Melancholy and the art of emptiness

MEDICOS of the Renaissance and Middle Ages referred to depression as the state of “being in Saturn”.
Those obsessed with the saturnine side of life were said to have been temporarily and literally affected by the weight of the ringed planet.
This could induce withdrawal, solitude, profound sadness, weariness and emptiness.
Yet the influence of Saturn was not always considered negative. It was also claimed to make some people contemplative and inspire “cool consideration”.
Today, depression is still a mystery. Its causes are largely unknown.
Respected American writer, psychotherapist and theologian Thomas Moore acknowledged the seriousness of clinical depression in his book Original Self. But he claimed it could not be reduced to a purely physical malady, treatable only with drugs.
Moore attributed a soul element to melancholy.
He also said the presence of profound sadness — the feeling of an emptiness in personal lives — almost always had a positive side.
“People often say there is no imagination in depression. It is a void, a dark pit, a cave with no exit.
“But our problem may be that we are not used to appreciating the particular kind of imagery proper to depression.”
“It feels vague and therefore without meaning,” he said.
“But if we could become better at articulating the imagery of despair and sadness, we might be that much closer to the meaning that would make it bearable. We need a depressive aesthetics; an art of emptiness.”
Moore’s philosophy is that depression, although painful, takes our thoughts “deep and far”. Our thoughts are so heavy because they bear so much meaning, even if at the same time they may feel empty.
“Paradoxically, emptiness is one of the heaviest ideas in religion and philosophy.”
Moore said we have a choice when faced by deep sadness — to respond to its causes, or to maintain a pretence that “this is the way it is, always was, and always will be”.
Han De Wit, an author who specialises in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, contrasted “contemplative psychology” with conventional Western psychology.
He argued that followers of contemplative traditions assumed a freedom to shape their own minds, while mainstream psychology assumed that our minds shape us. The spiritual traditions were more creative because they allowed us to mature.
St Augustine said we understand everything in relation to what we have remembered.
Memory gave us not only personal remembrances of events but also archetypal images. Augustine said everyone had suffered hurt. But the guiding principle of hope was that many had survived the pain and prospered emotionally.
Perhaps no more graphic example of this was the powerful message scrawled on a filthy bathroom wall in the death camp of Auschwitz by a 14-year-old Jewish boy soon to die. He wrote: “I know the sun exists even when I can not see it. I know love exists even when I can not feel it.”
Somehow, the boy had looked beyond his insane world.
T HOMAS Moore has complained of the modern penchant to worship at the altar of good health.
“We look forward to the day when we will be fully balanced and adjusted. We believe we will all have arrived the day when our troubles fade and we feel chronically carefree,” he said.
Moore said this was a “salvational fantasy” based on the hope to be saved from aspects of life that seemed unpleasant.
“I don’t mean to criticise the desire for happiness, but only to point out that it has a companion — the necessity of suffering. Put these two together and we have a complete view of life, one carved out of blissful desires and painful failures.”
Humans seem to have a preference for straight lines. Progress always moves forward, and regression or deviancy are not cherished notions.
Yet writer Rainer Maria Rilke once said: “I live my life in widening rings.”
She said we should relax into the circumambulations of life that turn us over and over, polishing the same arcane stone of our most essential selves.

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2 thoughts on “Melancholy and the art of emptiness

  1. The Lady Of Tears

    by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

    Through valley and hamlet and city,
    Wherever humanity dwells,
    With a heart full of infinite pity,
    A breast that with sympathy swells,
    She walks in her beauty immortal.
    Each household grows sad as she nears,
    But she crosses at length every portal,
    The mystical Lady of Tears.

    If never this vision of sorrow
    Has shadowed your life in the past,
    You will meet her, I know, some to-morrow —
    She visits all hearthstones at last.
    To hovel, and cottage, and palace,
    To servant and king she appears,
    And offers the gall of her chalice —
    The unwelcome Lady of Tears.

    To the eyes that have smiled but in gladness,
    To the souls that have basked in the sun,
    She seems in her garments of sadness,
    A creature to dread and to shun.
    And lips that have drunk but of pleasure
    Grow pallid and tremble with fears,
    As she portions the gall from her measure,
    The merciless Lady of Tears.

    But in midnight, lone hearts that are quaking,
    With the agonised numbness of grief,
    Are saved from the torture of breaking,
    By her bitter-sweet draught of relief.
    Oh, then do all graces enfold her;
    Like the goddess she looks and appears,
    And the eyes overflow that behold her —
    The beautiful Lady of Tears.

    Though she turns to lamenting all laughter,
    Though she gives us despair for delight,
    Life holds a new meaning thereafter
    For those who will greet her aright.
    They stretch out their hands to each other,
    For Sorrow unites and endears,
    The children of one tender mother —
    The sweet, blessed Lady of Tears.

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  2. If unhappiness is enduring, it might be physically caused, and treatment can help. Certainly no-one can find happiness by searching for it. I think we need a couple of other things to aim for, and the result could be happiness. We need a purpose.

    If your main aim in life is fame and fortune, or even outwitting your neighbour, it won’t bring happiness, it’s a negative aim. But a fresh start every day aiming at something positive, not harmful to others, will do it. A daily effort, doesn’t have to be altruistic in any way.

    A second aim is, importantly, altruistic, even if it’s just to give someone a smile. Daily.

    Not reliving the past, not living for the future, just living the present day.

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