|Sunday, October 4,1998
Sunday Plus: Page 4
Letter from melancholic anonymous
The writer blames her lack of passion for life on her temperament. But blame this columnist too
'We are all, as Bryon put it, differently organised. We each move within the restraints of our temperament and live up only partially to its possibilities.'
IT WASN'T a sweet week last week. I spent a couple of sleepless nights wallowing in a small misery -- someone didn't return my anxious calls.
But this Friday morning, after a good night's sleep, I have rallied, and I remember the sweet letter a reader sent me after my last column.
In it, I expounded on temperament -- presumptuous really but I'm a newspaper columnist, not a pious academic -- and in an aside, mentioned that I belonged among those who were given to melancholy.
The letter writer, who left only her first name and no forwarding address, said it was always good to read about the life of "a fellow melancholic". She quoted Susan Sontag, the American writer:
" ...it is melancholics who best know how to read the world. Or rather, it is the world which yields itself to the melancholic's scrutiny, as it does to no-one else's."
That is a consolation.
The letter writer went on to say: "Sometimes, reading your column is like taking a glimpse into my future life. I can imagine a similar solitary existence -- barricaded by books, looking for salvation in the words of writers long gone, always living life as a spectator...
"I am already 27 and only 27. I am so detached and indifferent to life it scares me sometimes. I just so lack a passion for life it's maddening!
"Yes, I'm passionate about my books and maybe I'm passionate about my pain (gosh! that sounds so self-indulgent!). Guess I can always blame it on my Saturnine temperament!"
She can blame me too, for being an unhealthy influence.
In a personal column such as this one is meant to be, a journalist does disclose a fair bit of himself, whether he intends to or not.
On the other hand, he can also dramatise whatever he chooses to disclose, to project a self he wishes others to see, and more importantly, to engage his reader. And I must say I am guilty on both counts.
A lot of what I peddle here is what I have drawn from literature. It is, as V. S. Naipaul puts it, "life answering literature, literature clearing up the world". So it isn't always the real thing.
I am no solitary -- there are friends both in the office and from my misspent (dramatisation!) youth -- but like the poet Philip Larkin, who is best known for his line, "Sex began in the 1960s", I see life "more as an affair of solitude diversified by company than an affair of company diversified by solitude".
It is selfish, but my friends indulge me.
Books are not life though, and if I may offer this unsolicited advice to my correspondent: at 27, you should get out there, meet people, have fun, and read only when you get home.
My correspondent ended her letter by paying me a compliment which I certainly don't deserve. She said: "You seem to feel rather acutely, don't you?"
In the past several years, until the present crisis and the surreal events which are still unfolding around us, I had often felt "comfortably numb", to borrow the title of a Pink Floyd song, as opposed to "acutely". MELANCHOLY as a temperament was identified some 1,800 years ago by the Greek physician Galen, who blamed it on bile.
I'm going to expound again, so here goes:
Evolutionary scientists have found that melancholy is an aspect of a lifelong emotional disposition that is deeply rooted in the genes, which they call "harm avoidance".
Harm avoidance is a blanket trait that includes anxiety, fear, inhibition, shyness, depression, tiredness and hostility.
It is a trait which many people share, although to varying degrees. But why has natural selection not eliminated all sad people, so that sadness is no longer passed down? Of what use is sadness and anxiety to human evolution?
Well, evolutionary psychologists believe that mild anxiety and depression are useful under many circumstances. A fretful baby, for example, is more likely to attract the attention of its mother than a calm, quiet baby. A study in Africa showed that during a famine, infants with a "difficult" disposition fared better than those with an "easy" temperament.
A sense of disappointment and sadness when goals are not met -- or phone calls not returned, for instance, sob! -- allows one to pause, think things through, and work out a better plan, instead of merrily continuing with a course of action that does not work.
A more recent finding shows that the gene variation which is linked to a predisposition for mild anxiety and mild depression is also associated with increased sexual drive. Which explains why one of the frequent side-effects of an antidepressant like Prozac is to lower sexual drive.
"Depressed or not, happy or sad, the gene doesn't care about how you feel. Its sole concern is to be passed on to the next generation.
"The only way to be passed on is through sexual relations, so guess what? A gene that makes you anxious and sexually active is more likely to survive than a gene that doesn't."
This is from Living With Our Genes (1998) by Dr Dean Hamer, who discovered specific genes linked to behavioural traits such as anxiety, thrill-seeking and homosexuality.
So all you natural-born brooders out there, be grateful that your temperament has intrinsic survival value. And if you have a high sexual drive, you are more than adequately compensated. Pass down the genes!
Don't be passionate about your pain. Be passionate about others'.
Of course, you must guard against allowing your dark moods to overwhelm you. In some people, they do. But be cheered that these crippling moods can be managed by medication.
A new generation of drugs like Prozac and lithium have helped millions of people.
Dr Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist who is an international authority on manic-depressive illness, but who has to take lithium for the rest of her life because she suffers from the illness herself, has written a moving testimony of her 30-year struggle with it, called An Unquiet Mind (Knopf, 1995).
"We all build internal sea walls to keep at bay the sadnesses of life...
"One of the most difficult problems is to construct these barriers of such a height and strength that one has a true harbour, a sanctuary away from crippling turmoil and pain, but yet low enough, and permeable enough, to let in fresh seawater that will fend off the inevitable inclination towards brackishness.
"For someone with my cast of mind and mood, medication is an integral element of this wall: Without it, I would be constantly beholden to the crushing movements of a mental sea.
"But love is, to me, the ultimately more extraordinary part of the breakwater wall: it helps to shut out the terror and awfulness, while, at the same time, allowing in life and beauty and vitality."
04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous