As I write this, I’m listening to the Smiths’ “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”. It’s perfect for an overcast Sunday morning. “Why do I give valuable time to people who don’t care if I live or die?” croons Morrissey, at once sad and ironic. It’s a morbid and amusing mix of self absorbed and self-effacing. It’s certainly melancholy, but is it depressing? Funny how this miserable music is actually making me feel better.
Depression and melancholy are two very different things, and I think recognizing the difference can do us the world of good. Depression is characterized by a loss of interest in life and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Being told to ‘cheer up’ or ‘snap out of it’ doesn’t help in the least. It is a destructive state in that it harms both the sufferer and his loved ones. Often, clinical intervention is the only option.
By contrast, melancholy is a potentially creative state. It is a state of quiet reflection on the generally tragic nature of life. But where depressive thoughts lead only to a sense of helplessness, melancholy can be constructive, resulting in personal growth and wisdom. It’s okay to sink a little deeper into that black pool of dark thoughts because we may well come out with a little more fortitude and a little more inner strength.
Nowadays, we tend to think that melancholy is only de rigueur for anxious spotty-faced teens with long fringes, but it actually has a long and venerable history. The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes begins with a line that would make Morrissey proud, “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ Says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’” This is the author’s conclusion about the futility of human life, “The Race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong...but time and chance happen to them all.” It’s a bit reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, “Everybody knows that the dice are loaded. Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.”
And yet, if you read the whole of Ecclesiastes (or Leonard Cohen for that matter), you’ll see that the author isn’t resigned to depression. He concludes that while life is inscrutable, the best response is not to stay in bed, but go on with your life, to cultivate wisdom and fortitude, and to enjoy what simple pleasures you can.
A big part of this newfound wisdom is the insight that it’s not all about you. You may start off all mopey because you’re the victim of some perceived slight. But, by delving deeper, you may broaden your view a little, and with a little humour, you may come to see how absurd your victim complex is. Perhaps self-absorbed bitterness isn’t the right response in a world full of innocent victims. Sometimes to get to this point, we just need a little melancholy.
So next time you’re feeling a melancholy, it might be a good idea to roll with it. Put on ‘Everybody Hurts’ by REM, or ‘Helpless’ by Neil Young, or anything by Leonard Cohen or The Smiths. Let yourself sink into that melancholy funk for a while and see what wisdom comes up.
Other posts by Tim Casteling