Ramble on sadness and hope

A melancholy villager in Northern Thailand

Life is a very sad affair when you think about it. Even the most indelible optimist would admit life’s dark side: Time goes on and on, making you age, and never waits.  Longings are never truly fulfilled even in the best of times, and when good times pass, you can only grasp at the fleeting memory. Heartbreak and hard-knocks, disappointment and death punctuate our lives. Death is inevitable, and so is being forgotten by this world.

Is it a surprise that depression is a widespread human problem? Everyone is sad at least sometimes. But the ancients recognized various personality types, that some were more prone to it than others. The Greeks called the person “Melancholic” who happens to be bent toward sadness — maybe because they weary themselves on thinking too much about life and are driven crazy. I take Michael de Montaigne tongue-in-cheek when he writes “Plato calls meloncholics more teachable and excellent; at the same time there are none who have as great a propensity to madness.”* But if sadness is a reality of life, there’s no harm thinking about it. Maybe going insane over it highlights the problem better.

It’s unfortunate that we ignore melancholic people so often. At least, I do. I regret this especially with one person I knew in college. He considered his overall college experience to be a negative one. He told me about midway through our relationship that he tends to be “emo” (in temperament, not fashion). At the time, I valued that he would say this to me. Pity I never followed up on it. In the busyness of school we didn’t spend even an hour hanging out before we graduated. I didn’t stop by and say goodbye like I said I would, before he got on a plane back to the Midwest. I’ve lost track of him now and was “defriended” on facebook some months later.  I don’t blame him. I wasn’t a very good friend. Fleeting good intentions don’t mean much unless acted out. It makes me sick to think how careless I was.

Why is it so easy to brush others aside and forget them? My friend was so quiet, I hardly noticed him. We’re attracted to vivacious people maybe. Depressed people are a drain. What’s worse, you sometimes really can’t get them out of it. They’re inconsolable, like Eeore in Winnie the Pooh. Perhaps they like to be sad? Sometimes sadness is a relief to me too. But really, I can’t imagine people wanting to be sad all the time. Maybe they find some comfort in depression? I should stop, I’m no psychologist.  But I am a friend to others. That means sticking with them, even if they are inconsolable. Helping an inconsolable person is quite a trick. One idea I’ve mused on is from King David’s Psalm 42, a Lament Psalm for the spiritually depressed:

“Why are you in despair, O my soul? Why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet again praise him.” (Psalm 42.5 NASB).

The Psalmist recognized something that everyone needs in order to survive through the dark: hope.  Maybe  hope should be the focus more than consolation. Sometimes, life is a bear; so saying “It’s not that bad” doesn’t help. Tim Keller says “Human beings are hope-shaped creatures. How you live today is completely shaped by what you believe about your future.” There is some undying spark of hope within those who press on in hardship that prevents them from doing something to stop their heartbeat. Some hope for better times in the future. But though there are no guarantees on life getting better, are there? This is what we might call “wishing” hope. You don’t know, but it might get better, and the possibility is keeping you up. But how do you know it won’t get worse? And chances are we will get old and decrepit eventually, unless we die young, which is kind of hopeless in itself. This is why the Psalmist hopes in God. It’s hope in someone who is eternal and doesn’t fade.

I haven’t found yet how to hold a “this-world, this-life only” kind of hope and live a consistent, meaningful life. Transcendent or other-worldly hope, of heaven, or paradise or whatever you call it, is needed to make a “this-world, this-life” hope make sense in the first place. If the object of hope is indestructible, so can you hope be.


*Apology for Raymond Sebond by Michael de Montaigne, p 53


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