One of the weaknesses of the English language is that it oftentimes lumps similar emotions under one broad name. Love, for example. One can love intimately, but also love his/her siblings, friends, pets, career, and adventuring differently. The ancient Greeks were more precise. They distinguished among love’s various expressions: e.g., Eros meaning romantic; Philia, for friends and others; Storge, between parents and children; Agape, universal love.
Sadness is another term we apply to a broad range of feelings, often relating to immediate and tangible loss such as a death of a loved one.
Melancholy is an expression of sadness. The ancient Greeks explored melancholy – Melankholia – as they seemingly did with every aspect of the human psyche. It’s interesting to see how their word and its meaning have made their way into modern languages and thinking. In Spanish, melancholia; Italian, melancholia; German, Melancholie; and Danish, melankoli.
Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, attributed melancholy to an aberrant secretion of black bile. While medically and psychologically incorrect, Hippocrates, nonetheless, grasped the gripping potential power of the mood.
For a few, like Abraham Lincoln, it can be chronic. For others, melancholy can arise during periods when the individual is already feeling down and possibly in a vulnerable state. Like now. For many, this is a sad period given that the pandemic has touched them personally. Those not directly affected health wise might be feeling sad for them out of compassion or empathy.
Colloquially, we sometimes call it feeling blue or being down in the dumps. Outside factors such as gloomy weather and/or the time of day such as late afternoon can induce it. Or a visit to, photos of, and stories about the place of one’s childhood or other personally meaningful sites.
The last example suggests how melancholy can intertwine with another aspect of the human psyche: Memory. There again, the Greeks were on it. The Titan Mnemosyne, who gave birth to the nine Muses, was the goddess of memory. Our word mnemonic, which means “a device or code to assist memory,” comes from her name.
Recently, several sisters and I recalled via text some of the more joyful moments of our childhood. We didn’t have much growing up, but we never lacked for anything. Life was the way it was. Clothes were handed down. Food was not taken for granted. Vegetables from the garden and fruits from trees our father had planted before his untimely death were harvested – unless eaten on site – and canned. A hole in a sock or a button from a shirt merely meant a darning task to be done. We made our own fun and squabbled over who got to take his or her bath when. That is after we were old enough not to share a bath.
From the vantage of older age, we easily see the circumstances of our childhood and coming-of-age years having given us gifts unimagined then. We understand that which we lacked materially was more than made up for in an abundance of intangibles.
Those memories are amplified against the background of this pandemic, at a time when life is far from simple and safety and surety of health and financial means are very much under threat.
I am no psychologist or psychotherapist, but it seems a healthy way to explore rooms of one’s past is to note the feelings that arise when rummaging through them. Then, write about, sketch, and/or share them with others who also shared them – e.g., siblings – and friends who have related memories.
Of course, not all memories are uplifting. Some are likely painful, so it’s best to approach them carefully.
Still, in the end, we are our stories. So, think about it: Whence do they come? If you haven’t yet, perhaps it’s time you tell yours. In the telling you might shed a tear or a enjoy a laugh or both.
Thanks, Mnemosyne, for your gift.