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Saturday, December 06, 2008

In Praise of Melancholy

It has begun.

My phone is ringing off the hook. Actually, that phrase dates me, doesn't it? Okay, so it's more like my cell phone is so busy, I can't keep a good charge on my battery.

Some people are already 'crashing and burning' before Christmas.

It's not just the stock market, fragile economic times and the unemployment rate, although they are certainly not helping.

I feel it, too. The pressure to get into "the Christmas spirit". The relentless pursuit of the illusive culturally defined sense of 'happiness' - 'peace and good will to all humankind' - and 'have a holy, jolly Christmas, it's the best time of the year.'

Blah, Blah, Blah.

As I read my last post to this blog, I know my sarcastic humor is a manifestation of the pressure to join the rest of the madding crowd and "don't worry, be happy."

Our Third Annual "Blue Christmas" service is scheduled for Saturday, December 20 at 6:30 PM. I've just written out the invitations to those in our community who have lost a loved one in the past 5 years.

Interestingly enough, none of them have called me because they are crashing and burning. They have a "reason" be sad. The folks who are calling me think they don't have a reason to be sad. That they SHOULD be happy. But, they're not. So, they think something is wrong with THEM. And, that makes them sad.

They are not sure what or why but they say to me, "There MUST be something wrong with me, Reverend Elizabeth, because I'm just not able to get into the 'Christmas spirit'. In fact, the harder I try, the more immobilized I become. I feel sad and tired a lot of the time. Sometimes, it just hurts to move. Am I depressed?"

Well, I'm not a doctor and I can't diagnose depression, but I think I recognize a line from a television ad for an anti-depressant when I hear one.

I have always thought that there is a difference between depression and melancholy. Furthermore, I think, sometimes, perhaps more often than not, it's absolutely appropriate - dare I say it? "NORMAL" - to feel one or the other.

I've just put this book on my Epiphany Wish List: "Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy" by Eric G. Wilson.

I read a review of it in the blur that was my so-called day off - while I was working out on the elliptical machine in the gym, somewhere after my appointment with the dental hygienist and before my appointment with the accountant and in between all the phone calls from people who are not doing so very well.

Wilson argues that "Depression is a cocktail of angst and chronic sadness connected with apathy and numbness."

Melancholy, on the other hand "generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a 'turbulence of heart' that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing."

Wilson goes so far as to speculate that it was the "turbulent heats and minds of saturnine cave dwellers" that gave rise to the arts and crafts.

I was intrigued enough to wonder who the heck this Eric G. Wilson is, so I googled him on my iPhone (Wow, I even impressed myself with the last piece of that sentence!). Turns out he is the Thomas H. Prichard Professor of English at Wake University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He's apparently won several important awards and has written no less than five books on the relationship between literature and psychology. None too shabby credentialing.

Okay. I'm willing to give the guy a listen. I decided to stop at the Barnes and Noble on the way home from my accountant's office in Succasunna (Yes, NJ). I figured by then, I'd at least need a Latte (Decaf, low fat, grande - no foam. Hey, I haven't lived six years in blissful suburbia and not learned how to be neurotic about coffee. Besides, I still have money on my gift card from last Christmas.)

The book won't be on the shelves until January 20th, but I read another review and put in an order for my copy.

Wilson's book appears to be a veritable polemic against what he calls the 'American cult of happiness', a cult that medicalizes even the mildest forms of jangled nerves and malaise. He warns:

"I for one am afraid that our American culture's overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am wary in the face of this possibility: to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. 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 magnificent yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?"

He also writes: "Happy types around the country seem bent on ironing out all the rough edges, not only the cragged corners of old houses and those weather-weary knots on old oaks . . .The same is true of faces these days; they're as unblemished as flat plastic. . . You catch these smooth and expressionless faces when you walk down a city street. You can find not a trace of existence in these frozen masks."

Here's the line that stopped me in mid-sip of my latte: "It's finally the smoothness that kills us."

Okay, I don't know Wilson's psychology credentials but clearly, the man knows a little something about the human condition.

"It's finally the smoothness that kills us."

It occurs to me that the message of Advent to enter into a time of 'quiet' and 'contemplation' might be heard as one of smoothness. It is not. Indeed, it is a time to 'hush the sounds' of the madding world in order to listen to the turbulence of your own soul.

It is, I believe, out of a nearer sense of the chaos of that turbulence that we come closer to the sound of Ruach who brooded over the chaos of the primordial stew and brought forth a new creation.

It's that same Ruach that troubles the waters of our soul and calls us from our complacency and into co-creative status with God.

But before all that, we must first be still and listen to the terrifying sound of that turbulence and let the melancholy take hold of your soul.

It is then that we enter into a holy time when those who are sad of heart can gain a new respect and appreciation for and relationship with their sadness.

Here's my new Advent mantra: "It's finally the smoothness that kills us."


Seeing Eye Chick said...

The phenonenom that you describe happens in a lot of different scenarios. I went through that during my pregnancies too. That expectation for you to feel and react in a way that is considered *appropriate society is a tremendous amount of pressure and it negates your personhood and your individuality.

