Melancholy Archives - The School Of Life

Much is constantly happening that annoys us. Trains pull out of platforms as we approach them; taps snap off their moorings; shopping bags leak; suppliers go bankrupt; colleagues resign; cars break down. It is all — undoubtedly — maddening. But the question is how much does it all, beneath the surface, have to feel intentional as well?

For a certain kind of personality, it is very hard to hold on to the idea that many troubles might come down to something as innocent as chance. It simply seems implausible that awful things might repeatedly unfold, at terribly inopportune moments, without some kind of malevolent intent being involved. It can’t be just an accident that the dinner order went missing, or that the cinema seat was double booked, or that the phone’s battery has died. Why did their dry cleaning — and no one else’s — end up being stolen and their new shoes spring a leak? Why is there a strange smell just next to where they are seated on the plane? How come there is a small beetle in their salad? 

It’s as though someone is trailing them, undermining them, laying traps for them – and laughing at them. It seems like there is some kind of conspiracy to make them look like a cretin to the world (why else have they been walking around all day with a sticker on the back of their coat and why does their zip jam exactly ten minutes before an important dinner?). No wonder they may get very cross indeed.

The sad and touching truth is that there is – of course – almost never any conspiracy at play. But that it strongly feels like there is one on the inside tells us a lot about the origins of paranoic hypersensitivity: it is the bitter fruit of self-hatred

When we heartily dislike ourselves, it is only natural to have the impression that the world is ridiculing us in turn. The hotel concierge knows exactly how awful we are; that’s why they’ve given us the room with the malfunctioning air-conditioning unit. The waiter has deep experience of our revoltingness; that’s why they chose our trousers on which to drop a piece of butter. The phone company knows that we are an idiot (and that we think dreadful things); that’s why they’ve made sure our mobile would give out on the second day of our trip.

We need to be given the chance to see that our suspicious natures are a symptom of a self-hatred that owes its origins not to the prevalence of actual plots and schemes, but to childhood dynamics in which we lacked the reassurance, attention and care we deserved – and for this, we deserve immense, ongoing sympathy. The world doesn’t hate us, we have just learnt to have contempt for ourselves which returns to haunt us in the form of imagined plots.

No one is actually laughing at us; we weren’t loved properly and now don’t like ourselves very much. That’s the true outrage for which we should reserve our anger and our self-compassion.

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The French Revolution lasted ten years — from the 5th of May 1789 to the 9th of November 1799. In this period of chaos and savagery, one year stands out as especially heinous: the so-called Reign of Terror of 1793-4. The year when the guillotine worked non-stop in the Place de la Révolution (now cleaned up as the Place de la Concorde), with carts arriving by the half hour from the prisons of France bearing suspected counter-revolutionaries, aristocrats, parliamentarians, moderates, peace-makers — and other enemies of so-called friendship and justice. They were hauled onto a wooden platform, forced to apologise to the crowd and murdered, before their severed heads were placed on pikes and lined up for exhibition along the bridges of Paris.

Karl von Piloty, The Girondists, print from Harpers Weekly, August 1881

At the foot the guillotine, where one could get the best views and there was room for chairs, there would always be a raucous group of women from the poorest districts of Paris, the so-called tricoteuses or knitters. They would come at dawn with snacks and drinks and spend the day watching one unfortunate after another lose their head while they roared, laughed, chatted, exchanged notes on the weather – and did some knitting.

It is the contrast between the unhurried, homely domestic work of knitting and the simultaneous extinction of life that is hard to get over even at a distance – like hearing of a crossword finished during a rape or a piano sonata played over the course of a pogrom. We may wonder at how hearts could have become so deformed – but the sheer number of the knitting onlookers tell us that we are not dealing with any isolated cases of pathology. This isn’t about one or two sick minds afforded an unusual chance to exhibit their ailments during an unprecedented national crisis; this is who we substantially are.

The tricoteuses point to a dreadful truth about the suffering of others: that we enjoy it. We are relieved by it; it makes our day. We need you to fail, we hope ardently you might – and it will be an ecstatic moment if you ever do so. We will show up with a gang and point and laugh, we will remark on your clothing and your hairstyle as you march up the steps, we won’t care a jot that you were once a child and that you have goodness still in your soul; we will latch on to every reason to believe in your outsize wickedness, we’ll trust in the rumours, we won’t scrutinise the allegations, you won’t appear in any way human to us any more – and our hearts will stay cold as your neck is placed in a wooden holder and a razor-sharp blade ruptures your arteries.

By what mysterious process do humans become like this? What needs to happen to a newborn to turn them, over the years, into a tricoteur? If only the journey were more arduous or uncommon. All that seems to be required to fill up the mind with reserves of vengeance and fury is a steady drip feed of humiliation, of a kind every life is always likely to provide. We have all been made sufficiently unhappy not to gain extraordinary respite and satisfaction from the downfalls of others.

