I was speaking with a friend the other day about my observations of some of the people that I work with, explaining that for some people, there is a melancholy in their recollections of the past and where they are today. My friend told me how much she loved that word, ‘melancholy’ and how distinctly different it is from the current usage of the word ‘depression.’
I spent some time researching the word melancholy, it’s initial source from Aristotle and the Greeks who believed it was an imbalance of bile in the system. The term ‘melaina kole’ literally translates to ‘black bile.’ At some point in time, the two words collapsed and in current psychology, they are synonymous with each other; melancholia being a current term for depression.
In a completely different conversation, another friend reminded me of the researcher Erik Erikson’s Stages of Development theory. The final stage, called “Integrity vs. Despair’ takes place in later adulthood around age 60 or older. Occurring when the individual experiences a sense of their own mortality (either through retirement, death of a spouse or other life changing social role), the individual begins to reminisce in a life-career review (often with a personal historian like myself.) This outcome can be either positive or negative resulting in an eventual acceptance of life, or a depression coming from the fear of death and a sense that life is too short and not enough was accomplished.
I think this reminiscence and life review is definitely part of the melancholy but what I experience with some of my clients is something very different from depression. It is a bittersweet mood coming out of the contemplation and reflection of a life we’ve loved and a past we continue to long for. It can be motivating in some ways, allowing the person to think about things they might want to ‘get back to again’ although that may no longer be possible. Perhaps the sadness comes from realizing that one can no longer accomplish those things physically even though our mind tells us we can.
Melancholy comes from memories of people, places or things we’ve done. It can involve degrees of sadness as well as pleasure. It encompasses reflection, longing, nostalgia; all shades of other emotions experienced during reminiscing. It is a ‘mature’ emotion, allowing us to look at both the dark and the light sides of our existence and the distinct pleasures and pains we’ve experienced.
Thomas Wolfe said it so elegantly in his quote:
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermude, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”