In the 2nd century, a Greek physician named Galen described four temperaments – melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric. These temperaments were based on what were thought to be the four humors or bodily fluids.
Essentially, he thought our patterns of thinking can be connected with conditions within our physical bodies. That science today might be described today as “iffy.” but the four temperaments still have value as basic descriptions of how different people process emotions and new information.
It doesn’t take long at all to recognize a melancholic. The Greek word melankholia is a combination of melas, meaning black, and khole, meaning bile. A melancholy person has a darkness in them, which is why melancholy is associated with sadness or depression. I don’t think melancholics necessarily must be sad, but I can see how the connection is made, because it’s certainly true that melancholics are sensitive, introverted, empathetic, and predisposed to quiet introspection.
Like all the temperaments, melancholy is neither good nor bad, neither a blessing nor a curse. Every temperament has its own strengths and weaknesses. It’s all in how we handle it.
I was recently reading an essay by the Catholic author Romano Guardini called “The Meaning of Melancholy.” The essay is found in his book The Human Experience, published by Cluny Media.
The book was recommended by a friend who is aware of my own deep melancholy. She thought it would help me to understand myself better. She was right. I found the essay so helpful that I want to share it with all you melancholics (and with all you who care about melancholics and want to understand our strange ways).
Guardini begins his essay in magnificent fashion, writing, “Melancholy is too painful …” Now you can see why I was hooked from the start. Here is a man who understands. He goes on to make an important distinction, that he’s unpacking the meaning of melancholy not as a psychiatrist but rather as a spiritual writer. In other words, he isn’t talking about clinical depression or sadness caused by trauma. He’s discussing a temperament and how it reflects an aspect of God’s nature in and through his creatures. Like all God’s gifts, melancholy can be accepted by us a positive good, or twisted to ill.
The problem of melancholy
As Guardini mentions, it can feel painful, like a heaviness of spirit. “It rests like a weight,” he says, and makes a person feel as though he, “no longer can master his life.” Melancholics feel exposed and vulnerable because navigating a meaningful life seems so complicated. Guardini writes, “the person seeks something, seeks it everywhere and passionately – something that he cannot find.”
As a card-carrying melancholic, I can attest to the above. Melancholy paralyzed me when I was a younger man. I read book after book of philosophy late into the night, trying to figure out my vocation, how to know God, how love God, how to love myself. I was confident that life is a wonderful and mysterious doorway into the sacred. I saw the beauty of existence. At times I even participated in it. But the fullness of it was always just around the next corner, out of reach, veiled. The frustration of that, the vague realization that God is in this world but does not make a permanent home here, caused despair. It was a painful period in my life.
That’s where the story could have ended, but then something strange happened – I struggled my way toward the Catholic Church where, after my conversion, my melancholy deepened and became a source of strength.
The strength of melancholy
Guardini is helpful in helping me understand exactly what happened. He leaves behind the frustration of melancholy and in the second half of his essay focuses on its positive meaning. The frustration of experiencing the beauty of life only to have it slip from your grasp, he says, “is the impulse for something spiritual.” Melancholy causes a renunciation of self and creates a willingness for the old to be left behind so something more noble may arise.
Dissatisfaction with myself transformed into motivation to keep seeking beauty, strengthen my prayer life, and rest in the presence of God at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Pain at the transience of life is still with me, but now it directs me toward a higher reality, daily reminding me to seek Heaven first and earth second. I used to find myself particularly affected by a desire to experience beauty, but always upset that life can be so ugly. I’ve come to learn, though, to deepen my glance at the world, to look again. It isn’t as ugly as we might suppose. Even suffering creates new rooms in the heart, new places for us to exist.
Melancholy can be experienced as a strong desire to form a meaningful bond of love. What I’ve realized is that, when I feel as if I am not loved, the first thing to do is give love away. After all, what I desire so strongly must also be desired by others. Melancholy makes me sensitive to the need. Knowing this, it only seems right that I strive to be part of the solution. Love always returns, in some way, to the giver.
A sign of what’s beyond the door
Above all, Guardini says that melancholy is a sign that God exists. We cannot chase the desire for the infinite out of our hearts. It’s a birth pang of the life beyond this one. That’s the struggle of melancholy, but also its strength. This tension is where life yields its utmost, its beauty, creativity, and passion.
Melancholy feels like being near a person you love very much, always in each other’s presence, and then that person gets up and leaves. Your living room is empty, the seat where your friend had been is vacant. The feeling is real. It isn’t abstract, this sense that we are side by side with God but we inhabit two different rooms. There’s a threshold between us.
Perhaps, at best, we hear his footfall as he comes up to the closed door, feel his gaze through the wood. The door cannot yet be opened. I’ve resolved to keep my ear pressed up against the door and wait, even if it hurts. Push on the door, jiggle the handle, look for a key, whatever. Just don’t stop trying, because the Christian hope is that some day, when we’re ready, the door will be thrown wide open.