Melancholia & thisness: where does joy abide?

Somewhere I have read that joy does not depend upon happiness.

And somehow I have come to understand that salvation is first of all about this life, not the next.

Joy and salvation are intertwined in how one receives this finite, fallible, mortal existence. How one goes about each moment and each day. How one forgives the hurts and errors of each moment—one’s own and those of one’s fellows—and proceeds to the next moment with all the possibilities of life restored.

This may sound like the same old religious pie-in-the-sky we’ve all heard about and scoffed at and yearned for. Nevertheless, I am coming to know it as a pragmatic, down-to-earth, “survival faith and practice.”

Melancholia: I introduced the notion of melancholic temperament in “On waiting and squirming” last August. It also became a regular theme on my other blog, Walhydra’s Porch, from November, when I began anti-depressants and short-term therapy, through February, when I realized I was getting back to a “functional normal.”

It has taken me fifty-some years to accept that temperament is just temperament. One can easily enough focus solely on “bad temperament,” the collection of unhappy personality traits which one tolerates or suffers and longs to be rid of. However, temperament is really a complex, organic whole, to be known and valued and cared for, like the “inner child” that it is.

Even so, as much as I may have matured, there is still nothing pleasant about the tormented side of melancholia. Hence, it always helps me to get someone else’s perspective on the matter.

I am currently rereading Kim Stanley Robinson‘s brilliant 1990s science fiction trilogy about colonizing and terraforming Mars: Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Half way through the Red Mars account of the colony’s first decades, Robinson introduces a long chapter called “Homesick,” narrated from the perspective of Michel Duval, the lone psychiatrist among the First Hundred (as the colonists are called).

To his profound dismay, Michel is also the lone colonist who hasn’t adapted to the cold, alien planet. All he longs for is to return to the warm Mediterranean climate of his home in Provence.

Wandering through each day in despair, he has to turn on what he calls “the shrink program in his head” in order to do his job.

The bleak plain surrounding the base was a vision out of some post-holocaust desolation, a nightmare world; nevertheless he didn’t want to go back into their little warren of artificial light and heated air and carefully deployed colors, colors that he had chosen for the most part, utilizing the very latest in color-mood theory, a theory which he now understood to be based on certain root assumptions that did not in fact apply here. The colors were all wrong, or worse, irrelevant. Wallpaper in hell. (215)

To keep himself focused, Michel concentrates on developing a system of personality classification by which he can analyze his colleagues. In particular, he challenges himself to integrate two separate descriptive dimensions: the lability-stability index and the extroversion-introversion distinction (see Note).

As his schematic becomes more sophisticated, Michel realizes that he can overlay it with the ancient system of the humors…and that is when he recognizes himself to be a classic melancholic, “withdrawn, out of control of his feelings, inclined to depression” (222), one of only five in the whole colony.

Even in recovery from depression, as I now believe myself to be, I resonate with Michel’s predicament. Here is a sensitive, private person with volatile emotions, who strives to counterbalance these traits by staying wholly in the rational shell of himself. Cut off from the glowing, sensual life of remembered past, he feels as dead as the planet to which his own choices have exiled him.

Any of us, regardless of temperament, can find ourselves trapped in despair like Michel’s, in response to the irreversible changes and losses of life.

The human animal has a special capacity for stepping back from its own experience to observe, analyze, theorize about, and even try to relabel and redirect that experience. The brain, having constructed consciousness, can imagine elaborately abstract perceptual-conceptual “realities” from within which consciousness can operate.

One such category of realities is that of “being wholly rational.” When one has too much of sensory pain or of emotional pain, one can learn to “detach” oneself, observe the pain and its causes and effects “objectively,” and proceed with life in a “functionally normal” way.

Many religions, philosophies and psychologies seem to advocate this sort of detachment, and many of us in our spiritual questing strive to acquire it. In the true heart of such paths, though, beats the knowledge that such detachment is not only illusory but dangerous.

