Saturday, February 6, 2010


We recently returned from a long overseas trip. A day after our return, a feeling of melancholy set in. We had an unsettled feeling. We were blue.

But what’s this? We are absurd. Nothing matters. What could bother us? Well, we thought about it and wrote the things that were irritating us down on a little pad: The pile of mail (and bills) that had accumulated in our absence that had to be sorted out... The need to run an errand to the bank, which is never convenient… A deadline at work that we had no chance of meeting…

We wrote these things down and studied them a bit; facing them directly and recognizing how each thing didn’t matter. We started to feel better. Bomstein pointed out over coffee one day that he read somewhere how stress makes the brain release some chemicals that stay in the body for a time even after the stress is removed. That, too, made us feel better. As if this feeling was instinctual, one of those hard-wiring things that makes us anti-absurd sometimes.

All of this got us thinking about the idea of feeling blue. In the past on this blog, we have often emphasized happiness… how to get it, or keep it, or what makes it happen or not happen, and even trying to figure out what the heck it is and so on…

But we are starting to like the idea of acceptance better. That is to say, the idea should not be happiness, per se, but acceptance. We shouldn’t fight feelings of melancholy. We should accept that, too. The ultimate absurd man, we think, is one who has mastered acceptance. He finds equanimity in accepting the world as it is and not, necessarily, in thinking about being happy regardless of what befalls him.

We know we’ve talked about acceptance often, too. But we think perhaps we should emphasize acceptance more. There was a man who saw some of these things early. When we think of the word melancholy, we think of his name. His name is Robert Burton, author, famously, of An Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621.

Part of Burton’s message – and we know he had some strange ideas, like eating too much pork or too many cucumbers made one sad – is simply that feelings of melancholy are part of what makes us human. There is no escape. We should accept it and move on.

Burton writes, in his usual purplish prose:

“From these melancholy dispositions, no man living is free, no stoic, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself…

Q. Metellus, in whom Valerius gives instance of all happiness, ‘the most fortunate man then living in that most flourishing city of Rome, of noble parentage, a proper man of person, well qualified, healthful, rich, honorable, a senator, a consul, happy in his wife, happy in his children,’ etc, yet this man was not devoid of melancholy, he had his share of sorrow…

For a pint of honey thou shalt here likely find a gallon of gall, for a dram of pleasure a pound of pain, for an inch of mirth an ell of moan; as ivy doth an oak, these miseries encompass all our life.”

Burton says here that feeling blue is normal. It happens to all. Don’t sweat it. Just accept that it happens. (Well… he also has his prescriptions, some of which are not bad. He says you should drink more beer, because it makes one happy, or, as he puts it, “the hop… hath an especial virtue against melancholy.” We can’t argue…)

To know these feelings are natural and to recognize them when they occur is itself a great anti-depressant, we find. It goes along with the idea that to observe your own actions and thoughts in a dispassionate manner is a wonderfully revealing exercise.

All is to say, don’t fight your bouts of melancholy. Recognize and accept is, we think, a better approach. And, ironically, this approach may dissolve those blues anyway.


  1. Strong Taoist and Stoic themes here in this post. It slays me how--in our culture which is so pushing the positive psychology and "get happy!" mantra--folks are no more "happier" than they ever were, and--in fact--are probably unhappy realizing that they can't achieve that elusive "happiness."

    As your post suggests, acceptance and equanimity is a much richer path. Much of Taoism is predicated upon simply accepting what "is" without judgment. Also, the Stoics, I personally feel, offer us a grand, coherent life philosophy for our times--truly. They privileged indifference, advising us not to place our faith in externalities (e.g. "titles," achievements, reputation, material wealth) to bring us happiness. As the great Stoic Marcus Aurelius reminds us, it's never externalities that bring us happiness; rather, it's how we relate to any set of circumstances.

    Is happiness the ultimate goal? I like to think that calm and tranquility are . . . reflecting one's sense of satisfaction, of one's mastering of desires. Because we've been taught (in our Western consumerist culture) to not master desires and yield to our desires incessantly (because "we deserve the best . . . treat yourself"), we've naturally set ourselves up to be unhappy a great part of the time.

    Carry on--


  2. I have always liked Nietzsche. I haven't been reading this post all that long. (Although I've read almost the whole thing now). I can't believe how much it helps me. THINGS DONT MATTER. It doesnt matter if you are blue or not. You will stumble through life and then die. That's it; that's all. Nothing you do will change it. You are free to do whatever you want. You're so free that it doesn't even matter if you see that you're free. Listen to your own advice man. I know it seems trite and oversimplified, but I am quickly coming to believe (with your help) that all my negative emotion comes from placing to much importance on things. Don't you stop quitting now. Arthur.

  3. Arthur,

    Yes, we think most people invest too much in things and that leads to unhappiness. The absurd man, as we've said, puts no importance or meaning in such things.

    The main point of this post, though, is to recognize that into every life some rain must fall. There are certain hard-wiring emotions - like those brain chemicals when one is under stress - that you really cannot fight.

    So, it seems better to recognize them and accept that - absurd though our conscious minds may be - there will be occasional bouts of un-absurdity.

    We maintain that accepting that, ironically, leads one back to equanimity and dispels the anti-absurd emotions that struck in the first place.


  4. Yes. Very well put. This comment makes it much clearer what you are saying, even in the original post. Thanks, Arthur.

  5. I think one difference between your comment and your post was the extensive use of the word "should" in your post. See the fifth paragraph in particular. Also in that paragraph, I incorrectly took it that you were arguing what that acceptance is the point of life. Now, I should say, I do understand that in this blog, the word should does not mean quite the same thing as normal. Here should is not some absolute, rather it is along the lines of "Accepting that there is no large, scary, meaning and ultimate should about life, let us now say that the only reasonable goal is to be free and live as we want. So, when I say I 'should' do something, it really means that doing so would help me achieve my goal of being free and living as I want." But the shoulding felt gratuitous. I'm starting to ramble. Anyway, thanks again for that comment, it is absolutely great. Arthur.

  6. Acceptence is the key to life and the key to happiness. More appropriately, acceptence of one's self leads to a bliss, an inner bliss that cannot be extinguished. I see much hate and negative that is simply based on NON-ACCEPTENCE of oneself.
    Accept yourself as you are and your life will change....

  7. "all my negative emotion comes from placing to much importance on things"
    Very well said Arthur and a lesson well learned. Now to put it into action.... :)


  8. Will do Jon!

    - Art

  9. The perfect song for melancholy.

    Nico's These Days