Home >Opinion >Columns >Why the melancholic are unable to find a ‘cure’ for joy

Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, though not very long before that, modern people had rehabilitated melancholy and ended its shame. As a result, that reasonless urban sorrow itself has assumed the character of an epidemic. Maybe it is the newness of the conversation, maybe it is the newness of a democracy in communication where everyone has a voice today that only public figures were allowed earlier, there is a feeling that these times have made people sad. Yet, this notion belies a very important quality of the sad. The sad have always been sad.

This column is not about why they are so. It will not even answer that weird but frequent question of most readers: “What is my takeaway?" This column is about wonder. Not merely about the fact that the sad around me have been sad since adolescence, mostly. But about how they have always sought to solve their melancholy by seeking refuge in something called “wellness". And how they have always failed. Every five years, a new “solution" would arrive and they would get deeply immersed in that.

The brief history of the pursuit of happiness by my sad peers is more or less this: It begins in a careful reading of J. Krishnamurthy and the philosophies of other dead people; then the philosophies of living people; a belief in “a force"; then yoga, which is an intense and glorious physical exercise that is, strangely, associated with “meditation", a word everyone uses with great confidence as though they know what it means.

In the arcs of my sad peers, the meaning of meditation, like the meaning of the mind, itself changes. In my adolescence, I remember, everyone told me meditation was a trance and an absence of thought. The way they said it, you would think such a thing is possible—to go into a trance without a neurological condition, or become thoughtless when wide awake. In the years that followed, meditation got downgraded to a breathing exercise. But what if meditation, like the G-spot, doesn’t exist?

Today, the cure for persistent urban melancholy has moved into an excessive articulation of healthy food, and consumption of books and podcasts by people with “neuro" somewhere in their self-descriptors, who speak of “the mind". And Big Pharma has succeeded in converting sorrow into a spectrum of clinical depression that can be alleviated by a pill. The capitalism of cures has fragmented mild reasonless sorrow and given it names, like “anxiety", that lend the illusion of a definite cause to melancholy. The attribution of “reason" to reasonless sorrow has given it the appearance of grief, which is sorrow caused by a specific event. Many cultures, many societies in the world, including India, never had a notion of “depression". There were, of course, the melancholic, but they were a personality type, and not a pathological type, or even victims.

In the end, no cures work. The sad remain sad. Spiritual philosophy, instead of making the melancholic happier, seems to have been infected by sorrow. Today, in the core of every philosophy is a lingering sadness. People who crave a more joyful form of metaphysics have to seek refuge in science.

Despite its record of utter failure, the wellness industry has only thrived. This is not hard to understand. The wellness industry is a bit like Steve Jobs’ Apple—everything about it is transmitted by highly passionate customers.

Like sex tends to be talked and read about disproportionately by people who don’t get enough of it, the calming of the mind seems most discussed by people whose minds have never been calm. Even as cures continue to fail the sad, newer avenues to express sorrow have risen.

Once there was only literature and some kinds of arts, but today there is another powerful release for the melancholic in the form of organized empathy, also known as activism, which is best described as a conversion of self-absorption into compassion.

Humanitarianism has become a magnet for the melancholic. What is it that comforts them? The intoxicating satisfaction of doing good, surely. But maybe also the proximity to people who are more miserable than they are? Is there a caste system among the sad; do some sad people feel oppressed by the happy, and do they feel superior to other sadder people?

The happy often respond to the sad with well-meaning foolishness. “Why can’t you be happier, you have everything." Or, “You’ll be fine."

But the popular cures of every age might themselves take the melancholic further from a solution: the over-articulation of what one is going through; the ceaseless talk of human suffering; the vaunted post-modern breathing exercises that ignore muscular strength and aerobic exhilaration, and the immersion in lament arts and spurious books about “the mind", and the conversion of the reasonless innate melancholy into a sadness that has villains, usually the very people who love them.

As we can see, the sad are interesting. They have deeper things to say. The joyful, on the other hand, are lame and banal. Yet, most people are happy. It does not appear that way, but it is the way of the world. People are susceptible to reasonless unprovoked joy. The body feels so good, there is so much air in the lungs, there are no aches, they have a low threshold for joy, and there is in them the illusion of good tidings. So lame and banal.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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