The positive side of melancholy
January 28th, 2015
By Father Ron Rolheiser
Normally none of us like feeling sad, heavy, or depressed. Generally we prefer sunshine to darkness, lightheartedness to melancholy. That’s why, most of the time, we do everything we can to distract ourselves from melancholy, to keep heaviness and sadness at bay. We tend to run from those feelings inside us that sadden or frighten us.
That’s why, for the most part, we think of melancholy and her children (sadness, gloomy nostalgia, loneliness, depression and the rest) as negative. But these feelings have their positive sides. Simply put, they help keep us in touch with those parts of our soul to which we are normally not attentive. Our souls are deep and complex, and trying to hear what they are saying involves listening to them inside of every mood within our lives, including, and sometimes especially, when we feel sad and out of sorts. In sadness, melancholy and fear, the soul tells us things that we normally refuse to hear.
Unfortunately, today it is common to see sadness and heaviness of soul as a loss of health, as a deficiency in our vibrancy. That’s both unfortunate and shortsighted. For instance, in many medieval and renaissance medical books melancholy was seen as a gift to the soul, something that one needed to pass through, at certain points in his or her life, in order to come to deeper health and wholeness. This, of course, doesn’t refer to clinical depression, a true loss of health, but to all those other depressions that draw us inward and downward. Why do we need to pass through melancholy in order to come to wholeness?
Thomas Moore, who writes with deep insight on how we need to learn to listen more carefully to the impulses and needs of our souls, offers this insight: “Depression gives us valuable qualities that we need in order to be fully human. It gives us weight, when we are too light about our lives. It offers a degree of gravitas. It was associated with the metal lead and was said to be heavy. It also ages us so that we grow appropriately and don’t pretend to be younger than we are. It grows us up and gives us the range of human emotion and character that we need in order to deal with the seriousness of life.”
Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, in his classic novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” echoes what Moore says. His heroine, Teresa, struggles to be at peace with life when it’s not heavy, when it’s too much lightness, sunshine, and, seemingly, non-mindful; when it’s devoid of the type of anxieties that hint at darkness and mortality. Thus, she feels always the need for gravitas, for some heaviness that signals that life is more than simply the present flourishing of health and comfort.
In many cultures, and indeed in all of the great world religions, periods of melancholy and sadness are considered as the necessary path one must travel in order to sustain one’s health and come to wholeness. Indeed, isn’t that part of the very essence of undergoing the paschal mystery within Christianity? Jesus, himself, when preparing to make the ultimate sacrifice for love, had to, painfully accept that there was no path to Easter Sunday that didn’t involve the darkness of Good Friday.
So how might we look at periods of sadness and heaviness in our lives? How might we deal with melancholy and her children?
First off, it’s important to see melancholy as something normal and healthy within our lives. Heaviness of soul is not necessarily an indication that there is something wrong inside us. Rather, normally, it’s the soul itself signaling for our attention, asking to be heard, trying to ground us in some deeper way, and trying, as Moore puts it, to age us appropriately. But, for this to happen, we need to resist two opposite temptations, namely, to distract ourselves from the sadness or to indulge in it. How do we do that? James Hillman gives us this advice: What to do with heaviness of soul? “Put it into a suitcase and carry it with you.” Keep it close, but contained; make sure it stays available, but don’t let it take you over.
That’s secular wording for Jesus’ challenge: If you wish to be my disciple, take up your cross every day and follow me.
Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology, San Antonio, Texas.
From January 30, 2015 issue of Catholic San Francisco.