Box Of Darkness: On Happiness and Melancholy
Melancholy always sounded to me like something you’d contract, like Cholera or Covid. Melancholy isn’t really a sickness, as some would have it out to be. And I’m not talking about the heavier destructive version of melancholy: Depression. The kind that crushes you into staying in bed for days, the kind that deceives you and plots your demise. The kind that can conjure phantoms and convince you that you don't belong. here. That’s a wholeeee different animal that shouldn’t be overlooked or downplayed, and quite frankly, is scary as hell.
I’m not a depressed person. I’m not suicidal. I’m generally pretty happy-go-lucky and I enjoy happiness. I’m pretty adept at complicated feelings, and I don’t consider myself even much a pessimist.
But, I don’t think our natural state as humans is actually supposed to be just straight-up happiness. I know that sounds dark. But hear me out. There’s something truly freeing about giving happiness the permission to be fluid. To leave. To come back. To cycle in and out in a way that’s neither scary nor alarming. To hold this understanding with a delicate grasp, instead of a white-knuckled grip. To not be afraid of the blank spaces between big feelings that you are somehow conditioned to believe are supposed to be filled to the brim…with something great…and you’re missing out. Space between feelings has always been uncomfortable for us humans. And I think we don’t give that statement enough credit. Especially when it comes to mental health.
I think the cycle of melancholy deserves just as much space to inhabit as happiness, and sadly, most of the time it barely makes the same room. I find that the depth of melancholy (NOT depression, that’s different.) is a great tool of creative capacity when you see it as face value, and can work within it. When you can call it by name, use it, and then…let it go. Because life can be quite sad. Life’s full of things that are beautiful, horrifying, wretched. There’s so many duplicities. So much deepness. And again, I’m not talking about depression, which is a very real and very ugly animal. Melancholy, unlike depression, illustrates deepness in a way that’s constructive. You can actually BUILD with melancholy. You can enrich your happiness with it. Which is why it’s important.
Like happiness, melancholy can be something dropped upon us like springtime rain or it can be a little more direct, like the burst of cold wind whipping over the crest of a hill. It can be the bittersweet feeling of wanting a moment in time to continue, forever, knowing it can’t. Or knowing that you will one day not be able to be quite so nimble, climbing up that hill, 30 years from now. If that thought brings a tear to your eye, are you depressed? If it moves you in a way that feels maybe a little shaky in the knees, are you then imbalanced? It’s not that you’re sad about moments as they pass, but you’re…sorta…in it. That’s not happiness, really. And maybe not true sadness, either. But it IS a big feeling of complexity. Of being grossly alive. And it’s not. I repeat. NOT. Depression.
Out of all that potential swirling around us, all that ALIVENESS couldn’t be felt without the highs of seratonin and the lows of dopamine, of which I completely understand are two neurotransmitters we desperately need to be mentally stable, and some of us just don’t have enough of them. In order to return from our melancholy and cycle back into our happiness, some of us need help. Some of us have longer cycles than others. Some of us skip the melancholy and go straight dark. Some of us experience these swings in the same moment. But the reality is, whether naturally made or prescribed, these brain chemicals give us the ways to accept happiness back into our grasp, to cycle freely, as if to say….Breathe in deep. Enjoy that crested hill. It’s okay it’s not going to last forever. You’ll be old sometime soon, and that’s okay too. Enjoy it anyway.
I guess what I’m saying is this. Depression isn’t always sadness. Melancholy isn’t always depression. We can’t have a scale of mental health without understanding that dark…is real. And you must learn to work with it. Whether you do that on your own, or with help. And light is always there, even when it seems like it isn’t. We have to stop demonizing our sadness, and have to stop putting happiness on such a high pedestal. When we describe sadness as depression without giving it context, without giving it space, we have passed up a moment in time where our story no longer matters, where our grayscale becomes moot. Where our depth gets filled in with consumerism, and pills, and crap we don’t need. We desperately have to understand, and have to start practicing the belief, that sadness might actually make us better. We have to start treating our depth much more like depth, and much less like disease.
Like Rilke says about fluid happy/sad:
So don’t be frightened, dear friend,
If a sadness confronts you larger than any
You have ever known,
Casting its shadow over all you do.
You must think that something
Is happening within you,
And remember that life has not forgotten you;
It holds you in its hands
And will not let you fall.
Why would you want to exclude from your life
Any uneasiness, any pain, any depression,
Since you don’t know what work
They are accomplishing within you?
I don’t know if there’s a way to say that sadness is good without pissing off most of the world. I don’t know if that’s bad to say that happiness isn’t the end-all be-all of life. Does that make me pessimistic? Does that make me also depressed? I don’t think so. I think it’s better to believe that life is both. That light and dark are together, forever. And when we learn to use our dark in a way that creates deep meaning and brings value to other peoples darkness too, that darkness is then transformed into something useful. Something valuable. Something we can build from. Something that's not so scary after all.
We are multi-faceted, complex, and inherently creative beings and we are capable of illustrating hard things like no other species on earth can.
We just have to try.