Melancholy and Joy. And Gwen Bell.

I have been thinking about Gwen Bell’s piece about entrepreneurship and melancholy. It is simply beautiful writing, declarative and brave, poetic without being overwrought. And I love Gwen’s candor about her own childhood, about the melancholy that she “cannot outrun.” Most of what this post has me thinking about, though, is what I alluded to in my comment:

Thank you for writing so beautifully of the way that having some deep-rooted sadness in your soul doesn’t have to exclude the possibility of great happiness.

Yes. I am so familiar with the sadness of the soul, what Gwen describes as an “undercurrent of sadness.” Yet I find her post incredibly hopeful. It gives me that fullness in my chest that is both the uplifting of inspiration and the grounding of deep truth. Yes. I thought of a Lorrie Moore passage from Who Will Run the Frog Hospital: “Still, something deeply sad had been born buried in me, stirring occasionally inside like a creature moving in sleep.”

I have such a creature inside of me, and the image of it stirring in sleep is wonderfully apt. So I can absolutely understand the general sadness that Gwen talks about, the dogged darkness that cannot be shaken off because it’s a part of every cell of your body. But I am so charmed and moved to hear her assertion – which rings so many familiar bells for me – that “happiness can be cultivated in an environment of the acceptance of sadness.” I have known this instinctively for a long time but have never been able to put it into such lucid words.

I would go further, though. I believe that having an orientation towards melancholy might actually allow a person to experience even more joy. I don’t know if this is about capacity or about contrast. If the former, it is as Kahlil Gibran (I know, he is super trite, hackneyed, and cliched, but isn’t there some ringing truth in this?) says: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

This might be it. If one is capable of great sadness, does it not make sense that one would also be able to experience tremendous joy? This makes sense to me. Doesn’t a predisposition to deep feeling apply both to light and to dark?

But it could also be that by knowing darkness, we are better able to appreciate lightness. It could be as simple as that. Maybe in the braiding of happy and sad, the happy becomes more vivid. Maybe we inhabit the joy, when it comes, more fully, knowing that our melancholy will inevitably return.

I’m not sure I know which of these it is, or even that it matters. What I know is that I am newly convinced, thanks to Gwen’s thoughtful piece, that a propensity towards melancholy not only need not obscure the ability to feel joy, but might actually enable it. This is a visceral and muscular truth, one that defines my life experience. Thank you, Gwen, for helping guide me to it.

10 thoughts on “Melancholy and Joy. And Gwen Bell.”

  1. I think about this too, Lindsey. And I hope it is true – that knowing life at the extremes of melancholy may open us up to the possibility of life at the extremes of joy. And maybe all of that experience is ultimately more fulfilling than a life spent in the middle?

    Thanks for another articulate, thoughtful post.

  2. "I actually believe that having an orientation towards melancholy might actually allow a person to experience even more joy. I don't know if this is about capacity or about contrast."

    I think this might be true. Part of me hopes this is true. I think that our experience – of joy, of sorrow, of the infinite in-betweens – is informed by all the experiences before it. This is both obvious and instructive I think. Being acquainted with melancholy, with heavy sadness, makes us savor when things are lighter.

    Okay, I am not being articulate here, but thanks for prompting me to think. Off to go read Gwen's post!

  3. There is no doubt about it. The world holds great joy and great sadness. In order to open up and receive the joy, we have to be open to the sadness, heartbreak and fear and all the lessons these friends can bring. Darkness teaches us about light. The danger is in getting stuck and not allowing ourselves to move through the valleys for fear of the dark. But you keep going. Yeah Lindsey…Keep walking sister girl you are doing so good!

  4. There is a deep melancholoy surrounding me, in me, from me. Yet, I have chosen to live a happy life. And it works. I have experienced depression due to the melancholy, no I am experiencing happiness. You can live a fuller life if you know what sadness means. And yes, I do think melancholy equals deep, however, cliche that might sound.

  5. Holy moley, sometimes someone just captures what you're saying – butterfly nets come to mind. Melancholy can be a slippery rascal of a concept and what I wanted to say (and you echo here) is that I don't perceive melancholy as anything negative. I see it as part of the human experience. Trying to outrun it is both futile and unnecessary.

    Futile because melancholy catches us all eventually.
    Unnecessary because it's actually a healthy part of life.

    Sometimes I fret that I stay too long at the extreme edges of a felt life. I open my inbox and am swept away in a story. I don't read for words or points, I read for context and emotions. It's vicious at times when I just want to figure out WHAT she is trying to ACCOMPLISH in the email. But I also know in a world increasingly distracting and digital, this is a critical part of my day.

    The ache of the human experience, we have to touch it. Daily. The tender center is where it happens.

  6. Beautifully articulated.

    For those who think that a bit of melancholy is a choice, it is not. It is a part of who we are, and does not preclude joy. Perhaps it just makes the times without it a little harder.

  7. Lindsay, your posts just get better and better. I love it.

    I think that the orientation towards melancholy is a side effect of an overall (over?) sensitivity towards life — when you feel EVERYTHING, the joys are bigger and the sadnesses deeper. When you are a meaning-maker, you find it everywhere. It's not the melancholy itself; so I guess I am siding with "capacity" rather than "contrast."

  8. What a beautifully written and thoughtful post Lindsey. I truly believe that in order to completely understand joy and appreciate it, we also have to experience sorrow to the same extent. this is why I have such a problem with a "Pollyanna". How can someone always be so happy? Do they even know what happiness is if they don't allow themselves to face sorrow and sadness?

    I agree with Meg, the important part is being sure you DO experience the joys without getting stuck in the sorrow.

    I just love the way you write!

  9. so, so lovely…i enjoyed gwen's original piece but i also took so much from your interpretation…too much to comment on…funny how i feel like i need to be in that melancholy place to feel deeply enough to share how much i relate with you…but i should be glad i see the brightness right now…i want to keep this post on the back burner so i can comment more and maybe even blog on the topic myself one of these days…i agree with most of your theories and think it may be a little of all of them…i go through a lot of my life feeling "misunderstood" but i think i just need more melancholy friends! thanks for such a meaningful and personal post and i look forward to more!

  10. I agree with Launa, Lindsey: you are articulating your thoughts better and better. I can see it with every post these days. Each one builds on the last. And you are using your awesome power with words in succinct and lasting way.

    For me this post is ultimately about yin and yang. There are two sides to all. There is no arguing, I don't think, that after suffering a great illness we all appreciate our health much more once we come out of it. When we sneeze and ache for six days and finally wake up on the seventh feeling normal once again, we feel that cloud has lifted and we tie up our laces and joyously head out for a run.

    Does this mean that we have to experience devastating sorrow in order to also experience overwhelming joy? I don't much think so. We have all suffered our own "worsts." And we cannot compare them. Just as we cannot compare our joy to someone else's joy.

    I could continue. I have a whole slew of things in my head to say. But the kids swarm around me and I think it better to think them through and write about it in more detail soon.

    Know this: I think that we spend much of our time in the in-between. Some days and moments are worse or better than others. Being present counts a lot for the better, I think. And we cannot persecute ourselves for sadness, melancholy or the like. When a rush of more negative moments presents itself, it does not mean that we have to dwell on it all. We can feel it rise, acknowledge it, and move forward.

    Life, I believe, is ultimately about choices made between circumstances. Or something like that. And so much more.

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