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Self-Knowledge: Melancholy


Melancholy and the Feeling of Being Superfluous

The world is hardly short of people. Quite why it needs yet another example, and why that example should be someone like us (with all our flaws, compulsions and mediocrities), is one of the conundrums that especially haunts those of us beset by a melancholy temperament. For these mournful souls, existence isn’t something that can ever easily or lightly be celebrated. The first order questions are never far away. Why are we here? What have we contributed? Are we worthy enough? Wouldn’t it be better not to have been born?

It is these penetrating and harsh enquiries that reverberate in melancholy minds as they attempt to work out their relationship to the ambivalent gift of life – and that can lend them their characteristically deep, sad, and self-doubting expressions.

Perhaps the real puzzle isn’t so much why some people happen to doubt their existence as why certain others manage not to in any way. What lends these more robust and less sceptical characters their life-long confidence that they have every right to be here? How do they manage to root their legs so firmly on the ground and why do they greet their face in the mirror in such a spirit of self-acceptance and vivid assurance? Why do they feast unquestioningly on the goodness of the earth and never wonder if there hasn’t, somewhere along the line, been some mistake?

At the root of the melancholic cast of mind there is likely to be a poignant psychological story. No one who has been firmly, decisively and joyfully wanted by those who put them on the earth will ever doubt their essential right to be here. They will be integrally and permanently validated by the enthusiasm of their makers. These parents’ songs and cuddles, laughter and care will strengthen every one of their fibres. They will grow substantial on the nectar of love. They may suffer in all kinds of ways, they won’t be immune to a thousand pains and regrets that beset every human over the years, but they will never know the fundamental and lacerating self-doubt that afflicts the melancholic. They will have a gift for speaking to themselves kindly and will look after their needs with tenderness during storms and reversals. They will look benignly on their errors and forgive themselves in the way they were once forgiven. They will look after their own bodies and tuck themselves into bed in good time. They will suffer; they won’t kill themselves.

How different it is for the melancholic because these benighted beings are liable to have received no such heralded entry onto the planet. No one was especially waiting for them to arrive; there was no emotional red carpet and no boundless admiration for their sweet toes and adorable eye lashes. No one was ready unquestionably to lay down their life for their sake or gazed at them with tender awe as they filled a bucket in the garden. A child doesn’t have to be thrown into a dustbin to count as neglected. It may be regularly bathed and adequately dressed. There are subtler ways for an impression to form that one doesn’t especially matter to anyone and should perhaps go elsewhere. The parents might have been very busy or the childcarer often on the phone. Perhaps one’s birth coincided with serious problems at the office. Or else a sibling got ill, and there was only so much concern left over. Or maybe one was a bit difficult, slow and shy and the parent looked elsewhere in embarrassment. 

All this is enough to kickstart a world view; it could by itself make one into a philosopher, someone who spends their life raising troubling structural questions, starting with the most urgent of them all: why am I even here?

It sounds insulting to have to believe that seventy five years of gloom and self-questioning might have its origin in a lack of cuddles or bedtime stories before the age of four. But we would do well to accept the power of so-called ‘small things’ to determine the course of our lives – no less than we should humbly believe in the power of microscopic cell division to determine our biological fates.

Enthusiastic parental love is founded on a charming illusion: of course one doesn’t – in the grander scheme – matter at all, of course one isn’t especially cute or particularly worthy, naturally there isn’t something fundamentally amazing about one’s first steps or one’s return home from school with a sticker for good behaviour in maths. But what a pleasant and necessary move it is for the parents to weave around a child an aura of affection in order to inoculate them for life against the stabs of self-doubt and hatred.

What gives the melancholy their clear-eyed intelligence – and often their dark humour – is that they have never had any illusory veil thrown over them. They have looked at matters pretty clearly from the start. They haven’t trusted teachers or many friends, they have been suspicious of bonhomie and casual declarations of love. They’ve known how to be sarcastic and keep a keen eye out for pretension and cant; such are side benefits of not being too much on one’s own side. The world is much more interesting but also far more cruel. And there will always be the low moods when the whole thing doesn’t seem worth it at all. That initial unwantedness can unmoore us. The great consolation is to know that we are not alone, that there is – blessedly – a silent community of the fellow unmoored, just waiting for art and friendship to unite us.

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