Public executions are rare; the tricoteuses are always with us. They are in the office, watching as we collect our belongings and are led out of the building; they are at the party, listening with feigned innocence as someone recounts the story of our divorce; they try to suppress a smile at the announcement of our disgrace and — of course — they are at their keyboards as the comments roll in declaiming us as monstrosities.

We will never manage to stop them – unless we succeed in eradicating every vestige of unhappiness in every life. Until then, not only will we have to suffer, we will have to know that this suffering will bring immense joy to substantial numbers of strangers. Our only protection is pessimism towards the many – and extreme love towards the few, those rare unsullied beings who remain unhurt enough that they will cry when it’s our time to step up to the scaffold.

It is common, on meeting with one of these packages with a bonnet on its head, its small body wrapped tightly in a blanket, to marvel at the exceptional beauty and perfection on display.

Photo by Jimmy Conover on Unsplash

We look at the tightly closed eyes and wonder what mysterious regions this wizard might be travelling through in its mind. It seems at once to know nothing and everything, as if it contains within itself a trace of the wisdom of all ages; it looks both terribly young and infinitely old, totally naive and boundlessly knowledgeable. It has been pulled as if by magic out of the realm of slumbering souls, it was – only a few months before – in existence only as scattered atoms that might have reached the earth from exploding stars in the early days of the universe. Now it has taken shape as a unique being – with neat, folded eyelids and a soft downy head – that might be extinguished only in a hundred years. 

We may be moved but there would – at the same time – be so many reasons to be extremely concerned and not a bit tearful as well. Our young friend is preparing to enter a world that ravages all who have ever been impudent enough to step into it, a world in which its own needs and wants will not figure highly on any stranger’s list of concerns, in which it will soon enough be told to grow up and stop pitying itself, in which it will have to earn its keep by competing ruthlessly with its peers, in which those it loves will seldom love it back as intently as it longs, in which it will be the target of envy and backbiting, in which it will struggle to understand itself, in which it will mess up key decisions – and in which it will never again enjoy the peace and comfort of those early tightly swaddled days.

Before it can be at true rest once more, this brave warrior’s heart will beat some four billion times, it will be humiliated, it will be ignored, it will want to die, it will cry out in agony and feel forsaken. It will be in lonely hotel rooms awake in the early hours, terrified of what the future will bring, or lie next to people it wants to separate from but acutely doesn’t want to hurt. It will write imploring letters to people begging for mercy. It will knock at the doors of loved ones who don’t want to answer. It will struggle to make itself understood by family members. It will have to drag itself out of bed for another day in a job that crushes its spirit. It will have arguments with spouses who are in no mood to see things from its point of view. It will feel nostalgic for its younger self and remember with bittersweetness its promising, encouraging beginnings; those badges it won at school, the excitement at the end of its exams, those early summers by the beach – against which the later disappointments stand out so starkly.

Its parents are likely to badly want that this little life go extremely well – but how little agency they ultimately possess against the multiple horrors waiting outside the nursery door; how much they will have to stand back helplessly and watch fate do its worst. They can for a few years make sure that there is a kiss every evening, that the lunchbox has some apple slices and favourite tuna sandwiches and that there is help with homework and tying shoelaces, but soon enough, the child will have to make its way unaided and there will be no chance to stop any of the blows or tears.

The Christian tradition painted a lot of mothers and babies but – unlike much of the modern rigmarole around kids – the religion stood out for bathing both parent and child in an atmosphere of sadness. In altar pieces, typically, a thoughtful Jesus sits on Mary’s lap, gazing upwards, playing with her hair or looking at the pages of a holy book and she looks down at him or over into the distance with an air of deep melancholy. She seems to be under no illusions about what life has in store, she senses that this child won’t get through without agony; her love for him is a source of terrible pain because his suffering will automatically become hers. Already in the nursery, there is an apprehension of the martyrdom on Calvary. Life is at once a gift to be celebrated and, at the same time, an unmitigated tragedy. That – these paintings tell us – is the human lot.

Rogier van der Weyden, Virgin and Child (Durán Madonna), c. 1435-8

We may not ourselves be directly headed for a Crucifixion outside Jerusalem, but – as the Christian story makes clear – we will are all likely to suffer in ways that lack justice or proportion and that will leave any loving parent distressed and terrified at what they had done to us by bringing someone to life. We have done nothing especially wrong – other than being born and yet that will be enough to merit ample, devilish punishment.

The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus observed with approval that the Thracian peoples were in the habit of celebrating at funerals and, conversely, of weeping at births. If we were more clear-eyed or simply less taken in by the smiles of young ones, we might have the courage to follow these sombre realists in their prescient lamentations. 

The most unexpectedly uplifting and consoling artist of the 20th century was the abstract painter Mark Rothko, the high priest of grief and loss who spent the latter part of his career turning out a succession of sublime and sombre canvases that spoke, as he put it, of the ‘tragedy of being human’ — and who, in 1970, ended his own life at the age of 66 in his studio in New York.

