Understanding Melancholy People


Person: What’s wrong?

Me: Nothing.

Person: But you’re sad. Something must be wrong.


Person: Did something happen? Something happened, didn’t it? You can tell me, you know.

Me: No.

Person: Then why are you sad?

Me: (sighs) Apart from the fact that the world is full of suffering and we live and die without knowing why we do so, which fills me with a nameless fear large as the universe – no reason, really.

Person: …

Me: In addition, my writing is not going well. I can’t write. I can’t. Here I am, asking for donations in the hopes that other people can glimpse a seed of literary talent within me, and I sometimes don’t even have faith in myself.

Person: Aha! There we go.

Me: Also, the business of being conscious is difficult, in a spiritual and scientific sense, and, on top of that, like all humans, I also have to deal with the business of living in a capitalist society, the business of dealing with mental and physical health issues, the business of living in a cruel and impersonal world, the business of finding meaning in life, the business of fighting against self-doubt even when you feel like simply an overwhelming sense of pure inadequacy will be the end of you, the business of feeling scared yet forging ahead regardless of how hard your heart is screaming, the business of reconciling yourself to the awful reality that we live and die alone, the business of reconciling yourself to meaningless suffering – sometimes, I wake up, paralysed, for one blinding moment, with a burst of concentrated anxiety exploding in my chest like a tiny supernova –

Person: You know what. You know what you need? A biscuit…a nice, chocolate biscuit will cheer you right up. I’ll – I”ll just, er, be right back…

I have always been a naturally melancholy person.

Melancholy, according to Google, is “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.” Frankly, “a feeling of pensive sadness” is too gentle a phrase to describe what it truly feels like to be melancholic by nature. It conjures up the idea of a namby-pamby, oh-woe-is-me creature, pale and thin and weak, who floats around in his or her nightclothes or nightgown, picking flowers and staring with sad, glistening eyes up at the moon and every so often emitting a soft, little sigh – when in reality, it’s often more like lying in bed in the morning and staring for several minutes up at the ceiling, unable to move a muscle due to the immensity of horror in your heart.

Even on the particularly good days, when I have received good news, things are going quite well and there are no immediate threats to be afraid of, I am still plagued by a general sadness. Sometimes during the happiest moments I am also the most melancholy, as it reminds me of the ephemeral nature of all joy in life, which then makes me wonder what life is, exactly, and time, and who we are, exactly, and why we exist, exactly, and why does death exist, and – and –

Melancholy, like any aspect of one’s personality, manifests at a young age. If you’re a melancholy adult, you were, in all likelihood, also quiet and contemplative as a child. Having a melancholy personality, though excellent for seeing past the superfluous flesh to the bones of life, philosophizing, and, sometimes, creating Art, also predisposes you to depression, anxiety, a heightened sense of alienation and loneliness and a feeling of constant, low-level despair no matter your outward circumstances.

Other people, who, on the whole, tend to be cheerful and upbeat creatures most of the time, cannot fathom the sadness of melancholy individuals, and often either avoid them so as to not have any of that “gloom-and-doom” rub off on them, or try desperately hard, and to no avail, to cheer them up, which generally makes us feel worse than if they left us alone in the first place. As a result, we are usually loners, lost on our own dark little islands, where the sun rises very rarely and silent monsters roam the land.

While other people can’t understand melancholy people, melancholy people also cannot understand how it is other people can stay so cheerful, and not drown in their own despair, in a world so bad and cold and dark. There are people dying of starvation while other people on the other side of the world cheerfully wolf down feasts with gusto and throw cascades of leftovers into the bin. Life is a miserable affair, with only our own illusions to comfort us – for instance, we tell each other stories through books to escape the horrid reality before our eyes, as cave-people told tales around the fireplace to stave off the fear of the night – and in the end, the world and life is all just words, words and stories we tell ourselves. There are some people in the world with everything, and some people in the world with nothing, and the only difference between them is often luck, the luck to be born in the right place, in the right time. People kill other people, people hurt people, people exploit other people. Animals die in agony at abattoirs by the millions, their carcasses strung up, red and fatty and bloody and awful, on the assembly line, their last moments in life a whirligig of frothing-at-the-mouth fear. In hospitals all over the world, people die alone, friendless, in cold rooms, with no-one to mourn them and hold their hand and comfort them. Human history is proof that other humans can massacre other humans without any repercussions, their deaths as meaningless as the deaths of a nest of ants sprayed with pesticide. With all this darkness present in the world, is it the melancholy person who is sane, or the cheerful individual?