Michel, in his struggle to escape grief, becomes detached from life. He roams Mars with no appreciation for it, an amnesiac who turns on his “Michel Duval program” when he must interact with others, his consciousness repeatedly fleeing to an insubstantial Provence-of-the-mind.

In “Walhyra’s year of becoming mortal,” I wrote of my own dark flight from grief over friends dying of cancer and parents declining into Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s:

This is not just temperament, or circumstance. This is Walhydra’s own personal version of what every human being faces: death and the certainty of death.

It’s enough to make one want to be beyond feeling.

And that, Walhydra now realizes, is what she has actually been working on in her haphazard morning rituals over the past year: trying to be “beyond feeling.”

She hasn’t been denying causes of grief or fear, yet she’s been trying to avoid the slippery slope of melancholia. In the process, her brain has done what that organ knows how to do: suppress its own chemistry until Walhydra was deep in depression.

Kami and veriditas: So what is there instead? What is the difference between this faux detachment and the loving, compassionate non-attachment at the heart of real spiritual wholeness?

Hiroko, the leader of the Martian bioengineering and ecological systems team, takes a very different approach to the planet’s alienness than does Michel. During the early years on Mars, she and her fellows work and live away from the others in the greenhouses—almost a colony unto themselves.

In his blackest moment, Michel is suddenly invited into this group on a night when they sit in a naked circle in the soil among their plants, together with their nine or so toddlers—the first Mars-born children Michel has seen, the first he even knows of.

As Hiroko leads a chanting ritual, a woman named Evgenia explains for Michel:

They were celebrating the areophany, a ceremony they had created together under Hiroko’s guidance and inspiration. It was a kind of landscape religion, a consciousness of Mars as a physical space suffused with kami, which was the spiritual energy or power that rested in the land itself. Kami was manifested most obviously in certain extraordinary objects in the landscape—stone pillars, isolated ejecta, sheer cliffs, oddly smoothed crater interiors, the broad circular peaks of the great volcanoes.

These intensified expressions of Mars’s kami had a Terran analogue within the colonists themselves, the power that Hiroko called viriditas, that greening fructiparous power within, which knows that the wild world itself is holy. Kami, viriditas; it was the combination of these sacred powers that would allow humans to exist here in a meaningful way.

When Michel heard Evgenia whisper the word “combination,” all the terms immediately fell into a semantic rectangle [see Note ]: kami and viriditas, Mars and Earth, hatred and love, absence and yearning….

His jaw was slack, his skin was burning, he could not explain it and did not want to. His blood was fire in his veins. (228-29)

Michel joins the others as they each eat a fistful of Martian dirt which Hiroko has given them with the words, “This is our body.”

They all rise, chanting, and press together in a formless dance. Then Hiroko kisses Michel and says,

“This is your initiation into the areophany, the celebration of the body of Mars. Welcome to it. We worship this world. We intend to make a place for ourselves here, a place that is beautiful in a new Martian way, a way never seen on Earth. We have built a hidden refuge in the south, and now we are leaving for it.

“We know you, we love you. We know we can use your help. We know you can use our help. We want to build just what you are yearning for, just what you have been missing here. But all in new forms. For we can never go back. We must go forward. We must find our own way. We start tonight. We want you to come with us.”

And Michel said, “I’ll come.” (230)

This alternative to despair, opening to the holiness of the world, appeals to what on Walhydra’s Porch I call my “Pagan sensibility.”

I had an inchoate version of this awareness as a child. All children have it—unless or until it is trained out of them. When I left seminary and came out as a faggot in the early 1970s, I began to come awake to Pagan sensibility again.

I do not believe that the faith and practice of Jesus himself exclude this celebration of kami and viriditas. After all, he spent his whole life healing and sharing meals and bringing people back to full earthly life.

Nor do I believe that today’s Christians—or folk of any other religion of the heart—need fear or scorn the sensual and even erotic nature of mortal existence. It is not in relishing life but in trying at all costs to dodge death that we cause harm.