Born in Dvinsk, Russia, Rothko emigrated to the United States at the age of ten and immediately grew to despise the aggressive good cheer and steely optimism of his adopted land. Appalled by the sentimentality around him, he learnt to make art that was insular, unrelenting, sombre and oriented towards pain. It was, one critic said, the visual equivalent of a condemned prisoner’s last gasp. Rothko’s favourite colours were a burnt burgundy, dark grey, pitch black and blood red, occasionally, alleviated by a sliver of yellow.

No. 46 (Black, Ochre and Red over Red), 1957. Photo by Rocor from Flickr.

In 1958, Rothko was offered a large sum to paint some murals for a soon to be opened opulent New York restaurant, the Four Seasons on Park Avenue. It was, as he put it, ‘a place where the richest bastards of New York will come to feed and show off.’ His intentions for them soon became clear: ‘I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,’ and to that end, he set to work on some large black and maroon colour fields expressing a mood of terror and archaic anguish. It was an unlikely commission for Rothko to have accepted but it became ever more so in his mind when, following a trip to Italy (where he had been much moved by Giotto’s renditions of the crucifixion), in the autumn of 1959, he took his wife Mell to the restaurant for lunch. His hatred became overwhelming. Believing it was ‘criminal to spend more than $5 on a meal’, he couldn’t get over the overpriced dishes, the fancy sauces and the ponderous waiting staff. ‘Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kinds of prices will never look at a painting of mine,’ he vowed. But he hated the clientele even more: suntanned, cheery rich people, out to celebrate and show themselves off, to cut deals and swap gossip, the apparent winners of life, the kind who invested in tennis lessons and whitened their teeth. His hatred of them had its roots in his sense that we only accede to our humanity when we face pain and commune around it with compassion and humility. Anything else is grandstanding and pride. He had remained Russian in his soul.

Following the lunch, Rothko called up his patrons, explained his feelings — and sent back the money. He then gave his paintings to London’s Tate Gallery, where they were hung in a quiet airy contemplative, religious-seeming space, that enclosed the viewer in an atmosphere of meditative mortification. The paintings remain ideal companions for visitors who drift into the gallery at their wits’ end, who might be working through the loss of a partner or the ruin of their career — and who need more than anything else to know that they are not alone. Rothko’s art did not save his life; it will have prevented many others from taking theirs.

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953. Photo by Rocor from Flickr.

Rothko’s canvases — though focused on the darkness — are never themselves depressing to look at because they lend our difficulties dignity and legitimacy. To bathe in their atmosphere is to gain a distinct sense of comfort, like lying in a tender person’s arms who says little other than a modest ‘I know’ in response to our dejection and loss. With Rothko as our guide, it matters a little less that the world is mostly filled with noisy, brash, apparent winners, that no one much cares for us, that we have failed in numberless areas, that our name isn’t in lights, that we have enemies, and that we are no longer young. We are offered a refuge from the boosterish voices of contemporary society and are able to locate in an external form works that echo our own confused and inchoate sorrows.

A great part of our misery is caused by the cruel and erroneous assumption that life might fundamentally be a pleasant journey, capable of delivering satisfaction and delight to those who work hard and retain noble and purposeful hearts.

The truth could not be further from such a sentimental vision. Agony is baked into the human condition. We are suffering not by coincidence but by necessity. We may be focused on the particular errors and cruelties that have brought us to a low point: we may be narrowly concerned with what our enemies have done to us, how a few mistakes have cost us everything or how we have been abandoned by those who should have cared for us. But it isn’t to minimise these problems to insist that they are merely local manifestations of what are in reality more global and endemic troubles. They are merely the specific mechanisms by which we have come to taste the sorrow that would — however fate had twisted our path — have been our lot and that is the grisly birth right of every human. We must all ultimately drink the very same amount of poisoned liquid from the cup of sorrow, even if in different gulps and at different times. No one gets through unscathed.

Yellow and Orange, 1949. Photo by Rocor from Flickr.

Yet not only are we sad, we are isolated and lonely with our sadness, because the official narrative is remorselessly upbeat, and insists that we can find the right partner, that work can deliver satisfaction, that destinies are fair and that there is no inherent reason for us to lament our state. However, we don’t deserve — on top of everything else — to be forced to grin. We should be allowed to weep without being hectored into positivity. Our true overlooked right is not, after all, the right to happiness; it is the right to be miserable.

