In college, I realized I live with a kind of melancholy. I realize "melancholy" is a hoity-toity word, but it fits. Of all the words to describe that feeling of darkness or lowliness or the weight of feeling down, melancholy fits best. In college, it was likely depression. I left home, and I was angry. I grew up in a conflicted and twice broken home. Also trained to be a 'man' growing up, I'd learn to suppress tears of hurt, anger, and grief. These emotions came to the surface in college as I tried to make sense of this rite of passage from family to independence. I could feel the waves of depression and underlying anger slowly erupt within me sometimes. A thinker and self-aware, it made me feel crazy. I could tell the world around me and within me were disconnected.
Later I read continental philosophy. I read Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers.
I was particularly drawn to 18th and 19th-century writers, especially atheists and existentialists. Through them, I gained a new perspective on melancholy. What comes with awakening to deep pain and separation is an unforgettable lesson: Life, at some level, doesn't and will not make sense. Horror accompanies beauty. Suffering accompanies love. This kind of knowledge and experience does not forgive.
Human existence is a broken place in comparison to the hopes of our hearts or purity possible in the life of the mind. We have bodies and bodies feel - often in extremes. We have wants. Human beings are capable of both great wisdom and reason, as well as tragic narcissism and violent irrationality. Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem illustrates it best. Evil comes dressed as an insurance salesman. Melancholy comes from knowing that. Being some kind of intellectual means living with the constant awareness that life and the world do not make sense. It's not necessarily depression, though it can be. Melancholy is the price to pay for being conscious and awake.
Theologians taught me this melancholy from human brokenness and existence is sin. It's not just the fruit of sin or my fault as a sin. It's just sin. Sin and life are inseparable. Sin comes with being God-conscious and awake.
Pop Christianity had taught sin in only a narrow and personal way. Teaching sin as a personal trait or only an act of will according to some rules is a form of social control. It's a means to an end. Theologically, it's narrow, counter to scripture, and crap. It influenced me anyway.
I remember growing up as an eight or nine-year old trying to get through a day with a clean conscience. I was trying not to sin - tell a small lie (like withhold parts of the whole truth), sneak something I wanted, or angle for something others couldn't have. I seemed always to fail. As a teen-ager experimenting with fasting or spiritual discipline, I felt like I sinned whenever I broke a fast or didn't fulfill a promise perfectly. The result was more guilt and a sense of failure more than anything else. But, all this wasn't without value.
Christian and Jewish theologians later taught me sin is something much more. Sin is a theological name or word for the experience of brokenness and separation. It is an experience within us and around us that comes from the unshakable limitations of human life.
Sin is woven into the fabric of human being. That's what the Genesis story of "the Fall" is all about. Genesis 3 is not just a story about individual transgressions and punishment. It is a myth of origins, a fancy word for a story that attempts to explain who we are and how things came to be. It does so as a story about our relationship with God, a Creator and those created. It's a story about intimacy and estrangement, the gift of shared life and an end to innocence. It's also a story about the fruit of this separation and end of innocence. While God promises pain, separation, and work, it's human beings who first choose to kill each other. Sin is the theological name for waking up to that fact of human existence - because it is a plainly observable fact of modern existence. Human beings individually and systemically harm and unjustly treat one another. Melancholy accompanies that awareness. It's being unable to forget it.
I live in a culture that tries to banish negativity and melancholy. I support that. But, there is an element of melancholy that is also completely logical, rational, and appropriate living between the light and dark of life. When I'm down or wandering in the dark from time-to-time, I can get caught up in the urge to escape. Sometimes, long stints in the dark and depression are unhealthy. But, there is also wisdom in abiding in the shadows. When I catch myself having unrealistic expectations about how life should feel (or how I want to feel all the time), I take solace in the Psalms. Reading the Psalms, I get a different picture of life with God. The psalms plunge me quickly into the highs and lows of human existence. It's a spiritual life between hope and despair, death and life. The psalmist faces their enemies and cries out for deliverance. The psalmist faces hardship, even exile, and wonders why God has abandoned them there. The psalmist sings the wonders of God and God's salvation. The psalmist remembers the foundations of life and our inseparability from God. The psalmist knows the promises of God and fragility of life when any sign of those promises is light-years away.
Read the psalms because the psalmist knows the melancholy and wonder of living between the light and (sometimes very) dark. The swings of light and dark are spiritual aspects of human life.
If you want an example, read just Psalm 22 and 23. Jesus cries out the first verse of Psalm 22 on the cross, "My God, why have you forsaken me." The rest of the psalm unfolds praises to God alongside the lamentations of human existence. It has the tone of bargaining - the kind of bargaining we do when hope is far off. "I am a worm...scorn...despised," the psalmist writes. "I am poured out like water...you lay me in the dust of death." What unfolds is a prayer of deliverance, "Lord, don't be far away!" This is life in the (sometimes very) dark. But, Psalm 23 comes immediately after with a light that makes dark visible. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." The idea of living in a human body with a broken heart that no longer wants - in a world of want - seems impossible. But, the psalm unfolds that vision in one of the most beautiful imagery of peace and fulfillment in scripture. God hosts a banquet in our honor. God guides us along the threatening way. God's presence heals the heart of fear of evil. The psalm concludes, "surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life," This is life in the light after knowing the dark of death, separation, and want. This a spiritual form of life. The world surrounds us with reminders of the dark. Unnecessary and unjust death, human brokenness, separation and bottomless want pound us through our screens. They break in to overwhelm us at moments in life. The melancholy that comes from it is not only natural; it rational and spiritual. But, it's just one side of life. The light shines in the darkness like hope haunts despair. The psalmist knows this.
Melancholy holds its memory of God and the promise of a new way and new day.