Somehow, Western Christianity was not sufficiently able to affirm, as did Eastern Christianity, the integrity of material and spiritual Creation which the latter knew from its Jewish roots. Yet Jesus knew that integrity intimately. It is to this incarnated knowing and doing that he calls people.

The division of flesh from spirit and the condemnation of the former as sinful are conceptual errors made by many cultures in many ages. There is great irony in this.

The animal naturally wants to avoid suffering. Its human consciousness is sometimes able to do so, since it is able, correctly or incorrectly, to infer causes and effects, and to plan and act in ways which may prevent or at least forestall suffering.

Yet human consciousness also knows of its own animal mortality, and it identifies that, too, as suffering. Worse, consciousness often blames its own animal nature for all that it suffers. This, at least, has been the Western response to the so-called “problem of suffering.”

The Christian West, in effect, forgot that Job suffered despite his righteousness, and that Jesus said, “God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45; emphases added).

Instead, the dominant tradition in the West has been that suffering and mortality are punishments for the innate moral failing of the whole human race, rather than simply circumstances of existence.

In his moment of “fire in the blood” with Hiroko’s clan, however, Michel Duval is jolted back into the integrity of flesh and spirit. From then on, he is able to stay in the present, rather than longing hopelessly for his past. He does not become a different person. He becomes who he is, increasingly able to engage in each moment without fending off or clinging to passing sorrows or joys.

Thisness: Still, simply allowing oneself to be alive in the matrix of flesh and spirit may not be sufficient. One still suffers. One still experiences loves and pleasures which one then loses. One still knows that self and loved ones will die—and witnesses the catastrophic suffering and losses of others.

As contrasted with the reaction of detachment, which may avoid knowing and feeling, compassionate non-attachment begins with a peculiar attitude of attentiveness to events and feelings.

During a key moment in Red Mars, John Boone and Maya Toitovna are relaxing in a sauna. John looks at his lover’s body, “as real as a rock,” and feels a glow. The tiles themselves throb “as if lit from within; light gleam[s] on every water droplet…, like tiny chips of lightning scattered everywhere…” (292).

John realizes that this moment must be the sort of experience described by Sax Russell, the First Hundred’s consummate exploratory scientist, one who is at once phlegmatic yet passionate about discovery.

The intense thereness of it—”haecceity,” Sax had called it once, when John had asked him something about his religious beliefs—I believe in haecceity, Sax had said, in thisness, in here-and-nowness, in the particular individuality of every moment. That’s why I want to know what is this? what is this? what is this?

Now, remembering Sax’s odd word and his odd religion, John finally understood him; because he was feeling the thisness of the moment like a rock in his hand, and it felt as if his entire life had been lived only to get him to his moment. (292-93)

Sax Russell is by no means a morally neutral person. He is the prime advocate and mover of the effort to terraform Mars, and he also intervenes repeatedly to disable the weaponry of earth’s authoritarian, exploitive colonialism.

More importantly, throughout the trilogy Sax pursues a quest to reach the heart of Ann Clayborne, the fellow First Hundred member who is terraforming’s absolute opponent. Sax attempts this, not because she opposes him, but because he wants to heal the profound pain he recognizes within her.

Sax’s Thisness is, nevertheless, not about moral judgment. Thisness is simply about observing what is, in all its painful and beautiful intricacy and transience.

Thisness reminds me somewhat of Buddhist mindfulness, that non-judging attentiveness to the flow of events, sensations, emotions and thoughts, which notices how the mind and body respond to experience, yet which does not assign positive or negative value to each moment.

Such mindfulness enables one to act—or to pause from acting—with compassion for oneself and all beings. One experiences suffering and pleasure, including the suffering or pleasure of others, without immediately reacting to avoid the former or hang onto the latter.

One can live in the moment and allow it to die, and one acts to enable the same for others.