This may sound far from a reason to live — but the ability to look darkness in the face and accept its role in our affairs functions as its own very particular and intense reward. No longer must we be surprised by our suffering. No longer must we be taken unawares by misery. No longer do we have to feel that our reversals say something unique and shocking about us. We can start to rediscover a taste for life when we see that we’re not alone in wanting to give up on it; that it is acceptable, even necessary, sometimes to hate the smiling ‘bastards’ who so annoyed Rothko and anyone else with a heart. We can build friendships — imaginative, artistic or real — around shared honesty about tragedy. We will have banked our first reason to live when we know that we aren’t exceptionally stupid for finding matters very difficult. Unhappiness is just — as wise artists have always liked to remind us, and despite the suggestions of all the adverts, the brochures and the confident-seeming people congratulating themselves in the world’s fancy restaurants — very normal indeed.

When it comes to our sense of who does and doesn’t deserve punishment, we tend to operate with a simple dichotomy: either someone is guilty, and therefore must pay for their misdeeds, or they are innocent and should be allowed to walk free. Off the back of this divergence, we also know how to apportion our sympathies: the innocent merit our concern, the blameworthy have it coming to them.

And yet when we examine a great many lives from close up, a more troubling reality comes to light. In scenarios we know as ‘tragic’, the apportioning of blame becomes impossible. A person may have done something quite wrong: they ended a relationship tactlessly, they had an affair, they lost their temper and said words they shouldn’t. Their behaviour has clearly earned them some form of comeuppance.

But it’s the sheer scale of this eventual comeuppance that can tip due process into tragedy. In certain cases, after an affair has ended tactlessly, the rejected party doesn’t merely weep and take their leave; they may seek to destroy their ex’s reputation, post untrue allegations online and get them discredited among all potential employers. Or, equally tragically, they may kill themselves – exacting a life-long burden of guilt. Alternatively, a fleeting hot-tempered moment at work one afternoon might mean that someone is hauled before a tribunal, sacked for gross misconduct and can never find another job again, prompting the collapse of their marriage and the destruction of their relationship with their children. There are lives that are undone by a single word or email.

What defines tragedy is the disproportion between offence and punishment. There may be some primary fault: a lapse of reason, a degree of selfishness, an instance of lust or greed. But the toll is appalling and mesmerising in its scale and reach. It was the Ancient Greeks who first and best identified this possibility, named it tragic and gave rise to a tradition of writing plays in which one could at close quarters follow the disintegration of someone’s life from a relatively minor error to disaster, shame and death.

In the works of the great Greek tragedians – Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles – we observe intelligent, well-disposed characters who make errors of the sort we are all guilty of but, through the spiteful machinations of fate, have to pay an exceptional price for them. In Euripides’ Medea, Jason, an adventurer and an ambitious politician, grows bored of his wife, Medea. It is understandable enough: they have two children, the marriage has been lengthy, long relationships can be stifling. Jason finds himself falling in love with the beautiful and younger Glauce, daughter of King Creon; it happens all the time. What Jason does not foresee is Medea’s response: so incensed is she by the betrayal, so fragile is her mind, that she exacts revenge in the only way she knows will truly destroy Jason: by ending the lives of their children.

Tragedy is sadly not limited to legendary examples on the stage that we can leave behind after a few hours. The tragic dimension follows us deep into our own lives. We may try to push the possibility far out of consciousness. The media – through which we learn so much about the errors and crimes of our fellow humans – prefers to keep things simple. It regales us with a stream of one-dimensional villains: greedy capitalists, faithless spouses, sexual perverts. It tries to reassure us that harm only comes to the obviously wicked.

We want so badly to believe in such an assurance, but the reality is a good deal more nuanced – and lamentable. When we examine cases from close up, the apparently one-dimensionally evil business person we read about in a headline had no wish to destroy their whole company and ruin the livelihoods of thousands. The unfaithful spouse was carried away by momentary desire: the marriage had been barren for a long time, but they weren’t trying to drive anyone mad. The so-called pervert was beset by compulsions they regretted the moment they were exhausted. And all the while, these figures maintained sides that were generous, sweet-natured, intelligent and gifted. At the height of their fortunes we would have been proud to know them. And, needless to say, when they were little, they were filled with promise and had gleeful eyes and adorable smiles.

People emphatically do not get what they deserve. We are often short-sighted, selfish, greedy and cruel, but the intensity with which we have to suffer for some of our transgressions observes no reasonable limits. In the early hours, the world’s bedrooms are filled with people who both berate themselves for their mistakes and know that the record can never be expunged: the dead cannot be reborn, the relationship cannot be repaired, and there will be no other option but to suffer every day of what remains of a doomed life.

We need hearts of stone or simply uncurious minds not to be moved. We would be advised to show some form of loving response for an obvious and self-founded reason: because tragedy is likely to make an appearance in our own lives before too long. There is almost certainly already something that we have done – some oversight we are guilty of, some piece of malice we have perpetrated – that may set in motion a chain of events that could one day result in the destruction of everything we hold dear.

No one has guaranteed us protection from the unequal distribution of punishments; we are the playthings of the Gods, and the Greeks did their best to warn us on this score. There can be no reason to continue to cling to naive models of justice. We have no option but to pity every so-called ‘sinner’; we must battle our tragic fates with love.

