The Ancient Greeks had an entirely different take on what sadness was about.
I want you to be sad.
Not like all the time of course. That’d be mean. But I definitely want sadness to be one of the colours in your emotional palette.
I’m not one of those crazy-eyed and glossy success gurus promising you a life of endless bliss and trips to the Rivera. I don’t think that’s possible, and I actually don’t even think it’s desirable.
The ancient Greeks had a pretty good handle on this.
The word ‘melancholy’ comes from the Greek words “Melan” and “Chole” meaning “Black Bile”.
In the ancient Greek conception of human health and medicine, there were four primary ‘humours’.
That is, melancholy served a purpose. It gave your life depth – it helped you see the connections between things, it gave your life a spiritual resonance, and it allowed you to feel the full spectrum of human emotion.
In many ways, it is these things that make life worth living – much more so than fleeting physical pleasures.
Unfortunately, the price we pay for these gifts is a certain sadness.
We see that everything is connected, but also that we treat each other terribly – that we are cruel and heartless towards each other.
A famous guru was once asked, “How should we treat others?”
His response? “There are no others.”
We are a great cosmic family involved in a bloody family feud. It’s hard to not get upset about that.
Melancholy also gives you a sense of spiritual wonder, but that only awakens you to how disconnected and alienated we are most of the time. For every minute we spend attuned to the greater mystery, there is a dark hour where we feel abandoned and forsaken – that life is completely meaningless and random.
And if melancholy gives you access to the full spectrum of human emotion, then for every joy there is sorrow, for every victory there is disappointment, for every love there is loss, and for every moment of pride there is shame.
These are hard emotions to burden – especially in a world that wants to smoother these kinds of emotions out of existence, and offers little support to you in your darker hours.
“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry, and can you just do that somewhere else please?”
I think we really do need to normalise melancholy.
It is totally true that things can get out of whack and you end up with a serious problem. The Greeks saw an excess of melancholy as a pathological problem that required medical intervention.
However our melancholy is a gift. It is our depth.
And rather than coming up with strategies for banishing it from our experience, we need to find ways to find the strength and tap the support we need to be able to endure the burden of these gifts.
In times like these that may not be easy. But I think we need to try.
Like the ancient Greeks, I think melancholy is an essential ingredient in a rich and meaningful life.