The Gift of Melancholy

Working through the pain in life.

A feeling of sadness and longing,

That is not akin to pain,

And resembles sorrow only

As the mist resembles rain. — ‘A Day is Done’ by Henry W. Longfellow

Depression and anxiety are big business in America.

Antidepressant use has soared by 65% in the past 15 years. The country produces and consumes 90% of the world’s Ritalin to treat attention deficit. Every year, doctors write nearly 50 million prescriptions for Xanax or Alprazolam to ease anxiety.

And yet, these maladies are at an all-time high, particularly among the young.

For this, I blame Thomas Jefferson. Better said, I blame his dangerous assertion that a supreme being gifted Americans with an inalienable right to pursue happiness; something Howard Mumford Jones described as the ghastly privilege of pursuing a phantom and embracing a delusion.

What’s so wrong about sadness anyway? Or melancholy? Why does everything have to be rainbow colored all the time?

I sometimes drive an hour to the ocean, hoping I will find it thoroughly obscured by fog. I am not a bore, but want a break from all the rainbow violence in the world. — Meghan Flaherty

My younger daughter and I are profoundly melancholy. The type who prefer foggy days, shadowy places underneath bridges, mournful adagios, dark alleys, dusty attics crammed with old books, creaky chairs, rooms with low lighting…

In her teens, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed Zoloft which she dutifully took for a long time. Last year, she quit cold turkey. “I’m fed up with numbness!” she said. “I no longer know what it is to be happy because I no longer feel sad.”

The characteristic American expectation of positive emotions and life experiences makes feelings of sadness and despair more pathological than elsewhere.

In her paper ‘From Good Cheer to Drive-By Smiling,’ Christina Kotchemdova says that since cheerfulness and depression are bound by opposition, the more one is classified as normal, the more negative the other will appear. And when a culture labels normal sadness or depression as “abnormal,” those who experience these emotions become ashamed and alienated from themselves, thinking that the problem must be them.

While it’s great business for pharmaceutical companies, it is an invisible obstacle to empathy. “Melancholy,” proposes Alain de Botton, “is a key mental state and a valuable one. Melancholy is generous: you feel pity for the human condition.”

Had Abraham Lincoln been president today, he would’ve been prescribed Zoloft in a heartbeat.

“No element of Lincoln’s character,” declared his colleague Henry Whitney, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.”

“With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul,” wrote Joshua Wolf Shenk for The Atlantic. “A man whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.”

“But Lincoln’s melancholy,” Shenk adds, “is part of a whole life story; exploring it can help us see [his] life more clearly and discern its lessons. In a sense, what needs “treatment” is our own narrow ideas — of depression as an exclusively medical ailment that must be squashed; of therapy as a thing dispensed only by professionals and measured only by a reduction of pain.”

The first time I felt empathy was when fate toppled me from the pinnacle of power and wealth forcing me to take-on what I first considered the most humiliating jobs. It’s when I met Darren, who had the letters “L” and “R” tattooed on his left and right wrist as a reminder of the brutal beatings he suffered as a young boy for not being able to distinguish which was which. The time I met Steve, with whom I first went dumpster-diving. And Lorraine, who worked three jobs to put her son through college while caring for her ailing parents. “Losers!” is how I once considered these wretched souls. Ever since, I have never again used that word.

Had I taken everyone’s advice and taken antidepressants to numb my pain during that tumultuous time in my life, I would’ve missed the gift of empathy. Ever since, I have taken all my suffering and transmuted it to light — the light of compassion and wisdom.

“Whatever greatness Lincoln achieved,” says Shenk, “cannot be explained as a triumph over personal suffering. Rather, it must be accounted an outgrowth of the same system that produced that suffering. This is a story not of transformation but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

In psychotherapy, the integration to which Shenk alludes is called “shadow work.” It means bringing to light all the wounds we’ve suffered and repressed in life; the unavowed emotions that, when not brought to surface and given fresh air, have the nasty habit of rearing their ugly heads in other areas of our lives — alcoholism, drug addiction, illicit affairs, violence, etc.

When we stop resisting something, we stop giving it power. Absorbing instead of fighting against. The pain that signals a toothache is the pain that saves your life. Sometimes the only way out is through. — Sarah Lewis

How does the mind absorb suffering? By realizing that resistance and escape are false moves; that pain and the effort to be separate from it are the same thing. Wanting to get out of pain is the pain, said Alan Watts in ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity.’

Swallowing a pill, in my mind, works only as a temporary repressor of difficult emotions. It doesn’t make them go away. In my book, they’re called “the stuff of life,” and when courageously tussled with, not only awaken empathy, but can fuel the fire of great work.

Melancholy might paint a landscape gray, but it is only in shadow where light is perceived.


Read further: ‘A Counterbalance to Unpleasant Memories