Nothing quite provokes the peculiar mixture of discomfort and pleasure that characterises the melancholy mood as powerfully as does solitary travel. On our own somewhere on the road, we may feel both lost and sorrowful and at the same time inwardly released and confirmed in our sadness.

It’s late in the evening at a large airport somewhere in modernity. Most of the terminal is now empty; the few remaining departures are all for other continents. Most of us will be spending the night over an ocean turned silver by a brilliant moon. The waiting travellers are spread out across the terminal, some are sleeping, most are checking messages, a few are looking pensively into the middle distance. Outside, maintenance crews are loading bags and fitting fuel hoses. Stacks of meals – hundreds of fascinatingly wan chicken breasts or cork-like lasagne – are being craned into galleys. Occasionally, the same metallic voice reminds us to stay close to our luggage or announces that a new whale is ready to board: Osaka, San Francisco, Beijing, Dubai. So many unforeseen, unknown places, the world still in its way so large and unknown.

We associate the word ‘home’ with what is settled and domestic, but this desolate, interstitial place can feel more like where we truly belong than home itself. Through the plate glass windows, a roar of engines can be heard. Another giant ascends in a flawless controlled rage. Soon it will be our turn. Everyone here is a pilgrim, everyone is discomfited and lost – and this may offer us more of a sense of being understood than an environment that speaks in sentimental tones of settled community and family harmony. There can be no oppressive persecutory feeling of alienation in an airport that is so obviously a zone of otherness and disaffection. Our impression of dislocation, normally borne so individually and with shame, can be confirmed and normalised in this abandoned cathedral of flight: we are all misfit nomads, lost in thought by a bank of screens or finishing a meal on our own in a bar. No one belongs and therefore everyone can belong. We, who permanently feel like outsiders, may be nowhere more at home than in the languid drift of a brightly lit airport at eleven at night.

There is a pleasing melancholy too in a hotel room in a city we have journeyed to on business and where we know no one. For a whole evening, we are on our own with the television, room service and a view onto three hundred other similar windows across a courtyard. Our thoughts can feel newly expansive and free, released from the normal demands of home and its pressures to be coherent and predictable, knowable and tame. The unfamiliar furniture, the foreign soap operas on TV and the sounds of the city beyond release us to explore areas of experience and desire we had resisted. From our bed, in another room, we can see a person reading; above them, a couple appear to be arguing, in a third, a child is showing their teddy the view. We feel a rush of love for these people we will never meet but with whom we are briefly sharing a slice of existence in a frightening anonymous concrete block on the edge of an ugly wealthy city in a country we have no energy to understand. How much we might like to open up to them, how much secret sorrow and regret there will be; how worthy we all are of forgiveness and tenderness.

Ben-Gurion airport terminal by night, a photo from Tel Aviv, Tel ...

We are true natives of the unfamiliar place: the airport, the hotel, the motorway diner, the open road under a boundless sky. In these isolated places, we have an opportunity to meet with bits of ourselves with which the routines of daily life don’t allow us to commune. We are keeping an appointment with a disavowed side of our characters, and can have internal conversations of a sort that are drowned out by the normal chatter, the smiling and the casual enquiries of our regular lives. We are recovering a sense of who we are, turning over memories and plans, regrets and excitements – without any pressure to be reassuring, purposeful or just (so-called) normal.

The bleakness all around is a relief from the false comforts of home. We don’t have to pretend any longer. The environment supports us in our wish to own up to a sadness we have had to hide from for too long. 

The fellow outsiders we encounter in these lonely places seem closer to offering us the true community we crave than the friends we should supposedly rely on. In their sad faces, we recognise the most sincere, bruised bits of ourselves. They seem like our true brothers and sisters – also unable to accommodate their characters within the strictures of the ordinary world.

There can be something almost beautiful about the ugliest kinds of travelling place: plastified, brightly lit, garish, cheap. The lack of domesticity, the pitiless illumination and anonymous furniture offer an alternative to the covert cruelty of ordinary good taste. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a cosy living room with wallpaper and framed photos.

We may best feel at home where there is no option to belong.

The situation is simple enough if one believes. Or doesn’t believe. Where it starts to get complicated is if one firmly doesn’t believe – never has and never will – but still profoundly wishes that one could believe; if one suffers from, as it were, a nostalgia for a religion one never had.

What might one miss about this absent, impossible faith? The list might include some of the following:


We might long for a God who could forgive, who could be boundlessly merciful, who could understand that despite everything, deep inside, we did mean well, we were trying to be good, we would have loved to be better. It’s just that we messed up, we got carried away, we were entirely stupid – and we’re so so sorry. This God would look at us with a slightly severe and pained expression but then it would take us in our arms and say in a low kind voice, ‘I know, you have tried. I know you are good. You will always have my love. I do not judge like the others.’ We long for mercy personified.