I dont care for the Christmas season outside my house because people run each other off the roads to get to *sales and parking spaces, they buy crap that no one needs to keep up appearances, thus contributing to the ecological disaster of conspicuous consumption. There are people who have a cow if you dont wish them a marry Christmas, and it just seems overblown.

Melancholy--Yep. Its hard to get closer to people with all that between us. So around the Winter Solstice, I go home and read Rumi poems. Another Melancholy soul who questions everything and yet had not lost his romantic view of the world, the soul, divinity, or a thousand other beautiful things.

I think its wonderful that you point this out and explore it. Melancholia is inspiring, I do my best writing and art in those states. And I am okay with that. And its okay if no one cheers me up. Its my time to go plumbing the depths of myself, or the world or whatever.

PseudoPiskie said...

Is there a difference between "smoothness" and finding something "good" in every situation?

Kirkepiscatoid said...

Something I learned years ago and remind myself of is this: Things happen in December, just like every other month, that you have a RIGHT to be unhappy about, just like if it happened in February or July.

There is no rule that "nothing bad happens in December." The problem, of course, is the "forced happy happy joy joy" of the season makes people FEEL like they don't have a right to it.

One of the things I am learning this year as I explore the "holes" in Advent is that really great stuff emerges from darkness. I think about how Edgar Allen Poe's best stuff arose from tremendous melancholia. There is tremendous power in that, which is to be respected, revered, and embraced. But you won't see it if you push yourself into a big game of "Let's pretend--because it's the Christmas season."

Fran said...

Oh my- what a brilliant post you have given us.

I have long believed that sadness is an invitation - at least I finally learned that it was for me after years of trying to shop or eat my way out of it.

This is a tough year, we have having a very bad day around the Casa de We Are due to major layoffs at husband's job. Survivor guilt is prevalent among those like my hubby who have been spared.

Plus the sword of Damocles dangles...

In any event, there is an inherent invitation in exploring the melancholy and our culture is determined to tell people to be happy.

And let's not forget the mid-September 2001 admonition to go shopping by our president.

Ugh. Cheer up. Buy crap you don't need, eat food you don't want, have sex with people you don't like, blah blah blah.

I too will look forward to this book and as ever, I am grateful for your words and wisdom.

Extra prayers for you this season, with great affection.

Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for this one, Elizabeth. Yes! It's exactly what I was able to do last year during Advent ... and for the first time in my life was able to experience both Advent and Christmas in a way that felt true and good. This year, there has been too darn much busy-ness in my job and my church work for me to let my soul be quiet and turbulent. You've inspired me.

And Seeing Eye Chick, you've said a mouthful, too, for which I'm grateful.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

SEC - I think the key is that melancholy can bring us very near the abyss but depression risks plunging us into it. Neither is bad, necessarily, just that depression is harder to crawl out of. Melancholy, on the other hand, leads us to creativity - at least in my experience.

Pseudo - I think the key is 'authenticity'. I read Wilson identifying smoothness with that which is inauthentic. If the goodness is real, no problem. As I said to SEC, I think melancholy can lead us to creativity. Smoothness can't do that.

FranIAm and Kirke and Lisa - we are on the same page on this. I know how melancholy I can get and I know what trouble I can cause for myself when I don't honor my own melancholy and try just to "be happy."

Thanks for all of your comments. Y'all are a GREAT inspiration.

Robert Zacher said...

I fondly remember the Christmas seasons when I lived in North Brookline, MA. within that mostly Jewish enclave. During Advent I could peasefully sail into Brookline shops and restaurants that were free of pre-Christmas noise, hustle and anxiety. What a blessing! It was Peace on Earth for me. You could feel the quiet and carry home a peaceful spirit.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Melancholy about Bahstawn, Robert?

Yeah. Sometimes. Me, too.

Jane R said...

There was a great interview of this guy (the author of the melancholy book) a week or two ago on I can't remember which NPR show - maybe Diane Rehm, maybe someone else.

Thanks for naming what's happenin'. That alone is ministry.

it's margaret said...

My beloved suffers with bouts of "southern male melancholy." --at least that is what he has always called it.... To see it as a creative gift --oh, how wonderful.

I guess this book will also be a must read in this house!

Thank you.

Unknown said...

I read this before church this morning. I didn't think too much about it until I was sitting in church and having trouble paying attention. I was drifting to what a rough year this has been, how my daughter won't be with us at Christmas for the first time, drifting into a real pity party. Then I thought of this and decided instead of trying to suck it up and be happy in spite of everything, I was going to let myself feel. I'll get back to you on how that goes! Just be glad I don't have you on speed dial. Thanks.

the cajun said...

I have always found Advent the time of of going truly deep inside, and as you mentioned - a time to 'listen to the turbulence of your own soul.'
A time to step outside the everyday and into who you really are. Not necessarily something any of us is eager to do.
Perhaps this is one reason people are unhappy and believe they ought to be so.
Just my two-cents, plain.

Prairie Soul said...

An inspired and inspiring post, Elizabeth Kaeton. Thank you for sharing a message that needs wide circulation. May it be linked and copied exponentially!