It is December 1st and against better judgment — I committed to publishing daily as part of NaBloPoMo — again.
The theme this month is joy, a subject that actually does fascinate me, so if you are a regular here you can expect to hear a little more about it for the next 30 days.
As it happens just yesterday I read a post written by Maria Popova, the creative genius behind Brain Pickings, titled, In Praise of Melancholy and How it Enriches Our Capacity for Creativity, which featured the work of Eric G. Wilson, author of, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.
Although I have not read his book, the article really got me thinking about the roles both joy and sorrow played in my life from the human perspective and as a writer.
After my mother died in May of 2013, the 18 months that followed were on many levels excruciating. I was completely caught off guard by the grief I felt. I never expected to grieve for my mother. And yet the dark shadow of it showed up uninvited anyway.
It stands to reason that I could have pushed it back, stepped over and away from it. I could have pursued happiness, busied myself — anything and everything but — deal with my pain.
Yet I didn’t. To have done so would have required me to deny my emotion and in so doing I would have missed the opportunity to learn what was at the root of my sorrow, longing.
How would I move toward healing if I didn’t afford myself access to the countless feelings and memories that surfaced?
As a writer I can’t help but examine my life on the page, the myriad emotions I have experienced lend themselves to the creative process, in fact, they beg to be mulled over, then recorded and sometimes even shared.
Eric G. Wilson is of the opinion that happiness is an obsession unique to Americans. He contends that our cultural desire to expunge melancholy from our lives could, in fact, damage our capacity to be creative.
And then there is this:
…the full spectrum of human experience and the whole psychoemotional range of our inner lives — high and low, light and darkness — is what makes us complete individuals and enables us to create rich, dimensional, meaningful work.” -Maria Popova
I could not agree more.
Eric Wilson may be on to something when he infers that a manufactured state of happiness doesn’t serve us, let alone inspire our inner muse. Sentiments that call for people to smile their problems away, turn that frown upside down, be happy– although all are cheerful thoughts — to do so may, in fact, cripple what stirs us. And what stirs us tends to get written.
So, is it true that American’s are obsessed with happiness? I really hadn’t thought of it before. I have long thought that most are petrified of grief. In an earlier piece I wrote:
There is impatience with those of us who won’t swallow our sorrow, put on a happy face and get back to our lives. Sentiments like, “When the past calls, don’t answer, it has nothing new to say,” abound on social media. Yet few words would be written if we were intended to lead an unexamined life.”
How do we create joy in spite of our sorrow?
To me, one should not prevent the other. Being with my melancholy is not the same as being stuck. In the example of grief, by welcoming it as if it were an old friend with information to be excavated, I gave myself the power to pull what I needed out from the dark and into the light. And those are the things that haunt me…
Write what haunts you, lest you spend your life amidst drivel. Write what you care most about, the beauty, the absurdity, and the sorrow of the world.”–Jane Resh Thomas
Lois Alter Mark says
Beautiful, as usual, and I love that you’ll be writing about joy every day this month. That quote by Jane Resh Thomas totally nails it. Just keep writing what you feel, my friend. Your words and your authenticity bring joy to so many.
Thank you, Lois. And yes…I love that Jane Resh Thomas quote, IT haunts me. 🙂
Carol Cassara says
It’s harder to write about our own joy because we fear that it would be too prideful. It’s always much easier for me to write about melancholy or grief. And since that “pursuit of happiness” thing, I fear we ARE obsessed with happiness. It’s funny, people in other countries are just concerned with living….so much to think about.
Carol your point is so spot on about the fear of being prideful. And…what you said about people in other countries? Also spot on. Thank you…
Ruth Curran says
I think the creative process is fueled by re-examining and exploring our past, as you said so perfectly, as an “old friend with information to be excavated”. Embrace all the pieces that make us feel and react and, eventually write, as equal partners in that process. Oh I am soooo looking forward to the rest of December!
I am so glad you will be part of the December journey, Ruth. Thank you for your kind words.