The missing God would allow us to confess to everything: the terrible words one had said, the awful things one had done… One wouldn’t need to carry secrets and guilt forever, one could utter them to the God, kneel down on the ground, make a sign of atonement – and then be relieved of one’s burdens. One could start afresh, one could be reborn under loving eyes. One could have a second chance.


At moments of special stress, one could lie in bed and pray and the God would be there, somewhere in the darkened room, to listen. One would ask that one’s loved ones wouldn’t have to suffer, that one’s career wouldn’t be destroyed, that one’s relationship could be saved. Before a challenge, in the waiting room of the doctor’s surgery, in the green room before a speech, one would ask that it could all be OK – and know that God was there listening to our petitions and ready to bend reality for us.

Mummy and Daddy

One can be honest on this score: one wants divine versions of Mummy and Daddy. They would be solemn, dignified, patient and kind, always on hand to help and reassure – and, just as one might have hoped at the age of two or three, they would together know exactly what was going on and what needed to be done. If there was a problem, they would be on to it immediately, they would have the power to sort out distress and when one couldn’t cope, one could go to them and weep and they would stroke one’s hair and promise one that things would be fine eventually. When one was sick, they would tuck one up in bed, bring a boiled egg with soldiers and after a story, give one a kiss on the forehead and leave the door ajar so there would always be a bit of light and one wouldn’t have to be scared – ever again.


One longs for the seriousness and beauty of religion. In the houses of prayer, the architecture directs the eye to eternity, the music is other-worldly, the tone hushed and respectful. There is an invitation to be wholly serious and pure. In the temples of religion, one can at last leave behind the usual pettiness, squalor and one’s own more repulsive appetites. This is one’s true home from which one has been in exile, a realm of love, wisdom and beauty.

A Happy Ending

More than anything, what one wants from religion is an assurance of a happy ending, some sense that this won’t all be a random, horrific nonsense that winds up with decline, horror and meaningless death. One wants to hold out one’s hand to someone with a very big heart who understands.

That all these longings are – at one level – entirely ridiculous and retrograde is no argument against them. We should allow ourselves to be nostalgic for ideas we know can’t be true. That way we will be faithful to the workings of our own psychology, unlike atheists who not only declare that religion is nonsense but also deny the validity of any kind of wish for metaphysical tenderness or reassurance. We should allow ourselves to dwell in a state of post-religious melancholy, in which we can visit cathedrals, admire mosques, spend time in pagodas, follow services in synagogues and ache to believe – all the while bravely knowing that we are condemned to be forever alone, unreassured, ashamed and scared.

The great problem with parties is their implicit understanding of loneliness. From the moment we arrive at most of them, we’ll notice that intense efforts have been made to generate a welcoming and sociable atmosphere. Someone will have rigged up a sound system, there might be balloons bouncing around the ceiling, drinks may be brightly coloured. More significantly, some extremely well meaning people will be keen for us to have a good time. As the evening unfolds, they might cheerfully come up to us and ask: Are you well? Are you having fun?

The intentions are moving; the results more complicated. There is broad agreement that the purpose of a party is to allow individuals to come together in order to forget their painfully isolated destinies and revel for a time in an experience of shared humanity. That’s what the loud bass, the alcohol and the bonhomie are there to help us with. The difficulty lies in the underlying analysis of what might truly help people to shed their customary alienation.

The vast majority of parties proceed with the view that it is displays of happiness, especially exuberant happiness, that are what help people to relax and feel content. It is seeing another’s good mood, hearing their stories of success and their joyful description of forward momentum, that will help us to tap into our own sources of delight and confidence. 

It sounds logical except that the truth of our psychology is stranger: what really breaks us out of our isolation is not to see others cheering, but to witness that the troubles that beset us – the shame, guilt, regret, despair, irritation and self-disgust – are not merely personal curses, as we had suspected in the echo-chambers of our fearful minds, but have counterparts in our fellow humans. It is the sorrows of others that confirm us in our gloom and help to raise our spirits. 

It is our collective misfortune that society tends to present us with such an edited picture of what a normal human being might be like, drained of so much of the trouble and sadness that truly afflict us all. Without this necessarily being anyone’s intention, we are left to feel freakish – when we are in fact profoundly normal but have been measuring ourselves against an impoverished public account of reality. 

A good friend should allow us to glimpse a broader, more accepting vision of existence; they should permit us to see that we can have low moods, moments of serious self-hatred and ambivalent feelings about our careers or families – because everyone else does as well. These aren’t signs of degeneracy or sin, just evidence that life is proceeding more or less according to plan. Telling a stranger how well we’re doing might buy us their awe, only the revelation of a problem will turn them into a friend. 

