Why I’ve learned to embrace — not avoid — melancholy and yearning.
I’ve been thinking a lot about death recently. This may seem morbid, but it’s a natural part of getting older and of watching the people I love get older, too (not to mention my life companion, the dog!). I’ve been fortunate to be relatively untouched by this particular brand of suffering so far, but the natural order of things suggests — nay, asserts — that life only lasts so long. Feeling slightly unbalanced by this reality, I picked up Susan Cain’s Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole to try to make sense of things.
Although I’m familiar with the advice to find meaning in suffering, Cain’s book is the first I’ve read that actively encourages readers to reach for states of melancholy and uncertainty. It’s in these states, she argues, that many of history’s famous creatives have produced their most meaningful work. (She gives the example of Beethoven, who had to be turned around to see the audience enthusiastically applauding his 9th Symphony — a work that premiered after he’d gone deaf.) Further, living in these liminal spaces allows us to accept the uncertainty of the things we cannot change and to give our feelings room to breathe.
Serendipitously, this acceptance of ambiguity is something I’ve been striving toward. It’s been my experience that, in most everyday circumstances, flexibility is a positive attribute that can help people weather discomfort with grace and humor, or at least with a degree of equanimity. Still, I struggle to be adaptable — which probably means I haven’t practiced Cain’s advice enough.
This counsel, however, isn’t as straightforward as it seems. There’s a difference between wallowing in unpleasant feelings and approaching them with curiosity and openness — the latter is easier said than done. In my own life, I’ve been half enraged and half amused to discover that many of the rote sayings adults drilled into me when I was a child (“Take a deep breath”; “Count to 10”; “Do something else for a while and come back to this”) actually work. Is it really true, as Robert Fulghum wrote, that “all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten”?
In this case, the answer is no. I needed the repeated, lived experience of going through difficult times and coming up against seemingly immovable emotions to learn the power of detachment and of examining those emotions from a standpoint of curiosity (rather than impotent rage). It was only after beating my head against a wall more times than I’d like to admit that I realized I needed a little distance to truly gauge what was going on and started implementing measures to gain that distance. (When I worked as a nanny for a friend’s child, she and I practiced taking deep breaths together and both benefited from it.)
So what do we do when we eventually (hopefully!) gain that distance and perspective? Cain suggests a powerful answer: Use it to forgive ourselves and others. The author relates the story of how, during adolescence, her relationship with her mother changed irrevocably: The woman who’d once been a loving bastion of warmth became hypercritical and oppressive, causing a heartbreaking rift between the once-close pair. Cain’s mother’s fear of losing her daughter caused her to cling so tightly that Cain’s reaction was to pull away, fulfilling the very prophecy her mother had been trying to avoid.
For years, Cain couldn’t speak about her mother without crying, which caused her to feel shame and confusion. Her mother wasn’t dead, after all, and they were in communication, so what did she have to mourn? After attending a spiritual retreat, though, she realized she was mourning the bond they’d once shared. Leaning into this feeling and approaching it from an angle of learning, rather than resentment, led to a breakthrough. Today, the women’s relationship is still imperfect but significantly less fraught.
It was this anecdote, ultimately, that helped me make sense of the author’s advice to take a step back and breathe. I continue to work at doing just that and hope the coming year will provide plenty of opportunities for practice.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights of varying quality on Twitter at @hapahaiku.