By Paul Knudtson
3Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. 4The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. – Ecclesiastes 7:3-4
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. – Luke 6:21
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. – Matthew 5:4
In his essay, “The Meaning of Melancholy,” Romano Guardini describes good and evil melancholy. Evil melancholy leads one to hopelessness and despair (The Human Experience, Cluny Media, 2018). Good melancholy, on the other hand, is ultimately creative and life-giving. Such scripture texts as those above that describe sorrow, mourning, and weeping in positive terms should be classified as “good melancholy.”
Melancholy can be defined simply as “sadness,” that is, the opposite of “happiness.” Guardini says that melancholy “conveys the idea of heaviness of spirit” (p.51). Happiness and sadness are normal and universal human emotional responses to the good and bad things that happen in life. But “melancholy” may be used to describe a pervasive and persistent mood of sadness that is not caused by a specific disappointment in life. As such, it becomes a mood that seeps into our entire lives so that even joyous occasions take on its bitter taste.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard gives vivid personal expression to the anguish brought about by melancholy: “the whole of existence is poisoned in my sight, particularly myself, Great is my sorrow and without bounds; no man knows it, only God in heaven, and he will not console me; no man can console me, only God in heaven, and he will not have mercy upon me.” (quoted in Guardini, p. 36). Here Kierkegaard sounds a lot like Job in the Old Testament. Job says, “I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me” (Job 10:1-2).
In the light of such negative descriptions, it may be surprising for us to think that melancholy can also be viewed positively, as a good and beneficial element in our lives. Since sadness is an unpleasant, bad feeling, and happiness is a pleasant and good feeling, it is easy for us to consider one bad and the other good. That is, it is easy for us to associate only positive, happy emotions with God, and to think that negative feelings, such as sadness, indicate that we are somehow separated from God and God’s blessings. But scripture suggests otherwise. “Blessed are you who weep now” (Luke 6). “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5). Such texts invite us to consider how the experience of sadness may be good for us, and that such unpleasant feelings may actually become an unexpected pathway to blessedness or happiness. Indeed, the Greek term translated “blessed” in such passages (makarios) can also be translated as “happy”. So, even though it sounds paradoxical, it is right to say, “Happy are those who mourn.”
Sadness may arise from witnessing the suffering of others or, indeed, from our own troubles. When my children were young, we bought a new bicycle for our daughter, Jill. But her brother Philip did not have a bicycle that worked, and the sight of him trying to get an old, dilapidated bicycle that we had inherited to work, caused Jill to weep for her brother. She was inconsolable, unable to enjoy her new bicycle because Philip did not have one that worked. To redress this wrong, we immediately got into our car and drove to town and bought Philip a new bicycle of his own—and that purchase turned Jill’s sadness into joy.
Feelings of sadness may also arise from our sense of loss in life. We lose loved ones through death. We may also lose our jobs, our children when they grow up and leave home, our health, and ultimately our very lives. It is a sad day when we learn that we are mortal, that we will die! This repeated experience of loss can cast a dark pall over us so that we live with a perpetual sense of gloom.
The question is, How can we experience good rather than evil melancholy? How can it lead to hope and joy rather than despair? How can we be “blessed” or “happy,” even though we and others endure countless pains and sorrows? Bad or evil melancholy is surely melancholy without God, a deep sadness arising from the sense that life is tragic, that there is no gospel providing a basis and source for abiding joy, that there is no ultimate hope overcoming the despair arising from the countless burdens and heartaches of life. Good melancholy, on the other hand, leads to hope and joy.
The Christian answer to melancholy is ultimately eschatological (that is, having to do with the future). This means that the scriptural promises regarding the God who raised Jesus from the dead may engender positive expectations concerning the future. Present sadness can be offset by future joy. Melancholy is therefore a temporary response to a state of affairs that is not permanent or ultimate.
But how exactly can the present experience of melancholy be thought of positively? Melancholy is positive in that it bears witness to the unacceptable nature of the present state of affairs—much like our daughter Jill’s tears for her brother’s lack of a bicycle—and thereby also gives testimony to the way things ought to be. Melancholy holds onto the dream of a world in which there will be peace, health, immortality, moral goodness, unspeakable beauty, and union with God who is love.
1) Melancholy is a God-given faculty that bears witness to that which is good, to that which is perfect and eternal, to that which is far better than what now exists in this life. It tells of another reality, another world, a better world. It refuses to accept the way things are, or to accept this present world as ultimate. It bears witness to an eschatological world, the world of Jesus and the prophets, that is, to the kingdom or rule of God.
2) Melancholy is a hunger or appetite for the kingdom of God. It keeps us from being satisfied with anything less than God. It will not allow us to make peace with the status quo, with what is not the way the way it should be. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
3) Melancholy is a response to the countless imperfections of this life. Guardini says, “Melancholy longs for the absolutely perfect, for the unattainable, for profound and intimate values, for the untouchably exalted and noble and precious” (p.70). He also says that “Basically it is a yearning for love—love in all its forms . . . “ (p.69). “Melancholy may be described as the birth pangs of the eternal” in us (p.72).
Every human being experiences sadness to some degree. I often feel more prone to bouts of melancholy than most people—but it is often impossible to know what others are experiencing. The sayings of Jesus quoted above, together with the insightful comments of Romano Guardini, help me to think of this common experience in a more positive way. It shows that there is kind of perfection meter within us (hopefully enlightened by the Holy Spirit) that is constantly evaluating and critiquing what happens and is done in this world (including by me!), and that points to a better world to come, the kingdom of God.
The LORD “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” – Psalm 146:3
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” – Luke 6:21
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. Psalm 30:11
My father sharing a moment of joy with my sister, Lois,and me (late 1950s).