I don’t know about you, but somewhere between road-tripping back from Maine with my son while belting out tracks from Hamilton and eating Lorna Doones, and the adjustments of back-to-school, I’ve fallen to feeling a little glum. Moody. Antsy. Agitated. Not yet settled into the new school year, maybe even resisting it. Last night, as I lay in bed refusing to turn out the light despite my drowsiness, I scrolled through my summer photos, one by one. Kind of like poking a canker sore—a strangely satisfying self-imposed torture.
In my last post, I wrote about transition, and how, in particular, we’re served by embracing, rather than resisting, the mournful emotions of loss, longing, grief, and sorrow in our efforts to cultivate presence and positive thinking, as they “don’t take us out of the present, but bring the present more palpably into relief by calling our attention to its situatedness—its indebtedness to the past, and therefore its anticipation of the future.” There is, however, a difference between embracing the mournful emotions in service of growth, and indulging them, which is what I realized last night I was starting to do.
This crucial but sometimes subtle distinction is the springboard for John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” an all-time favorite poem of mine that I mentioned in my last post. Here’s the opening stanza:
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss'd
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
Don’t, urges the speaker, seek escape (or even solace) from melancholy through drugs, drink, melodrama, or (fantasies of) death, not because these are morally reprehensible choices, but simply because they rob us of the chance to feel our “wakeful anguish.” By checking out, numbing, reacting, and distracting, we walk through our days half-asleep, immune to not only our pain but also the rapture and quickening of sensual, felt life—what Keats refers to later in the poem as “Beauty,” “Joy,” and “aching Pleasure.”
As Keats so beautifully reminds us, melancholy is native to joy (“Ay, in the very temple of Delight/Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine”), but not because there’s some universal law that taxes us with a measure of pain for every dollar of pleasure we spend: as Keats’s imagery suggests, the mournful emotions are inherent in, not a complement to, the emotions of ecstasy and delight.
This distinction—between “inherent in” and “complement to”—is key to cultivating a life of full potential, a deliberate way of thinking and being that fosters active engagement, expansive happiness, and genuine purpose. And yet, this difference is often misappropriated in service of the very beliefs we need to overcome. How often do we say, for instance, “no pain, no gain,” while thinking, however dimly (that is, automatically), something like “yeah, that’s just how it works. Nothing’s free. You gotta pay your dues.” Right?
Wrong. This is scarcity thinking. It’s the belief that there’s only so much good to go around—love, money, happiness, health—and that, moreover, one’s chances at having enough are proportional to one’s suffering, and—and, by extension—the suffering of others. I could write a whole blog post on how this way of thinking, one I struggle at times to even notice in myself, let alone undo, underwrites a slew of modern injustices (from our failing penal system to animal agriculture), but I’ll save that for another day and say, instead, this:
I love Keats because he worked tirelessly to understand, with exquisite precision, the relationship between pain and pleasure, and in doing so helps us to do the same: melancholy is at the heart of joy because joy, in it’s attachment to sensual (of-the-senses) pleasure—beauty, bliss, passion, communion—is “fleeting.” We are thrilled by the sight of a shooting star not so much because what we see is especially dazzling (though it can be), but because, in large part, the chance of aligning our upward glance with that split-second streak that’s wiped onto the sky even as it’s wiped off it is strikingly rare. That is, to experience joy means confronting loss—the sudden cessation of that which, mere moments ago, brought us rapture. If we aren’t willing to encounter loss, to feel grief and sorrow, we don’t just sever ourselves from pain, we inure ourselves to delight.
This is why, in the second stanza of “Ode on Melancholy,” Keats instructs us to cope with the mournful emotions by feasting upon the most fleeting of pleasures:
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
Not just a rose, but one whose bloom is over by noon; not just a rainbow, but one flung into being by the break of an ocean wave; not just a lover’s gaze, but the passion pulsing behind her rage. And it’s no mere snacking on these particular pleasures, but a full-out feasting—glutting, feeding—that’s called for. Keats invites us to make of our melancholy an occasion to experience joy more fully, not (and this is crucial) because joy is a distraction from the mournful emotions, or some kind of karmic compensation for our sorrows, but because in inhabiting what appear to be the extremes of human emotion, we close the illusory gap between them. By embracing melancholy, rather than avoiding (indulging) it, we sensitize ourselves to the full range of human feeling, and in doing so become far more aware of the parity between emotional states we too often think of as not only distinct, but at odds.
Why the heck does this matter? Because Keats was on to something that can, literally, save our lives by staunching the commodification of scarcity thinking: what if we understood the experience of loss and sorrow as a doorway to heightened feeling, and therefore, ecstasy?
What if we didn’t think of acute grief as at odds with the thrill of possibility?
If we can understand the mournful emotions, in all their aching and sometimes baffling intensity, as inherent in, not anathema to happiness and pleasure, we will go a long way towards short-circuiting the symptoms of self-doubt and second-guessing that tip us from embracing our “wakeful anguish” into indulging our fearful wish to stay small and safe.
Allowing myself to experience my grief and to mourn my loss is important because it frees me up to create new routines and rituals, it reminds me of what I value so I can create what I want next. When gripped by the mournful emotions, we ought in fact, Keats suggests, “glut” and “feed” our sorrow by realizing that to fully experience joy and beauty is to consume it, to witness and experience its full range.
For me, this has meant feeling afresh the pangs of sadness in the wake of my divorce (which I wanted), as my kids and I create strategies for the school year that will help them move between their father’s house and mine with the greatest of ease. It means facing, again, my grief over the loss of living as a family, a feeling that is not at odds with, but augments, my appreciation for my family today as-it-is.
It means allowing myself to miss the new batch students I would have met on the first day of school this fall, had I continued to teach at the university where I’ve been for the past 18 years. It’s meant noticing the new lines around my eyes as another year clicks by, and the strangely new sensation of my eyelids, heavier than they’ve ever been.
It means knowing that I will not fall back into the foggy grip of self-induced oblivion, but rather, feast on melancholy—seek it out, take it in, ravish it.