Friday, October 7, 2011

The Magic of Melancholy III: The Power of Melancholy


Much modern "New Age" thinking is based on the idea we create our own reality. Any problems we have are problems which we have made for ourselves: if we are sad, it is because we have chosen that sadness. All we need do is accept that and we can become one of the shiny happy people living in a brave new world.

Taking responsibility for your life is generally more useful and productive than blaming the world for all your problems. But it can also become a dangerous trap. Telling a rape survivor "no one can harm you without your permission," or asking a cancer patient what he did to create that experience is not empowering but profoundly insensitive and hurtful. It is important to take control of your life, yes – but it is also important to recognize the things which are beyond your control.

There is a clinical condition called depression. There is also situational sadness. Grieving over a lost child or an irredeemably broken relationship is not necessarily a sign of self-indulgence, weakness or pathology. Rather, it is a lamentation and a recognition of loss. There may be lessons to be learned from this experience, but right now there is pain. Give yourself permission to feel that pain right now, and don't let yourself feel guilty because some smug, self-righteous guru thinks you should be smiling instead.

And for Goddess' sake, don't be that smug, self-righteous guru. Psychotherapist Julia Ingram has talked about "New Age bullies" -- those who push their beliefs on others in an overbearing, dogmatic manner, even when their advice is well-intentioned. Telling a depressed person to "cheer up" or chiding them for "holding on to negativity" is just another version of "blaming and shaming" the victim. It tells them that their suffering is their fault, and their failure to overcome depression is a sign of their weakness.

You may well have accepted that there are no victims, that everything happens for a reason, that all your problems are just karma working itself out. If that belief works for you, then you should by all means hold onto it. But not everyone else has come to that conclusion. Trying to force those ideas down a suffering person's throat is as rude and reprehensible as pushing any other religious belief or cherished dogma. If you feel tempted to preach, ask yourself "How would I feel if this person started haranguing me about her beliefs?" Then do unto them as you would have them do unto you.

The Power of Melancholy

By turning depression into a medical condition, we have made enormous advances toward curing some of its most pernicious and lethal manifestations. Many people who might otherwise have spent their days in anguish now live productive and fulfilling lives thanks to medication and therapy. But in doing so we have identified depression – and, in many cases, melancholy – with madness, something which is not fit to be part of a polite and rational society. By this standard a gloomy disposition is a sign of a flaw which needs to be medicated, and those who refuse treatment, or who are not responsive to it, are to be treated as "sick."

By contrast, we should consider the historical view of melancholia. They believed melancholia was ruled by Saturn. We've come to see Saturn as "the greater malefic," a planet which brings burdens and troubles whenever it appears in our chart. By contrast, Renaissance astrologer William Lilly believed someone ruled by a well-aspected Saturn was "profound in Imagination, in his Acts severe, in words reserved, in speaking and giving very spare, in labour patient, in arguing or disputing grave, in obtaining the goods of this life studious and solicitous, in all manner of actions austere.

Saturn is the planet of restriction – and melancholics are keenly aware of the restrictions we must deal with in this incarnation. This can cause them to lapse into inactivity and hopelessness. But it can also inspire them to work against and ultimately overcome those restrictions. And as the gatekeeper between the inner and outer planets (Uranus, Neptune and Pluto), Saturn can also help us to transcend the limitations of our earthly viewpoint and lead us to the heavenly kingdoms. Because melancholics feel pleasure less intensely than others, they are less likely to be distracted by the things of this world. This makes it easier for them to control the senses and passions and concentrate on intellectual and spiritual affairs.

This, again, is not intended to minimize the very real illness which is clinical depression. There is no "lesson to be learned" from an untreated disease; refusing to get help when you need it is a sign of folly, not strength. Depression is as real as cancer and can be every bit as deadly. If you are currently on antidepressants, don't stop taking them because this article has convinced you that you don't need them. I am not a psychiatrist – and if I were I wouldn't be giving out diagnoses on a blog! These questions should be discussed with your therapist: abrupt cessation of antidepressants can have consequences ranging from depressive episodes to physical withdrawal symptoms.

But if you are one of those people who don't see why everyone is always so damn happy, or who prefers solitude to parties, you may not be as "sick" as some might believe. You may not need cheery slogans or happy pills. Instead of trying to change the way you feel, you might want to accept yourself with all your strengths and weaknesses. I end this with an affirmation which is sure to offend some but which may give you comfort nonetheless: you don't have to cheer up.