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 melancholy 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.

This melancholy I know is not depression, which feels different.  Depression is dull, withdrawn, often angry.  Depression is a clinical condition, possibly managed with chemical and interpersonal assistance.  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.  It frightens 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, you 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 it.  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. 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.

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Wisdom and Me

I have always wanted to be wise.  So far, I’ve not reached wisdom’s shores but, on occasion, I’ve come close enough to make some reasonable guesses about the terrain.  Since my understanding keeps changing, decade by decade, let me begin by trying to articulate my current view.  Wisdom is the ability to make sense of experience and to make sound judgments based on that understanding.  It is the attainment of a peaceful inner life, far removed from petty concerns and injuries.  And it is the feeling of being connected with all living things and calmed by the loss of a bounded individual self.

As a boy I wanted to be wise because it meant that people might take me seriously, even ask my opinion about important matters.  At age eleven I wandered into a synagogue, not sure what I was after but drawn by the sound and feel of the chanting and the serious ways of the men.  I found moments of peace but none of the deeper meaning and spiritual rewards I had sought.

As a teenager, I began to think of wisdom as a way to rise above the fray.  Those were years of great sensitivity.  I was easily hurt, and finding a refuge from emotional injury had great appeal.  At Harvard, I came upon William Butler Yeats poem, Lapis Lazuli, which described three wise men upon a mountain top “whose ancient, glittering eyes were gay.” This was a metaphor that carried me for some time.  It was secular enough to allay my dislike of religion and romantic enough to soothe my adolescent soul.

I had grown up idealizing the life of left wing intellectuals, preferably those who wore  berets, lived on the New York West Side, published in the Paris Review, and argued passionately with close friends late into the night.  I now recognize the imagery for what it was: the dream of being a learned man, a secular version of the life led by my many rabbinic ancestors.  And, throughout my life, I’ve never strayed very far from this idea.  I earned my badge with a Harvard PhD in intellectual history and continue to read books on history and philosophy.  Maybe this was to be my path.

Before I completed my PhD, though, my mother’s voice began to demand more room in my mind.  Hers was the voice of action.  To continue the Jewish theme, she was suspicious of mere thinkers and believed in justice, tikun olam, for which you must change the world.  So I left graduate school to work at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, helping to write legislation and organize politicians in support of criminal and housing justice.  These were holy grounds, an expression of wisdom, I could believe in.

Then crises struck, one after another. The year was 1971. My father, with whom I had been deeply identified, died suddenly from pancreatic cancer.  My wife and I divorced.  I had a baby to care for, mostly by myself, since my now ex-wife wasn’t so inclined.  I fled the halls of academe, which then seemed self-indulgent and shallow.  My mind entered a state of painful chaos.  I craved any kind of action that would release me from my bleak and obsessive thinking.  I was lost, heart and mind thrown open in search of answers.

If ever I was ready for salvation and a guru to lead me there, this was the time.  But even in the midst of crisis, that was not my way.  Instead, I entered the spiritual pathways as an interested but skeptical onlooker.  I met people who were determinedly marching on the path towards enlightenment.  With them, I read Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki on Zen, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Tibetan Buddhism, and the wonderful Carlos Castaneda series about the mysterious Southwestern teacher, Don Juan.  I heard Baba Ram Das hold forth and attended three-day retreats at Sufi camps.

The secular commune that I founded, much to my surprise and chagrin, was rapidly transformed by my then girlfriend, Barbara-turned-Saphira–into a Sufi community.  We filled up with young and wide-eyed devotees.  Saphira thrived and I began to drown in their sincerity.  We were often visited by the international leader of the sect, Pir Vilyat Inayit Khan, who would spend the night.  I liked him and I believed that he had things to teach me but, as was my wont, I held back from devotion.  I could not dance myself into the frenzy of Sufi wisdom.

Over the next decades, I continued to read in the fields of mysticism, Buddhism, general spirituality, and transformational psychology, but I never found a particular teacher to follow.  Each time I’d come close, my independent or, some would say, my counter-dependent spirit would rear up.  But it didn’t stop my pursuit of wisdom.  I have continued to meditate for over forty years now—even though the meditation often becomes routine, neither inspiring nor even particularly calming.  I have continued my search for the perspective that brings calm.

The only vessel that has been carried me consistently towards wisdom’s shores has been my journal, which I have pursued more or less continuously for almost fifty years.     It’s a stream-of-consciousness process that, in itself, makes me very calm.

The thoughts, themselves, have been far less important to me than the calm and the process of discovery that the writing brings to my life. It feels like magic.  All I have to do is keep my writing hand moving until I lose an awareness of time and place.  Self consciousness flees.  I am still.  Then ideas, images, and solutions to problems begin to flow.  There are no auras or revelations that visit me.  But at the moment when I am still, I do feel like more than just myself.

