By Angela Slezak
That no matter what you feel, my meditation teacher has explained, there is some benefit to the self. Even with negative feelings such as anxiety and depression, you’re getting something out of it.
This was a major lesson. Often feelings come as reaction so monitoring the benefits of any feeling in reaction to the situation reveals deep-seated beliefs.
What do we get out of depression?
Until the 19th century, depression was generally known as melancholy, one of the four humors. If you’re not familiar with the four humors, historically the Western world has categorized personalities in four ways. You might laugh, but if you work in a corporate setting, you may have experienced some of the personality profiling that uses four quadrants.
Sanguine – Blood promotes a feeling of joy, mirth, optimism, enthusiasm, affection and wellbeing.
Phlegmatic – Phlegm induces passivity, lethargy, subjectivity, devotion, emotionalism, sensitivity and sentimentality.
Choleric – Yellow Bile provokes, excites and emboldens the passions. Being inflammatory, irritating and caustic, it provokes anger, irritability, boldness, ambition, envy, jealousy and courage.
Melancholic – Black Bile makes one pensive, melancholy and withdrawn. It encourages prudence, caution, realism, pragmatism and pessimism.
As with any personality profiling in quadrants, we are rarely one quadrant but a mixture of qualities normally with one or two quadrants being predominant.
Melancholy may be different than depression, but it seems melancholy is part of depression. Folk wisdom purports that to be an artist you must have some imbalance in the humors. How much art and literature would be absent without an extra dose of melancholy?
Melancholy sees the futility behind much human endeavor so peers into the shadows and acknowledges what we would prefer to ignore.
The thing about pain,
Is it won’t last forever,
And it kills you right now,
But with time it gets better,
The thing about scars,
Is they all start to fade,
Until nothing is left,
Of the cuts that were made,
The thing about today,
Is there’s always tomorrow,
And if you can’t find your smile,
I have one you can borrow,
The thing about help,
Is beside you it stands,
But it won’t know its needed,
Unless you reach out your hand,
The thing about love,
Is you can’t feel its touch,
Until you let someone know,
That this world is too much.
– Ernest Hemingway
While the sanguine are enjoying the amusement park, melancholy sees the exploited workers. While the choleric are fighting for a cause, melancholy notices the pain that drives the fight. While the phlegmatic is trying to connect, melancholy observes the loss of self.
What does the feeling of melancholy offer us?
It offers poetry, philosophy and wistfulness that notice the smallness of a human existence in an infinitely large universe. It’s the longing for another world.
Lo! Death has reared himself a throne
In a strange city lying alone
Far down within the dim West,
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
There shrines and palaces and towers
(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)
Resemble nothing that is ours.
Around, by lifting winds forgot,
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie.
from The City in the Sea by Edgar Allan Poe
Melancholy also offers a great deal of movie endings that contain the bittersweet combination of both happiness and sadness. Movies need to evoke feeling to be successful and melancholy is a powerful emotion.
A Sanguine Bias
Speaking of movie endings, Hollywood generally produces movie endings that end as expected – the main characters fall in love, the hero wins and bad people are redeemed. Melancholic movie endings generally are most often found in the “art film,” often from foreign countries, another link of melancholy and art.
Does my culture have a sanguine bias?
In an article America is obsessed with happiness — and it’s making us miserable, British author Ruth Whippman reflects on Americans focus on happiness:
Part of this is that Americans seem to have a deep cultural aversion to negativity. This can be a welcome change, but the pressure to remain positive at all times often results in some complicated mental gymnastics. My son’s report card at preschool divided his performance not into strengths and weaknesses but into strengths and emerging strengths.
“Complicated mental gymnastics” – interesting term for remaining sanguine when melancholic (or other humor) thoughts arise.
We don’t need a melancholic world anymore than we need a world entirely comprised of sanguine, phlegmatic or choleric. But when we isolate or reject one humor, the rest go out of balance.
Whippman describes the daily life of the emotions brilliantly where you can find each of the four humors:
Before moving to America, I didn’t really give a whole lot of dedicated thought to whether I was happy. Like most people, in any given day I will experience emotions and sensations including (but not limited to) hilarity, joy, irritation, ambivalence, excitement, embarrassment, paralyzing self-doubt, boredom, anxiety, guilt, heart-stopping love, resentment, pride, exhaustion, and the shrill, insistent buzz of uneaten chocolate somewhere in the house.
Whippman’s insightful article makes me think that melancholy is also an escape from the excess of sanguine. Possibly a balance of sanguine will provide a balance of melancholy. We can still get our melancholy high, but prevent it from becoming an addiction.
It’s so nice
to wake up in the morning
and not have to tell somebody
you love them
when you don’t love them
any more.Richard Brautigan