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Self-Knowledge • Melancholy

You Have Permission to Be Miserable

One of the most oppressive and constant pressures we suffer under is the pressure to be OK.

Under all but the most extreme conditions, we operate under an overwhelming imperative to show others that we are coping, that we are on the side of life, that things are fundamentally right with us. We are obligated to smile to confirm our membership of the human race.

It isn’t that we don’t at points long to be more honest about our moods of desolation, listlessness and despair; it’s just that we don’t want to pay the penalties for doing so. We pretend to be cheerful so as not to be rendered even sadder by the counter-productive responses of others. Were we to come clean, we know that certain family members would start to panic, that most colleagues and business associates would never treat us normally again and that some our dearest friends would respond as though we had fallen into a vivid crisis that they had to fix, preferably very quickly — rather than that we had returned to a steady and familiar state for which we simply needed commiseration and quiet wry fellowship.

Society does of course allow us to break down, we’re even allowed to go mad for a while. But always only under one condition; that we will recover. The down is only tolerated as a prelude to an eventual rebirth and flourishing. American culture — from which so much of the world takes its cue — is especially definitive on this point. Divorces, addictions, family ruptures, business disasters and so on all have their place. But they must be set within a narrative of eventual overcoming. Lives have to get turned around and the transformation posted on social media: we will join a 12 step programme; leave the inevitable so-called ‘narcissistic’ partner, learn to set ‘boundaries’ and say goodbye to whatever so-called ‘toxic’ dynamic happens to be most in vogue.

The world used to be wiser. For all our genuflection before Buddhism, we have no time whatsoever for the Buddha’s key pronouncement, that life is suffering. In other words, that we are miserable not about this or that accidental hiccup on the road to success but fundamentally and to our core, because we are blind fragile lost defenceless beings forced to live within a miniscule expanse of time in a random universe that shows us no pity and will eventually bash us against one of its sharper edges at a point of its own choosing. Looked at with imagination, the miracle is not that we are miserable a lot of the time, but that we ever manage not to be.

We — the melancholy ones — should refuse to continue to suffer passively at the hands of the malignantly cheerful. We don’t need permission to be down and nor do we require compressed reasons for being so. Being alive is more than enough. For a lot of what we suffer from, there are no fixes — there are only consolations, which include dark humour, long hot baths, similarly pessimistic friends, chocolate, music and the company of animals or the under fives. 

We need not compound our sorrows by imagining that they are illegitimate or anomalous. Beneath the smiles, a lot of us are far sadder than we can ever let on. A truly advanced society would be one which gave tragedy all the airtime and imaginative consideration it deserves, one which did not force happiness on its unwilling, fragile and privately pained constituents.

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