As I age, Buddhism’s emphasis on the present has become more and more compelling.  For much of my life, the future was balm to my pain and anxiety.  If things weren’t good now, I could make them better in the future.  The future is quickly disappearing for me.  At any moment, I could become sick or infirm—or I could die.  Placing a bet on the future seems a bad decision.  Trying to suck the marrow of the present for all it’s worth is clearly the better choice.  My long term interest in Buddhism as a trustworthy guide to wisdom is finally the right idea at the right time.

At this point in my life, there are two seemingly conflicting ideas that are most compelling to me.  The first begins with Buddhism’s down to earth emphasis on what is right in front of you – real things, real issues, real people, real injuries and challenges, and real joy.  There is suffering throughout life, says the Buddha.  We know that there is a great deal of suffering in old age—aches and pains and, eventually, the diminishment of self.  These are real.  Running from them only makes things worse.  Facing them contains them.  The pain is just the pain and not symbolic of more and terrible experience.  By containing suffering to what it is, you leave room for other feelings, like pleasure, calm, curiosity, and joy.

The second idea concerns the impermanence of the self.  Here’s how this idea comes to me.  I might be walking, meditating, writing in my journal.  My mind is wandering.  Ideas, images, and experiences from my past come into view.  They are vivid but I know they are not exactly as they were when I first lived them.  They are just images and feelings now, not concrete experiences.  They have changed over the years with forgetfulness and with new experience.  They enter my mind also shaped by my current thoughts and needs—and by future expectations.   My mind has now stretched out from my beginnings into an indistinct future.  It has become timeless.  As I experience this timelessness, I enter a zone that feels vast, oceanic.  In that ocean, I am suddenly unattached and floating.  The sea of imagery grows quiet.  In that serene space, there is no self.  I feel conscious – so conscious — but not self-conscious.

I have no idea if this expanded sense of awareness is wisdom or just a pleasurable sensation but I’ll take it whenever it arises.

 

 

On loneliness

One sunny day, Franny and I were walking along a tree covered boulevard. The air was crisp; our steps were too.  We were chatting happily, noting how fortunate we were to have lived this long and this well.  Yet I was lonely.  I thought to tell her, and I knew that she would smile and wonder what she could do to help.  But I knew that even her most compassionate efforts wouldn’t make things appreciably better.  It might placate but never completely banish the ache.  She loves me. We are married for forty years.  We have shared children and grandchildren, laughs and hard times.  We are very close.  But I still felt incomplete.

When I was young I began to seek a cure for this loneliness.  First, I sought love.  I was sure that having a girlfriend would do the trick.  Each of my early girlfriends were lovely and loving.  They helped but not completely.  When there was no strong relationship, I would prowl the streets of Cambridge, searching, searching, and feeling empty as I searched.  Then I married, more than once, and found a great love but it was not enough.

So I turned to the spiritual life, studying Buddhism and Sufism, and living in a Sufi commune, which was lively and full of company.  I found solace in the idea that loneliness, like other feelings, was a construct of mine—just a thought—that would flow by, like a river, if I didn’t get too nervous about it.  I learned to meditate and to observe this river of feelings; when I did, the loneliness did, indeed, flow by.  But not so much at night, when I was alone on the river.  I hoped that, with discipline and tenacity, I would I would eventually lift myself above all the petty human feelings that oppress me: envy, for example, hurt and defensiveness.  I loved William Butler’s image of wise old men, hoping it mirrored my own journey:

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

But I never climbed to the top of that spiritual mountain, never freed myself from the slings and arrows, and, eventually, the image grew cold in my mind, leaving me lonely still.  Much as I tried to transform loneliness into solitude and peace, I succeeded only some of the time.  I came to accept the truth of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “We live as we dream—alone…”

Now seventy-four, I know that I will never fully lose that ache, and I know that I am not alone.  Though I have rarely discussed my loneliness with others, I believe that almost everyone shares this condition.  It is a part of the human condition.  Philosophers have noted it over the millennia.  I remember, especially, the despair of the Existentialists, Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, who I read avidly in my youth.  I loved Camus best, particularly his advice: carry on in spite of the pain because it is the only thing we human beings can do.  I have carried on.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are many times with Franny, with my family and friends when I lose myself in play and love.  But I also accept that old philosophical saw that we are ultimately alone, ultimately encapsulated in our individual bodies.  The older I get, the more this simple truth becomes just that: a simple truth.  There is nothing to fight.  I live with it as I might an old friend.  When it comes to consciousness, I greet it with some affection.  “I see that you have come to visit me tonight.  Rest.  Stay a while.”

This is the great value of aging: that you let go of the idea that you can ‘cure’ everything, that you can make yourself better and better, if only you work at it; that you accept your limitations, including your singularity and your loneliness.  And that brings rest.