Of course, you can’t exactly blame people for being cheerful and try to tug them into your tiny world of misery for the sake of some company – that is not only impossible, but selfish. Besides, though melancholy people tend to be altruistic, often born with a burning desire to help the world, we do know that simply “feeling sad” isn’t actually helping starving people or suffering animals, which is why people, looking at melancholy person drowning in their own self-created misery, say things like, “Cheer up, you being sad or happy doesn’t change anything, so you might as well be happy!”

But you can’t just turn a melancholy person into a cheerful one anymore than you can change, say, a person’s sexuality. Whether an individual is melancholy or cheerful by nature comes down, in the end, to psychology, the way one’s brain is structured, the particular levels of chemicals, like dopamine, that it produces. The most cheerful people (most people fall in-between pure cheerfulness and pure melancholy; like sexuality, it’s a spectrum), for instance, tend to be less complicated people, in that, even if they are talented and intelligent, are often not extremely deep thinkers, or prone to rumination, and tend to live in the moment, engaged with the physical world, rather than inside their own heads.

But being melancholy is not all bad, even though sometimes it is very, very bad indeed, and can, if left unchecked, lead to severe depression, and, in more extreme cases, suicide. A melancholy disposition allows us to find beauty in the sad and tragic, and we are often the ones who stop and stare at a dead bird lying on the side of the road, or mourn for an abandoned toy. Things don’t even have to be actually sad or tragic for us to feel sad or tragic about them. Nothing and no-one is immune to our melancholy: a cloudy day, a lonely flag waving in the breeze, an empty beach scrawled by crabs, a rusty necklace, a person standing alone at the bus-stop – all these ordinary sights, ordinary instances, seen through the eyes of the melancholy person, are transmuted into something tragically beautiful and sad.

This is because, in many ways, it is grief, horror and misery that makes us feel most alive, most in touch with what it means to be human, and, ironically, the most happy. Our happiness may be tinged by sadness, but our sadness, even when we are crumpled on the floor, alone and broken, is also tinged by an odd, aggrieved joy.

And thus, the truth is, melancholy people seek out and, on some level, “enjoy” misery. We have a strange fondness for death, and macabre objects like bones or broken dolls with limbs or eyes missing. Though sensitive, and kind, and unable to hurt a fly, this softness is contrasted by a silent fascination with the gruesome and the horrific. Even when faced with the very terrible, the truly horrendous, such as starvation, or genocides, one part of us is wracked with grief and horror, while another part is, in spite of ourselves, transported to a heightened realm of existence by the empathetic misery and suffering seeping through our veins.

So if you are a melancholic creature yourself, there is no need to feel as though you “should” be more cheerful – let your emotions run where they may, provided they do not strengthen into anything too destructive like self-harm – and if you have any melancholy people in your life, rather than feel concerned about their constant state of “pensive sadness” and try to make them smile, just know that, in reality, it is very likely they are simply happy being sad.

PS: I will be moving at the end of this week, so there will be no blog posts for some time after that. I, however, am determined to post articles until the very last moment, when the Internet is disconnected, and the modem packed up in its cardboard box. Oh, I dislike moving; though I’m grateful to have a place to stay, it’s very tiresome, having to pack up your life again and again; it makes you feel uncertain and afraid, as if you have no anchor, no resting place, in the world. But maybe that’s just the melancholy talking.



2 thoughts on “Understanding Melancholy People

  1. I was a melancholy person once…..and then I grew up- it really is that simple. Self indulgence is nothing more than an indicator of a immature mind.

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