With a new psychology of companionship in mind, we can start to imagine what a truly sociable party might look like. There might not be any loud upbeat music, perhaps just a sorrowful Bach cello concerto or a Requiem Mass somewhere in the background. The host would invite us to share everything about our lives that was less than perfect and that society had censored in the world beyond. Here, surrounded by kindly faces, we would have the chance to reveal how dark some of our thoughts had been – and the extent of our lamentations and losses. Heading home after such an evening, we would be sincerely happy because we had finally been able to offload, and hear from others, how much of life is sadness.

It is easy to feel that one must be a misanthrope for hating parties. But the opposite may in reality be true. We hate parties because we are unusually and intensely keen for human connection; which we simply can’t find at the level of depth we crave at the average gathering. We want to be alone not because we genuinely don’t like company but because we like the real thing so much, and because the simulacrum of company on offer reminds us too powerfully of an isolation that breaks our hearts. 

We are generally left standing at parties surrounded by forty people, feeling more isolated than we would at home or the surface of Mercury, because the forty, who could have offered each other so much, are collectively trapped in an ideology of false jubilance. In a utopian future, we will have learnt how to throw those paradoxical-sounding occasions, melancholy parties. There will be no more jolliness and bragging on display. There will only be some unusually vulnerable and candid people sitting around, confessing how hard they find it to be human and very glad to have found a bunch of like-minded souls who are having just as much trouble as they are. That would be something to celebrate.

As inhabitants of the modern world, the major part of our lives is spent in ugliness: under polluted leaden skies, among choked motorways, warehouses, freight depots and graffitied shuttered shops. These environments continuously whisper to us that we are worthy of ridicule – and that we should swiftly go home and hide.

Then, on a few rare occasions, we end up somewhere sublime. We might have arrived at the old farmhouse late last night and only now, in the early morning, do we have a chance to see where we really are. We open the heavy rusty shutters and take in the vista before us: soft rolling hills dotted with dark green cypress trees, fields of lavender and poppies, a limestone village on the horizon, a little church in the middle of an orchard, a stream below the house, bordered with weeping willows and clumps of bluebells – all of it emerging under flawless azure skies, as though none of us had ever been expelled from paradise and there was no such thing as death or pain. Someone forgot to tell this part of the world about human tragedy.

We feast on the scene and let the sun warm our face. It seems like the most exquisite setting we have ever seen or have perhaps been to since we were children. And to think that only yesterday, we were back in the city in the apartment, looking at a rain stained concrete wall opposite, the windows reverberating to the sounds of lorries idling at the lights below.

We should be happy – and in a way we are. Very happy. A farmer is leading some goats across the valley. A couple of children are cycling towards the village. But the beauty has also edged us into melancholy. We aren’t sad because it isn’t beautiful enough but precisely because it is so beautiful – of a kind of beauty we cannot bear to have been away from for so long, to have to live in exile from for most of our lives.

Beauty has served to highlight, by contrast, everything that has come before. We notice – in a way we couldn’t yesterday – how much disappointment, violence, meanness and humiliation has been written into the structure of our ordinary surroundings and routines and has from there seeped into our souls. Thanks to the little limestone church (that we’ll visit after breakfast) assembled by craftsmen around 1430 and ringing its bells for morning service, we’re finally in a position to feel how much agony is latent in our hearts. We haven’t been pain-free all this time, we’ve just been numb, holding in our sorrow because there was nowhere to discharge it, because there were no alternatives to it and nothing to remind us of the scale of our compromise.

The beauty of the landscape is like the very kind friend who, after a period of turmoil, puts a hand gently on ours and asks how we have been – and does so with such tenderness and intelligent concern, we surprise ourselves by bursting into tears that don’t stop for a very long time. It takes kindness until we can realise how much suffering we were holding in. It takes beauty until we realise how far we have drifted from our better selves.

Of course, we want to move here. Somehow. We plot – as we have plotted so many times before, always in vain – how we might be able to throw in the job, sell the apartment and have a few years in a little cottage. Every morning we would wake up to this and head out to fetch the newspaper and pastries before filling the day with purpose and clever intent. But we also know it will never happen; and this is part of the mounting sadness. We have been reminded of a better way of living and – simultaneously – of our brute-headed inability to reform ourselves. 

It isn’t just the physical beauty that’s touching us, it’s everything that the beauty speaks of: confidence, clarity, ambition, virtue. Why have we drifted so far from all the values we hold dear, how have we allowed ourselves to be so far from what matters? We are crying because this is where we belong – and yet cannot find our way to. The plane leaves the day after tomorrow.

We don’t begin to know how to do such beauty justice. We are so trained in the arts of resignation, disappointment and surrender, we are such masters at defeat, this offering embarrasses us. We take a stream of photographs, but they aren’t really what we are after. We want to become somebody else, not just hold on to pictures of a valley. We are too internally troubled for such sublimity.

