Melancholy and Me

When I was a boy, my mother would take me to greet my father as he returned from work.  He had traveled from the garment district in Manhattan via the D Train, then transferred to a bus in Jamaica.  An hour and a quarter later, having read the afternoon Herald Tribune and fifty pages of a book, he’d step off the bus, wearing that long gray overcoat, whose musty smell I still recall and treasure.

I’d run to him, happy every evening to have him home; and, with that melancholy smile of his, he’d fold me into his arms.  All of my most loving memories of my father include that melancholy.  When I think of myself now, when I imagine what I look like from the outside, I imagine that I am wearing a smile like his.

If you had asked me from the time of my youth through my 60’s what I would like to see reflected on my face, it would probably be joy or depth, certainly enthusiasm, seriousness of purpose balanced by playfulness, which would look like a wry smile following a witty comment. But at the age of 76, the expression that moves me most, inside and out, is melancholy, which the dictionary defines as “pensive sadness”.

But in my mind, melancholy includes a feeling for the humor of it all, a sense that there’s so much more than what we see on the surface.  For me, melancholy comes with an appreciation for the complexity of life.  For every joy there is a sadness; for every defeat there’s a triumph.  There is love and hatred, pleasure and pain.  One does not eliminate the other.  The melancholic person holds all of these feelings at once.

Picture Abraham Lincoln’s face, filled with that beautiful sadness of his.  Or imagine, Rabbi Nachum of Bratzlav, who, like Lincoln, was said to have absorbed the sadness of his entire congregation, and you could read their stories on his face.  I imagine Moses and Jesus and almost anyone who cared deeply about people and knew their suffering would have a look of sustained melancholy, even as they led us through various forms of wilderness to various holy lands.

Old age is a kind of wilderness.  There is so much about it that feels unknown, uncharted.  It is a humbling time, a time when we are inclined to be honest with ourselves.  We tend to cast off illusions and false hopes.  We acknowledge ourselves as we are.  With the passing years, we understand that we have grown less and less important, even to those who love us.  They are busy with their lives.

How could we not be humbled?  Our bodies ache and grow less responsive.  Our friends fall away.  We feel naked in this vast universe.  There’s nothing to do but acknowledge the decline.  And what kind of expression do you imagine on your face as you acknowledge these changes?  For me, it’s melancholy.

The melancholy I know is not depression.  Depression is dull, withdrawn, often angry.  Depression is a clinical condition, possibly managed with chemical and talk therapy.  Its colors are gray or black.  Its music is discordant.  In depression, you withdraw from others, no matter how close and loving.  Even their love feels like either a demand that you return it—and that feels like too much—or a lie.  They don’t really love you.  There is no depression in my father’s embrace.  It’s more like joy tempered by the knowledge of how fleeting the joy might be.  There’s nothing about depression that lends itself to leading a nation, a community,  a family.  Yet so many of our leaders, knowing the extent of their responsibility and the limitations of their very human power—they are often melancholy.

Our society doesn’t make this distinction.  Melancholy and depression are conflated.  They frighten people, who are taught that it is best to be upbeat, optimistic, gay.  Think of all those Facebook smiles.

I do think that melancholy was once more acceptable.  If you look at the photographs of historical figures, they aren’t smiling.  They aren’t bright and cheery.  They are thoughtful.  You see seriousness, comprehension and, yes, sadness in their eyes.  And, if you could ask them: Is this how you want to be seen, they would say: “Of course.  This is who I am.  Why would I want to appear as anyone else?”

This isn’t all others see on our faces, of course.  I’d bet, for example, that many if not most people would characterize my expression as determined, enthusiastic, amused, energetic, endorsing.  I love to watch the joy and excitement in children. Their whole beings light up when they achieve something wonderful, when they receive gifts, or when they have been surprised.  Adults too.  Old people light up, sometimes, in the most inspiring ways.  I heard an interview with Franklin Foer the other day.  He was talking about his grandmother, his heroine.  She had survived the Holocaust, yet she sparkled with vitality and hope for her grandchildren.  I listened as I drove and barely held the wheel, simultaneously applauding and tearing up.

But more often than not, those of us who have lived through decades of great and varied experience also wear our melancholic visage—which is as it should be.

