliffs of Moher, 1989

Regrets

All the things you should have said to your grandmother before she died. We learn too late. You have wasted years. Everyone has. You can only avoid regret by switching off your imagination, by refusing to consider how things might have been.

The contradictions of being alive

Many of the things we most want are in conflict: to feel secure, and yet to be free; to have money and yet not to have to be wage slaves. To be in close knit communities and yet not to be stifled by the expectations and demands of others. To travel and explore the world and yet to put down deep roots. To fulfil the demands of our appetites for food, drink, sex and lying on the sofa – and yet stay thin, sober, faithful and fit.

The wisdom of the melancholy attitude (as opposed to the bitter or angry one) lies in the understanding that the sorrow isn’t just about you, that you have not been singled out, that your suffering belongs to humanity in general. So often our sorrows are egocentric. We see them as special misfortunes which have come our way. Melancholy rejects this. It has a wider, much less personal take. Much of what is painful and sorrowful in our lives can be traced to general things about life: its brevity; the fact that we cannot avoid missing opportunities, the contradictions of desire and self-management. These apply to everyone. So melancholy is generous. You feel this sorrow for others too, for ‘us’. You feel pity for the human condition.

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And feeling such pity makes us better people. It offers to make our expectations of human conduct more accurate. Whoever I am with will suffer the same broad difficulties. It is hardly surprising if they go off the rails, get frazzled, lie from time to time, change their minds for no good reason (or refuse to change their minds when there is good reason). We are melancholy when we grasp that there are deep troubles essentially bound up with being human. And to take that fully to heart is to become more compassionate.

Religions have been advocates of melancholy. The Christian Book of Common Prayer gives a statement to be recited at funerals:

Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower. In the midst of life we are in death.

It’s intended to strike home a universal, melancholy thought. At the funeral of a loved one we are not just witnessing the passing of one life. We are invited to see each other – and ourselves – as dying animals. This should not make us desperate, but rather more forgiving, kinder and better able to focus on what really matters, while there is still time.

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