In Praise of Melancholy

As a species and a society, we have grown to over romanticize and popularize happiness and have exiled all feelings of the contrary to the unpopular and unwanted crevices of human emotion.

We strive only to increase those things that make us happy or that bring happiness to us, and at the slightest surfacing of alternate emotions we do everything we possibly can to “cheer” ourselves up and those around us. We forcibly excise sadness and inflate happiness.

We forget, or at least we do not realize, that what makes us complete individuals is our ability to access the full spectrum of human experience as well as the whole psycho-emotional range – low and high – enabling us to create rich, multi-dimensional, and meaningful lives.

Nietzsche believed that a certain amount of suffering is essential to the soul. In 1887 Nietzsche writes:

“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.”

In this, we learn what proves to be the most vital ingredient of our existence – to endure. And endure we must. But it is in adversity that this endurance is constantly and deliberately tested. Like a muscle, when not used, atrophies. In the same way we experience, or need to experience, frequent adversity if we are to sustain our levels of endurance in life.

It is through pain that we are able to see things clearly and find things beautiful. We have to be a little bit sad to find a song, a statue, a movie, a piece of art, beautiful. Pain begets the qualities of the dark backing of a mirror, it has to be there if we are to see anything as it is.

Melancholy is that emotion in our spectrum which we should pay more attention to, and from time to time, even seek.

Melancholy is a variation of sadness that arises when we become acutely aware to the fact that life is inherently difficult. Melancholy understands that suffering and disappointment are key parts of the human condition.

Our society values happiness and cheerfulness over grief and loss. But we have to be clear and honest with ourselves and in our understanding that reality is, for the most part, about grief and loss.

As Nietzsche described, a good life is not one free of sadness and adversities, but one that utilizes our suffering for our development – to endure.

Melancholy is a commitment to meet life difficulties with passivity and thought over rage and violence. It is the subtle accommodation for the griefs of existing. Melancholia itself is not grief, anger or despair.

Sometimes we feel sad and we do not quite know why. We cannot place the particular reason for our sadness. Only that we are indeed quite sad. It is not one acute sorrow. Rather, in a way, it is the feeling that the entirety of life calls to be felt and sadness makes a lot of sense.

What we pursue in life and what we want are quite often in conflict. We want to travel and see the world, but we also want to have roots, to belong and have a place called home. We want to have money but do not want be slaves of the nine-to-five. We want to feel secure and yet we want complete freedom. We want to have close interpersonal relationships, but we do not want to feel stifled by expectations and judgements of others. We want to have Christmas pudding, a good glass of wine, and to relax but also wish to remain thin, sober, and fit.

Melancholia is the assuring acknowledgment that nothing we do in life quite matters. Everything we love and care for is transient. Everyday we step closer to death, we get older, those we love are getting older or dying. To be aware that no one truly understands another. Loneliness is universal.

The melancholic person knows how tragic and sorrowful life can be. But greets the sadness with stoicism, courage and a quiet roaring strength.

We spend our lives worrying about things that will never happen and not being prepared for the things that do. We strive for things we’re likely never to get, and if we do, we are often disappointed or the satisfaction is short-lived.

The wisdom and beauty of melancholia arises from the understanding that this immense grief and sorrow we feel isn’t in anyway unique to ourselves, that we have not been selective chosen or singled out, that ultimately our suffering belongs to all of humanity and of being human. Melancholy depersonalizes misfortune.

What we find painful of existing is oft what all of our species find as sorrowful too. Melancholy allows us to feel a sadness for the human condition – something we all share.

Realizing that what we feel is a shared, universal experience makes us better people. It fosters a deeper understanding of the human condition and allows us a better depth for empathy. It is to sit and realize that the person next to me is also suffering this weight of human existence. That it is okay if they are on edge, if they cry, if they lie, seem nervous, or forlorn. Melancholy offers us the profound opportunity of becoming more compassionate to the human condition and most importantly, to each other.

As Eric G. Wilson subtly questions:

“I am finally fearful over our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia from the system. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?”

Sometimes we do not need “cheering up”.

Sometimes we just need to sit, alone or together, and let the wait of being human be felt.

We are, after all, all in this together.

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