It fits the great, late transitions in our lives.  As we ‘retire’, we leave communities that have been so much a part of our lives.  We are equal parts glad and sad to leave.  When we talk about the departure, there’s more relief and wonder and very little depression, but we are aware of our losses and aware that we are beginning an uncertain future.  As we talk with our friends about how we feel, they see the beautiful melancholy in our smiles.

Melancholy feels just right when we say that dying is coming closer.  Most of us aren’t terrified or angry, at least most of the time, that we must yield — that we must leave the ones we love.  That’s just as it is.  I smile at such a moment, a wan smile, a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless because, at the exact moment that I recognize the loss, I am also grateful for all that I’ve had.

The music I listen to nurtures my melancholy.  I like jazz and the blues.  I like Yo Yo Ma playing Bach cello sonatas.  I like poetry and take notice when ee cummings describes his father, who “walks in dooms of love.”  There is so much sadness and joy in the music and the poems, and I dissolve into them.  I lose myself in my melancholic ruminations.

Many of the films that I love are filled with melancholy.  Think of those Humphrey Bogart stories where he has to walk away from the woman he loves.  Casablanca, for one, ends as Ingrid Bergman flies off with another man, and Bogart, with humor and a depth of sadness tells Claude Rains:  “Louis, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  Life doesn’t always go your way but it has its compensations.

Think of the excruciating beauty of For Whom the Bells Toll.  The “earth moves” for Roberto and Maria—because they love one another so deeply and because the war will soon separate them.  Much like the image of Moses leading his people to Israel but remaining behind, overlooking the land from the mountains but forbidden by God to enter.  These melancholic stories, combining our best hopes and greatest fears, speak to some of the strongest images in the history of our civilization.  We oughtn’t run from them.

When I accept my melancholy, when I refuse to fight it, I enter a contemplative mood, much like the best of my meditations.  My heart slows.  My vision clears.  When I yield to my melancholy during a walk in the hills and near flowing streams, when I don’t tell myself that joy or exhilaration would be better, then I dissolve into the pleasures of the scene.

I find more of these experiences in old age than at any other time in my life.  After years of confusing melancholy and depression, after decades of holding off the melancholy that offers the most enduring key to my heart, I accept it now with my whole heart.

For many years, I have been searching for a kind of wisdom that I thought would lift me out of my suffering – what I imagined that Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree or Yeats’ ancient wise men, “whose ancient, glittering eyes, are gay” found in the high mountains.  But I no longer think that is the path for me.

For me, wisdom runs through melancholy.  It comes from an honest assessment of life, with its immense variety of experience.   I don’t have to work to achieve melancholy; it is simply there.  I can admit this to myself and to others.  It is rooted in the reality that gives me great strength and a quiet mind.


Temperamentally, I’m an optimist, and have been for most of my life.  On the personal side, I was born with a sense of “can do”—a belief that if you try hard enough and long enough you can overcome any obstacle.  For a long time, this attitude proved a perfect partner to my political perspective.  In politics, I’ve simply believed that the world was growing more just, that the lives of the great majority were steadily improving, even though the pace has often tried my patience. In my mind, setbacks have been temporary regressions.  Over the long haul, I stood with those who proclaimed that “we will overcome.”

Buoyed by the extended civil rights movements for African Americans, women, LGBTQ’s, and people with disabilities, along with the introduction of Medicare and Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act, among other legislative victories, I came to believe with MLK that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  From the thousand foot perspective, I saw a strong, direct line between the Progressive Era to the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society, and the future.

In more recent years, though, and as I’ve aged, a pull towards skepticism and pessimism has challenged my natural inclinations.  I’m not alone.  I know few people who have sustained the faith, as  it were. It’s not a matter of values.  Most of us have held firm in that regard.  But our belief that our ideals will be realized—or realized anywhere near as fully as we had hoped—that has waned.

You might say that we have achieved a “mature realism.”   And that the growth of political moderation has gone hand in glove with our own perceived decline, as though the world was magically growing old with us.

