Growing up in a culture that is mad for happiness at all costs—even if that state of mind comes from popping a pill—I thought my melancholy personality was an aberration, a genetic misfire. Something I needed to wrestle with and conquer.
If only I had the right attitude or could just tap into gratitude, I’d be happy, I thought. Sure, gratitude is one of the keys to happiness. I’ve learned this first-hand, but I realize now that I was being unfair to melancholy by judging it so harshly.
The problem was, I confused depression with melancholy. The two psychological states are related, but not the same. The old French word melancolie meant “black bile, ill disposition, anger and annoyance.” Melankholia is an old Greek word meaning sadness or darkness. The Greeks believed that an excess of fear or grief could lead to melankholia, which is an acute case of suffering.
But isn’t suffering a part of life? All of us are bound to suffer loss, feel grief, heartache or disappointment. To experience these is normal. My experiences with clinical depression in my 20s, however, were not normal. My greatest lesson was to tease apart the aspects of myself that allowed me to feel deeply, to connect to the emotions of others and to cultivate a deep sense of compassion from those aspects of my personality that latched onto despair, fear and pain.
I realized much later, after I overcame the worst of my clinical depressions, that it was my melancholy nature that deepened my compassion for others. It also amplified my gratitude and appreciation of joy and love because I had experienced the absence of those emotions during severe depressions.
I’m not recommending that people become depressed to fully appreciate joy and love, but I know now that a very basic ingredient of my personality—melancholy—has given me a gift, and that gift is a wider understanding and appreciation of how suffering can oftentimes open the door to a grander appreciation of life and allow those who are struggling to move through it.
One of my favorite historical figures is Abraham Lincoln. In his personal letters he referred to his depression as his “black dog.” His closest friends called his bouts with sadness “melancholy.” Now, Lincoln would be diagnosed with depression and probably put on medication, but as author Joshua Wolf Shenk put it, “Lincoln’s melancholy was part of a whole life story.”
The same is true for me. In my worst moments, I fantasized about beating my own black dog and becoming one of those happy-go-lucky people who rarely felt sad, and I did manage that for a while. But that wasn’t the end of the story. In my haste to rid myself of any negative emotion or thought, I also judged a part of my personality as bad. I’m not afraid of my shadow anymore, for I now know it is simply a reminder of my light.
The lesson that I ultimately learned through my dark night of the soul was that in order to achieve whole health, I had to accept and love all aspects of myself—not just the positive ones. This is what I have come to understand as truth. My truth.
My wish for everyone is that we face our shadows, and love ourselves whole again.
Author: Erin Munsch
Image: Nadja Tatar/Flickr
Editor: Emily Bartran