Don’t Let it bring you Down: Sadness versus Melancholia

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People often ask me why so many of my songs seem to be sad and why don’t I write happy songs to cheer people up. I think that’s an important question which deserves a full and thoughtful answer.

In reality, my songs aren’t sad at all; although I readily confess many of them are tinged with melancholy. Sadness and melancholy are very different qualities. Sadness in its classic form generally involves a kind of self-centred hopelessness whereas melancholy (if rightly identified and understood) manages to be creative, outward-looking and subtly hopeful. (Melancholy is merely mournful whereas sadness is solely sighful). Melancholy is like smiling softly and forgivingly through serial tears whereas sadness has an austere streak of bleak remorselessness. Sadness is cynicism dressed up in sackcloth and ashes whereas melancholy is sensitivity clothed in temporary darkness. Sadness has no ground to till and bears no fruit whereas melancholy is the death-throes of wintertime before the buds break through. Sadness is a woeful winter of endless discontent whereas melancholy is tinged with autumn brown which already hopes for springtime.

However, not all my songs are melancholy. But – even so – if melancholy wasn’t at the heart of many of my songs they would lose any profundity and value. It is the melancholia which gives them three dimensions. In some cases, it gives them four [or even more] dimensions. Think very carefully about that.

Some people will here respond that whether they are sad songs or melancholy songs they still only make people feel sad and don’t lift them up. To this I say two things:

1) Melancholy songs should never make people feel merely sad. They should maybe infuse them with some needed melancholia but they should never leave them lingering with sadness. Melancholy songs should open you up to see beyond the crude lines of this world into the soft heart of loving lightsomeness. They should make you sensitive to the suffering on this earth and enable you to identify with the hearts which lie bleeding and broken on the ground. They should bring out a much-needed empathy in your soul so that you can get alongside those who suffer.

2) It is difficult for any sensitive person not to be melancholy given the world that we live in today. I ask you this important question: How is it possible for a decent human being to be happy in a world so shot through with tragedy, warfare, suffering, oppression, starvation, deprivation and injustice? It isn’t – not permanently anyway. Definitive, genuine, ongoing happiness is simply not achievable while there is so much unhappiness around us.

I admit that the illusion of happiness is endemic in human experience. People are infinitely creative when it comes to covering up the Black Hole of life with the wallpaper of escapism. “Let me not see the suffering of the other, at any cost!” is the cry of most human hearts. And a bewildering battery of escapist art-forms is at our disposal. From mind-altering substances to guided meditations, from obsessional hobbies to affairs of the heart, from cruises of a lifetime to drinks by the pool, from new toys for the boys to crude accrued wealth – we are very good at hiding the hurt around us behind a magic curtain of pretended happiness. But it is not the real thing; nor can it ever be.

Sure, one can wonderfully have brief moments of ecstasy, flashes of joy, waves of contentment, gifts of gladness, channels of cheerfulness, surges of delight, experiences of enjoyment and profound periods of pleasure. But sustained happiness can only ever be an illusion in this world of shattered hopes and tattered dreams. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the notion of enduring happiness is a kind of uncool perversion of our life experience. It is the stuff of fairy tales (“…and they all lived happily ever after”) rather than the reality of real life experience. I’ll go even further: The pursuit of enduring happiness is a downright dangerous state of mind and should be reserved for childish myths and ’Mills & Boone’ novels only!

The world is governed by the pursuit of enduring happiness. Advertising moguls guarantee it (ever noticed how everyone appearing in an advertisement smiles inanely?). Religions assure it. Parents promise it. Politicians pledge it. In fact, governments who wage serial bloody wars and perennially plunder natural resources are the biggest Happiness Factories in the world. It is in their best interests to keep people doped with the anaesthetic of happiness. It is to their absolute advantage to keep people under happiness’s amnesic spell. Now I’ll dare to go even further: A person who seeks only happiness will become a BraveNewWorldified clone whose mind is at the whim of the powermongers of destruction. They can string you along with a carrot at the end so you won’t look around and see what they’ve done. For a happy person will sleepwalk through her existence, seeing nothing beyond his nose. A happy person is far more inclined to think about his or her own self rather than the plight of others. Waking up in life inevitably means relinquishing both the experience and seeking of happiness, for happiness is the ultimate distraction from reality.

This doesn’t mean that we must be miserable. Not at all. To be miserable is as miserable a delusion as being happy! But melancholic is not the same as miserable. No one needs to be miserable. However, if we live our lives to the full in this world we will know melancholia – and profit from it. For if we are awake and fully alive it will mean being regularly smitten by melancholy.

The word melancholy is derived from the Greek for black bile, based on the ancient idea that an excess of black bile in the body causes gloomy feelings! But true melancholy comes about as the result of identification with suffering. Whereas sadness will use personal escapism to hide from the woes of the world, melancholia will look for an amelioration of those woes. Melancholia is what happens when we admit the reality of those woes. It is the precursor to responsible social action. The one who is struck with melancholia will try, in some small way, to make the world a better place; for the melancholic knows that the only solution to his or her melancholia is to work for the betterment of the other.

Just think how many people view themselves as being “depressed” when they are in fact justifiably melancholic. The fact that we live at a time when so many tell us that we must only ever indulge in “positive thinking” is also a big problem. In fact, it is a huge delusion for there is nothing negative about seeing life as it really is or telling things as they really are. Those who advocate continuous positive thinking are childish advocates of escapism and delusional thinking. A good dose of true melancholy is the perfect antidote for that. It is impossible for the sensitive person to avoid being melancholic in this world, for melancholia is a natural by-product of sincere empathy. Far from being negative, melancholia is a part of the natural development of a healthy mind as it struggles to come to terms with its own good fortune when so many have none.

So if a song speaks to you of things which you perceive to be merely sad, don’t shrink from it as so many do. Instead, follow the advice in one of the songs of that avatar of melancholia, Neil Young:

“Don’t let it bring you down,
It’s only castles burning,
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.”

Precisely! Find someone who is turning. To be “turning” means to be changing into the person you were really meant to be: a caring, concerned human being with a sensitive social conscience. None of us was meant to be a desperately dejected depressive stuck in a stultifying sea of sadness.

So if you’re overcome by the tragedy of this world and feeling melancholic about it, surround yourself with people who are “turning” so they can enable you to “come around” – let yourself be awoken by them and their song (for everyone has a song) so that we will then transform our sullen sadness into imaginative melancholia, for the betterment of this planet and all those who share it.

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© Alan Morrison, 2012

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