We began to see greater significance in the long periods when social justice has taken a back seat to conservative doctrine, individualism, and corporate greed: during the Reagan, George HW Bush, George W Bush, and Bill Clinton presidencies, for instance.  Even during the presidency of Barack Obama, conservative forces dominating the cabinet helped increase the gap between the rich and poor. And the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that unleashed unlimited flows of conservative financing into the political system tilted American society towards its own form of oligarchy.

We couldn’t help but notice how the assault on liberal democracy that has been rapidly taking hold throughout Europe, how the Chinese authoritarian system has successfully challenged American world hegemony, how a Russian dictator has, with some effect, declared “war” on our democratic processes, and how futile we have all been in the fight against environmental degradation.

Maybe the arc of the world doesn’t bend towards justice but follows endless historical cycles of optimistic striving and repressive reaction:  democracy and totalitarianism;  equality and class-bound societies; outward and innovative striving and defensive pulling in.  Maybe all of these impulses are true and none ever gets to declare a final victory.

I’m not happy with this kind of “realism,” however convincing it may be at times. I wonder if it has more to do with old age, with my own declining powers than what is happening out there.  And I despise the possibility that my days will end with a Trump presidency, a British Brexit, a Polish and Hungarian descent into modern incarnations of fascism. I hate the idea of a Hobbesian world in which our fear of our neighbors causes us to attack before we are attacked.  All my dreams thrown on the rubbish heap of cruelty and mistrust, in the name of ‘real politic.’

So I live with a good deal of  philosophical tension and search for ways to manage it.  Here’s one way: as we age, some of us focus our eyes on the distant horizon and grow philosophical:  “Oh well, that’s the way the world is.”  This approach feels flat and uninspired.  It’s not me.  Here’s a second approach: some of us withdraw into an entirely personal universe: “Oh well, there’s nothing I can do to influence all that.  And I’ll be gone within a decade or two.  I’ll just pay attention to my personal life.”  That has a comforting feeling and most of us adopt this approach to some extent.  But, for me, it also borders on betrayal.  I don’t buy the idea that we’ve earned our withdrawal.  How could I give up on hopes and ideals that have animated me during my entire life; how could I retreat into a totally selfish universe?

There’s a third way.  Throughout my life, when unsure, I have followed the time-tested adage: “Talk the talk until you can walk the walk.”  Act as though the outcome you want is virtually inevitable and that will give you the strength to make is so.  So we can look for signs of a better future in order to preserve some of our traditional optimism.

And a fourth way: According to Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, you must keep pushing the rock (of just causes) up the hill even if it keeps rolling down when you near the top.  You persist.  You hold out the possibility of success in order to feel true to yourself and your ideals. Trying, even in the face of almost hopeless causes—as the onslaught of Nazism and Communism may have seemed to Camus—is essential to maintaining our integrity.  And, even more importantly, by holding the fort in times of crisis, you prepare for the next wave of idealists.

I think I may see that next wave on the horizon.  In 2018, Millenials supplanted the Baby Boomers as the largest voting age group in the United States.  They are the first post World War II generation to experience diminished economic and social prospects.  Privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts for the rich have bitten deeply into public services, leaving pitted roads and ineffective public transportation, unaffordable child care, and a rapidly warming earth.

But the millenials seem to be fighting.  They sing a progressive tale to pollsters: that the shortchanging of Black and Brown people must stop; gay people must have the right to marry; immigrants, who make our country stronger, must be supported not rejected; health care should be every citizen’s right; and climate change is the greatest threat to humankind.

I have been watching the generation’s young turks, people like Alexandria Octavia-Cortez and Pete Buttigieg as they challenge the current order and gather support among the Boomers, as well.  I have no part of me wanting to modulate their message, as many pundits propose, in order to broaden their base.  I think it’s possible that their values as well as their passion and commitment may turn out to be more convincing than moderation.  I think they have a good chance of renewing a progressive wave aimed at fulfilling the ‘self evident’ truths that this country was built on.

As I age, I tell myself more and more to see the world as it is, not as I want it to be, yet here I am, excited once again, by a group of dreamers.  But isn’t dreaming one of life’s real experiences?  Isn’t the attempt to make the world better a real effort?  The current progressive wave may not last forever—it won’t—but while it lasts it is as real and exciting as any other way of relating to the world.  It makes me feel alive and worthwhile.