Donna Hanton says
Elin, this gave me a lot to think about, as I process my own recent loss. The emotions are complex this time, because of the person lost, but I am finding the positive, the joy, along with the pain. I love all the quotes here! Thank you for this lovely, insightful post
Donna, I am so sorry to hear that you have recently experienced a loss, I love that you have found such a mixture of emotion in your grief. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and for your kind words too.
Lisa at GrandmasBriefs says
This from Eric (and you) is perfect: “…a manufactured state of happiness doesn’t serve us, let alone inspire our inner muse.” So true.
I once had a therapist tell me that if you disguise ANY feeling, it will rear its head in other, often destructive, ways. Our feelings need out, need identified, need to breathe in order for us to breathe. Sad, happy, melancholic, whatever. We need to own it and move on.
I could not agree with you more, Lisa. Thank you…
Patricia A. Patton says
I think what I like about this post is you have decided to go your own way, in spite of how you might label it. For me that is everything. Embrace and move on.
Exactly. Embrace first. Thank you, Patricia.
Cathy Chester says
I love the open, honest way you write about happiness and melancholy because, yes, we Americans MUST be happy at all times. Ha!
I also wrote (today) about melancholy and happiness for the MS site I write for. I wrote that we must acknowledge our feelings and be honest about them. I like to look at my feelings like, as you eloquently said, an old friend, one that I have to step through to reach whatever I find on the other side. Hopefully a better and more creative me.
BTW I also quoted from Brain Pickings recently, too. Elin, you are truly amazing!
Thank you, Cathy.
Loved this post. Especially the quote By Jane. Beautiful. I think that Americans are obsessed with competition. The grass is always greener kind of thing. You don’t find that in third world countries. The reality is, I’m afraid, that so many don’t have a clue what will make them happy, and so they go about seeking the unknown. Pretty hard to find something you’re not looking for. A bit like nailing Jello to the wall.
Interesting, I hadn’t thought about it in context to competition. In that regard then I wonder if there is an unspoken need to be the most enlightened, a different conversation, but potentially one worth looking at. Thank you, Tammy, you have got my wheels turning again.
Esther Lombardi says
Inspired and beautiful, but also hauntingly perfect. We are not supposed to feel sad, despair, or hopelessness… It’s supposed to be Pollyanna 24/7.
It’s impossible, but also side-steps the many cunundrums of our existence. I, too, have know laughter through tears, good moments while in the depths of despair. And, while I’m most often seen as ever smiling and positive, my dearest friends are the ones with whom I can frown, geumble, rant and cry…
Thank you for this post… it is, well, perfect.
Thank you, Esther. Those friendships of which you speak are for sure pure gold. I appreciate what you shared and your nice words about my post.
Ellen Dolgen says
When my Dad died I felt as if I was not longer grounded, but rather suspended in air looking at my life. Our first born, was 3 months old. I was completely grief stricken. Many of my friends didn’t understand why I was not, “snapping out of it” after two weeks. They all wanted the old Ellen back. The happy one. They had never lost anyone before, so they really had no tools to truly understand what it is like. No one can be “happy” all the time. One needs to go with the grief….allow yourself the emotion. If you don’t, often it comes back to haunt you in physical illness. I was sorrowful, but also joyful about my beautiful new little girl. Great Blog! Thank you for sharing
Ellen, your experience is a reminder for those of us in the grief to help others who aren’t grieving to see we are changed, death shapes us. I will never be the person I was before, that doesn’t mean I won’t ever be happy again, but once we know something at a visceral level we can’t un-know it. I think sometimes people feel afraid that the grief will define them, that simply hasn’t been my experience at all. If anything I would be far more afraid of being defined by denial than acceptance. Thank you so much for sharing your loss and your response to it here.
Margaret Rutherford says
Elin, when I read your pieces, I am so struck by the “how” of what you say that the “what” comes second. I try to help people believe that they can connect with their grief without being consumed by it. It’s a rampant fear. Thank you for a beautiful post.
Thank you, Margaret.