“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick.
Happy November… and not so happy November. As we blog our way more deeply into fall, I thought that it might worthwhile to honor melancholy as something that we can all relate to, at least on some days, and also to differentiate this from true depression.
It is common for us to say, “I’m depressed,” when what we mean is that we feel sad. Depression is a serious problem, and it is different from just feeling sad. In fact, our difficulties in actually experiencing our feelings, containing them and trusting that they will pass (and even teach us) sometimes block us from our happiness. After all, the concept of happiness depends upon its relativistic opposite, unhappiness, to have any meaning.
If we are afraid or avoidant of our feelings, particularly our sad feelings, we may be disinclined to stay present to our children when they feel blue, and thus help them learn that this is part of being alive. In fact, our sad feelings can prove a useful guide toward finding our authentic good feelings that last, provided we allow our sorrow and listen to it.
A November never arrives without me thinking of the above-quote from Moby Dick as read to us by Mrs. Graham, our AP English teacher who was trying to inspire us to delve with passion and enthusiasm into the leviathan novel that at least I was less than thrilled about reading. Not only was she a great teacher, she was a feeling teacher—someone who could appreciate the angst as well as the beauty of artists and not just pathologize, or dodge, difficult feelings (by the way “hypos” is an old-school word meaning melancholy and hypochondria). Mrs. Graham’s appreciation of melancholy and irritability helped me think of these as a kindred, and even strangely beautiful, layer of the human experience—something that even this erudite and sophisticated intellectual could vibe to, and thus connect to us in our adolescent angst. Without saying so directly, Mrs. Graham suggested the notion that feeling different, sad and even angry could be part of a life well and richly lived.
A decade later I found myself in the ICU unit of a Detroit hospital with some heart problem and, in my surreal emotional state, all I knew was that it was time to read Moby Dick again. I’m not a big fan of boats, but I knew I needed to at least get to the “watery part” of the literature world. With greater patience, and nowhere to go, the book revealed new layers of meaning—a profound work that dares to find the dark as well as the light in the transcendent, non-religious and ambiguous elements of nature, from the ripped and angry human Ahab to the enigmatic higher consciousness of the whale (for more on whales and parenting see: **). It’s the sort of book that can inspire a forging of one’s own authentic way, even if it looms gloomy and intimidating.
To some extent we all struggle (unless we’re blocked from our full range of emotions) with feelings of alienation and confusion about what this world wants of us. And whether we find our challenges at sea, or in car pool line, it’s worth asking if the world isn’t offering us productive suffering and guidance toward our own true paths and destinies, if and when we dare to leave the well paved paths and venture into the thickets of our own untamed minds.
Depression must be taken seriously, and if you or your kid is persistently sad, anxious or plagued by feelings of emptiness, hopelessness or worthlessness; if anger and irritability seem to be a consistent pattern; if there is loss of interest in activities, decreased energy, trouble concentrating, insomnia (particularly waking up early and unable to fall back asleep), changes in eating or thoughts of self-harm, it would be advisable to check in with a doctor or therapist to see if a full-blown depression has arisen—and to seek help.
However, parenting (and life) asks us to deal with sadness much more often than it saddles us with clinical depression. One of the reasons that I resonate to “a dark and drizzly November” of the soul, is that this implies that there is some sort of calendar of the soul in which there will also be an April of the soul when the crocuses bloom, and a July of the soul when the summer sun shines in our back door.
So, let’s dedicate today to cozying in with our kids amidst the November within, to tea and cookies, a board-game, a log on the fire if we’re lucky enough to have a fireplace and some wood—to the mutual recognition of the melancholy that pulses in the potential space between our caring hearts, and an unflinching willingness to let our feelings inform and vivify us rather than frighten or shut us down… feeling our feelings in the service of helping all our collective children to feel, tolerate and learn from their feelings.