Apparently, melancholy was a dark fluid circling through our body. At least that was what the Greeks think. Besides melancholy, there was also joy, lethargy and sensitivity, and anger. The inherent dogma, that sadness is a hormonal imbalance in the body, persists throughout the modern age under various clinical depression names. Despite this truth, we are reluctant to admit sadness in our life, assuming it as the enemy in today’s obsession to a “fulfilling life”.
Just a few days ago, while lounging on a chic-tropical terrace of a Peruvian restaurant in the middle of Ubud, as the sunlight made its dramatic come down against the palm trees, the slow drag of sadness came unto me. Indeed there is something about afternoons that’s distinctively melancholic. I refused to look at my phone since noising out sadness gives more sadness. So as the sadness sits there in front of me, I thought, what should I do? And it occurred to me that we are never taught how to embrace sadness. Should I think, should I feel? That’s the first question. Then, should I stay silent or do something? Should I listen or should I speak? I froze on what to do. All while sadness sips black bitter tea next to me.
Alain de Botton, my beloved pessimist, shared his speech (or performed a storytelling) at The School of Life’s Sunday Sermon, where he alluded to capitalism that breeds meritocracy that breeds isolation that breeds sense of failure. For every books on 10 Steps to Achieve Success This Year, there’s 10 Steps to Achieve Happiness. Obsession breeds sorrow, desires bring loneliness, wants breeds despair. Nietsczhe refused to drink alcohol since sadness is there to be understood. Kierkegaar lamented, “Marry you will regret; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will also regret it.” Our very existence is bound up with despair, emptiness, and melancholy as if they are the darkness that gives space for light. But the universe itself is an order within chaos.
Marina Abramovic, the performing artist that once performed the staggering Rhythm 0, shared that she is driven by despair, not happiness. Years before she turned her life into artistry quest, she was left alone drowning in a lake by her own father, a national hero of the communist Yugoslavia party, who sailed the boat away from her as she, just six years old, fought for her life. With an overwhelming sense of despair and frustration, of being left alone to die by her own father, she recalled, “I got so angry, and I thought, I don’t want to die, and I actually started swimming.” Her father eventually stretched his arms, but until now she still wondered if he would have left her in the sea. All her life, she embodies the starkest pain and fears we tend to avoid; a loaded gun, knife jabbing her fingers, leaving the love of her life. Playing with wide-range of sorrows and despairs, she creates arts that mirrors our own darkest memories.
Some people are indeed predisposed to sadness, like me, who tends to meet sadness easily in boredom and music. Others are somehow more sensitive to it, immediately covering it up with up-lifting music and a lot of sunshine. Sadness sends us into a spiral, a darkened tunnel that we can actually learn to be familiar with it. Get lost in it and you’ll find yourself suffocated, struggling to find your way out. Feel and greet it and you’ll find your creative center. Marina believes that happiness doesn’t ignite creativity. And Alain looks like the happiest pessimist alive. Because sadness too, comes so close to beauty. And those who have fallen into tears feeling the weight of love can testify for that. Or staring up at the sky, feeling death so close against the immeasurable heaven? Sadness isn’t a fire you always need to kill. In fact, we shall feel sad for ourselves who have slowly grown immune to sadness, seeing it as a mental block with no answers.
Perhaps, in fact, calling it a sadness is a mistake all along. This name, sadness, melancholy, grief, despair might have to lead us into miscalculated judgments on what we should do about it, turning us into weird human beings who are so out-of-touch to its essence. Perhaps we should call it something else. Like moonlight. Or a city after midnight. Because they have a stark resemblance to my sadness. And my kind of sadness feels strangely familiar, like returning to a home out in the nowhere.
I think there should be a research on how happy people who read happiness books actually are, how satisfied they are with their life after reading the book, if not more frustrated, seeing their life still far from what the book has promised. And in an attempt to close this gap, they buy more happiness books. But sadness, which is always preceded by feeling weak and small, is perhaps just a gentle response in the face of our own blunt reality. Sadness, as it is, is emptiness, but see through it and you’ll find everything.