Not Unhappy

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“Never being happy isn't the same as being unhappy, is it?” ~Fame, Film (1980)

I am not unhappy.

I realize, in reading recent posts, that it must seem as though I am a rather miserable human being but that is not the case. Tired? Yes. In dire need a vacation that will not be coming any time in the near future? Yes. A little frazzled? Yes. But… not unhappy.

I purge my feelings on paper or… on blog. It’s what I do. I write and then say, “Whew! I feel better.” You should see my journals.

One of my favorite books on the planet (I think I have referenced it before.) is Eric G. Wilson’s Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy. It is exactly what it sounds like. He points out that without melancholy we wouldn’t have the paintings of Van Gogh or any number of other amazing artists. Without melancholy we wouldn’t have the music of Beethoven or the poetry of Keats. I do not know how you feel about it… but, Hooray melancholy! If you ever read my poetry then it will be clear to you that I never write “happy” poetry. I have tried. It does not work. I am not comparing myself to Keats or Poe or Byron. Not at all; but, creatively, melancholy works for me.

There is a difference between normal human melancholia and put-me-on-death-watch depression. I am getting pretty darn good at recognizing the difference. Or, if I feel the latter coming my way, I tell those around me. They begin to watch my behaviors. If things don’t change for me then I jaunt of to the hot doctor and beg for new meds. It’s a cycle. Woo bipolarity. But, if things do improve with a little time, then I know I just needed a little time to let it improve. Profound, huh?

Americans are impatient. They don’t like to wait for things to get better; hence… this country is ridiculously over-medicated. Read here what Wilson has to say:

Surely all this happiness can’t be for real. How can so many people be happy in the midst of all the problems that beset our globe—not only the collective and apocalyptic ills just mentioned but also those particular irritations that bedevil our everyday existences, those money issues and marital spats, those stifling vocations and lonely dawns? Are we to believe that four out of every five Americans can be content amid the general woe? Are some people lying, or are they simply afraid to be honest in a culture in which the status quo is nothing short of manic bliss? Aren’t we suspicious of this statistic? Aren’t we further troubled by our culture’s overemphasis on happiness? Don’t we fear that this rabid focus on exuberance leads to half-lives, to bland existences, to wastelands of mechanistic behavior?

I for one am afraid that our American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am wary in the face of this possibility: to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful over or society’s efforts to expunge melancholia from the system. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

I want to get to the bottom of these fears, to see if they’re legitimate or just neurotic grumblings. My feeling right now is that they are valid. This sense grows out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to entertain a craven disregard for the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ongoing ignorance of life’s enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates in the end that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

Let me be clear. I’m right now thinking only of this specific American type of happiness. I’m not questioning joy in general. For instance, I’m not challenging that unbearable exuberance that suddenly emerges from long suffering. I’m not troubled by that hard-earned tranquility that comes from long meditation on the world’s sorrows. I’m not criticizing that slow-burning bliss that issues from a life spent helping those who hurt.

Likewise, I’d like to be clear about this: I don’t want to romanticize clinical depression. I realize that there are many lost souls out there who require medication to keep from killing themselves or harming their friends and families. I don’t want to question the pharmaceutical therapies of the depressed. Not only am I not qualified to do this (I’m not a psychotherapist marshaling evidence, but a literary humanist searching for a deeper life), I’m also not willing to argue against medication that simply make existence bearable for so many with biochemical disorders.

I do, however, wonder why so many people experiencing melancholia are now taking pills meant simply to ease the pain, to turn scowls once more into smiles. Of course there is a fine line between what I’m calling melancholia and what society calls depression. In my mind, what separates the two is a degree of activity. Both forms are more or less chronic sadness that leads to ongoing unease with how things are—persistent feelings that the world as it is is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil. Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia (in my eyes) generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.

Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treat melancholia as an aberrant state, a vile threat to our pervasive notions of happiness—happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment. Of course the question immediately arises: Who wouldn’t question this apparently hollow form of American happiness? Aren’t all of us late at night, when we’re honest with ourselves, opposed to shallow happiness? Most likely we are, but isn’t it possible that many of us fall into superficiality without knowing it? Aren’t some of us so smitten with the American dream that we have become brainwashed into believing that our sole purpose on this earth is to be happy? Doesn’t this unwitting affection for happiness over sadness lead us to a one-sided life, to bliss without discomfort, bright noon with no night?

My sense is that most of us have been duped by the American craze for happiness. We might thing that we’re leading a truly honest existence, one attuned to vivid realities and blooded hearts, when we’re really just behaving as predictably and artificially as robots, falling easily into well-worn “happy” behaviors, into the convention of contentment, into obvious grins. Deceived, we miss out on the great interplay of the living cosmos, its luminous gloom, its terrible beauty.

The American dream may be a nightmare. What passes for bliss could well be a dystopia of flaccid grins. Our passion for felicity hints at an ominous hatred for all that grows and thrives and then dies—for all those curious thrushes moving among autumn’s brownish indolence, for those blue dahlias seemingly hollowed with sorrow, for all those gloomy souls who long for clouds above high windows. I’d hate for us to awaken one morning and regret what we’ve done in the name of untroubled enjoyment. I’d hate for us to crawl out of our beds and walk out into a country denuded of gorgeous lonely roads and the grandeur of desolate hotels, of half-cracked geniuses and their frantic poems. I’d hate for us to come to consciousness when it’s too late to live.

I thought to try and edit down that passage but I feel the world at large, and Americans in particular, need to be aware of how wrong we are to fear our melancholia. It is not to be feared. It is to be harnessed… and I am taking the time to tap into it while it is present.

I may be a tad more melancholic than my friends would like me to be at the moment, but I am not (and you know me to be true to my word) unhappy.

For more of Eric G. Wilson’s work you can visit HIS BLOG or purchase his books from Amazon. His latest is My Business Is To Create: Blake's Infinite Writing which garnered a reaction from me akin to… Gasp! Blake! I do so adore William Blake.

1 comment:

  1. Personally, I'm a lot more comfortable around "melancholy" than around "chipper/happy all the time"...that kind drives me nuts!


"Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?" ~Walt Whitman


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