That’s why, on top of everything else, in one of the nicest places on earth, we have managed to be sad. Someone comes in and sees our eyes filled with tears. They wonder sweetly if they could fetch us anything to eat – or a taxi to go sightseeing. But we are far stranger than we can begin to explain. We are crying tears of joy at a goodness we have missed out on; we are crying because we don’t know how to nourish ourselves, we are crying at the sight of a happiness we are emotionally too cowardly, defensive and inept to know how to make our own. We are crying because we don’t want to be tourists, we want to be reborn. 

To those sensitive to the melancholy nature of experience, looking though an album of old photographs is not an uncomplicated pastime. A few pages in, there we are in a large colour portrait: a smiling five year old, pulling a gap toothed smile, extremely proud of having just completed a drawing of a submarine and some very happy looking fish. We’re wearing our favourite dungarees and our hair is unusually long. We’re also – if we can say it ourselves – very cute.

We may be moved at the sight of this little person but also – probably – somehow deeply saddened as well. How much of life’s suffering this tiny thing didn’t yet know! How much pain they still had ahead of them! They had no clue – that sunny afternoon in the garden of the old house, a few hours before it would have been time for a bowl of animal-shaped pasta and a strawberry yogurt for tea – what fate had in store. How little they could suspect of the divorce, the move to the smaller house, the bullying, the loneliness, the unrequited love, the guilty feelings around sex, the career mishaps, the trouble with the liver, the realities of marriage, the financial anxiety, the romantic betrayals, the tetchiness, the ugliness of age, the persistent anxiety and fear and the troubles of childraising… – just to start a list that is in no way comprehensive or even especially ghastly (it gets much, much worse).

We’re likely to realise, as we take in another shot of us attempting a cartwheel by a forest, that part of what keeps us going is the sheer fact of not knowing. We are kept alive by a brute biological appetite reliant on ignorance. But if we imagine being given the option of magically returning to being five again, knowing what we know now, we would most likely say a firm no. We aren’t actively looking forward to death, we haven’t got plans to end things prematurely, but we couldn’t really bear to have our life again. Too much of our years have been spent in pain and brokenness of one kind or another. There have been a few moments of fun and of achievement but essentially, the picture has been too mixed to warrant another go. It’s a melancholy realisation: without us necessarily being fully aware, we don’t find a great deal of what happens to us tolerable. There are too many days lost to anxiety and aggravation, self-doubt and alarm, loneliness and longing. We hate our lives more than we perhaps usually acknowledge. We want to go back and hug that little child for all the difficulties heading its way. We want to cry at the joyful innocence in a world in which, essentially, no one gives a damn.

Even worse, this retrospective glance makes us question our relationship to the future. Right now, we still retain certain hopes. We may be trying to make a new relationship work or devoting a lot of effort to a professional project. But if the past is any indication, within a decade (if we’re lucky to have it), we’ll be looking back on a photo of today with some of the same emotions as we look back on the five year old version of ourselves. We’ll be seeing someone similarly naive about what is to come, similarly innocent of difficulties, similarly overly excited given what is actually possible, given our nature and the conditions of life. We were not only innocent of the past; we are still fairly innocent about the likely unfolding of the future.

So many of the photos feel bittersweet, that is, not plain dreadful, but invariably tinged with something difficult or shameful. Take a photo of us with our grandmother. We must be around nine. We loved spending time with her, helping her in her garden and laying out our toys in her front room. But we also know that when adolescence came, we stopped going to see her. She seemed embarrassing and we imagined she couldn’t understand much of what we were feeling, though we never tried to explain. When she died, we hadn’t been to see her in over a year. We’re still cut about it to this day, and ever more so as time passes.

Then there’s a shot of us with our first partner. We’d been lonely for so long and finally, they’d taken us on. They were very kind to us – and obviously pretty young and fragile themselves. They look lovely, somewhere on the coast, with their hair blown about by a breeze, and their arm around us. We rented a little cabin and went for walks along the marshes. We rented some bikes the day we left. But bitterness dogs us here too. After half a year or so, for reasons we still can’t really understand, we told them it was over – and did so rather horribly. We were too embarrassed to be kind. We hurt them badly through fear. From the evidence on the internet, they seem pretty happily married now. They must hate us a lot. Sometimes, late at night, we wish we could call them up and tell them (though it sounds a bit mad) that we still love them.

Then there’s a shot of us at university with a group of friends. It looks as though we’re having fun. There’s the guy whose name we can’t even remember who was always putting on funny accents and once almost crashed his mother’s car. There’s the gloomy clever physicist we loved talking to. But how little we made of those precious years. We should have been more honest about what we actually felt. We should have dared to be a genuine friend to the others. We should have spent that time figuring out what we could properly do with our careers. We should have taken a few more of the right sort of risks – but also been more focused and in a hurry.

We start to realise how much of life has been ruined by the fact that we had be there for it, that we soil everything we touch. Everything feels somewhat compromised, love making, travelling, working…. We realise that we want to live inside photographs, not the life they purport to tell us about.