Joy: But all the above discussion sounds theoretical, like trying to digest a shelf full of self-help books into their underlying themes. I believe what I have written—or at least believe it to be plausible—but it’s only ideas, not action.

I began this post by describing the visceral challenge of a melancholic temperament, that inner child which I must nurture, even when I do not feel fire in the blood, or when my distress or desire overwhelms my ability to practice mindfulness.

Now, as I move through my days, I find I am helped concretely by a new habit of response to whatever the moment brings.

In my late thirties, my partner Jim, our mutual friend Randy and I were attending a gay and lesbian church with an improbable mixture of Lutheran, Baptist and Pentecostal members.

Given my own odd combination of staid Lutheranism and passionate Paganism, it amused me during those services to find my hand lifting as if on its own when I felt an excess of joy—as if there were too much energy to hold and I needed to give some of it back to God/dess.

That sort of experience would happen not only in worship, but also on woody hikes, or while reading something poignant or hearing a powerful song lyric, or after a successful session with one of my counseling clients—or just whenever.

In my late fifties, the new twist is this.

During those earlier years, the gesture of thanks came in response to joy. Presently, whether I become aware of a blessing or become aware that I have trapped myself in anxiety or despair, I am led to stop, settle into the moment, and allow a wave of thanks to rise through me.

Joy follows thanks.

Thanks for what? Thanks to whom?

Thanks for being brought back to awareness of the moment, painful or beautiful or both. Thanks to the wholeness of which my transitory “self” is a part.

As I confessed in my “Am I a nontheist…?” series, it is easiest for me to use my “native religious language” to describe such experiences. In this case, it is as if I am giving thanks to the Divine One, the One the Sufis call the Beloved and the Friend.

Yet “for what” or “to whom” doesn’t really matter, since I suspect the inner dynamic is the same, regardless of one’s faith and practice.

In pain or in beauty, thanks.

Then joy.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be.

Note: Robinson’s character, Michel Duval, develops his schematic of the four temperaments in a series of steps, beginning with the lability-stability index:

He had recently begun to consider Wenger’s index of autonomic balance….

The sympathetic branch [of the autonomic nervous system] responds to outside stimuli and alerts the organism to action, so that individuals dominated by this branch were excitable [i.e., labile]; the parasympathetic branch, on the other hand, habituates the alerted organism to the stimulus, and restores it to homeostatic balance, so that individuals dominated by this branch were placid [i.e., stabile]. (216-17)

He adds to this the extroversion-introversion distinction:

Not as a simple duality of course;…one placed [people] on a scale, rating them for such qualities as sociability, impulsiveness, changeability, talkativeness, outgoingness, activity, liveliness, excitability, optimism, and so on….

In fact physiological investigations had revealed that extroversion was linked with resting states of low cortical arousal, introversion with high cortical arousal….

[The] cortex inhibits the lower centers of the brain, so that low cortical arousal allows the more uninhibited behavior of the extrovert, while high cortical arousal is inhibitory and leads to introversion. (216)

Michel finds that simple x and y axes grids doesn’t work to map these two dimensions, so he tries a Greimas semantic rectangle

This was] a structuralist schema with alchemical ancestry, which proposed that no simple dialectic was enough to indicate the true complexity of any cluster of related concepts, so that it was necessary to acknowledge the real difference between something’s opposite and its contrary; the concept “not-X” being not quite the same thing as “anti-X,” as one saw immediately. So the first stage was usually indicated by using the four terms S, -S, S¯, and -S¯, in a simple rectangle…. (217)

The next step is to add an outer rectangle for combinations of relationships (218):

Finally, Michel adds extrovert-introvert and stabile-labile to the four inner corners. It is as he seeks labels for the combinations that he realizes the names of the four temperaments will fit.

For it made perfect sense: there were extroverts who were excitable [choleric], and extroverts who were on an even keel [sanguine]; there were introverts who were quite emotional [melancholic], and those who were not [phlegmatic]. (219)

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