I came across another thoughtful article by Mary Kenny, this time about how we have lost touch with the importance of feeling sad, and our sensitivity to the different shades of sadness that can come upon us has been dulled.
Depression, thank goodness, is much better understood than it used to be. And we are much more likely than we used to be to express our feelings to others. But our emotional vocabulary has become diminished.
Take the word, “trauma,” which is now frequently and commonly invoked in conversation today. A person who has suffered a bereavement is said to be “in trauma”.
“Trauma” comes from the Greek word for a “wound”, and in a medical sense, it is what happens to the body when a wound delivers a shock.
But bereavement, of which I have much sorrowful experience is, alas, part of the natural course of life’s sad events.
As Shakespeare observes, with Hamlet, his father lost a father, and that father lost a father before him, and so on, ad infinitum, through the hinterland of human history.
Grief is desperately upsetting: it hurts you for ages, and the loss of someone you love is emotionally painful, and can be enduringly so. But why not call it by its proper name: bereavement: grief: loss?
One reason, thinks Mary Kenny, is that we are losing touch with the social rituals that have allowed us to express these feelings.
When I was a young woman in France in the 1960s, you would come across a shop with its blinds drawn, and a notice saying: “Ferme pour deuil”: closed for mourning.It is still seen in France, and is also a usual response in Italy. Mourning symbols were widespread in all cultures – widows’ weeds, black armbands – and the community was expected to respect those who mourn.
Outward signs of mourning have declined, if not been abolished in more secular societies now: but our sense of sadness and loss endure, and instead of this being called mourning, it is called “trauma”.
And she thinks it would help us if we could recapture some of the wider, non-medical vocabulary for the emotional difficulties we face in the ordinary course of human experience.
Depression may also be melancholy: it may be discouragement, disappointment, abandonment, sadness, sorrow, mourning, rejection, regret, anxiety, grief, obsession, introspection, loss, separation, loneliness, isolation, alienation, guilt, loss of hope, temperamental woe and simple, pure, unhappiness.
It can be forms of low mood now out of date. The Edwardians were very keen on a condition known as “neurasthenia”; Virginia Woolf was diagnosed with it.
It was also known as “nervous debility”, or, in its milder form, being hyper-sensitive and thin-skinned.
“Anomie” was another condition once favoured in the 19th Century by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and from a sociologist, a sociological condition. Anomie was defined as an isolated mood caused by the breakdown of social norms, sense of purpose and rules of conduct.There was also a spiritual form of depression called “accidie” much brooded on by some of the saints – this was “dryness of the soul”. The writer Malcolm Muggeridge also complained of suffering from it at times.
There are even, I think, some romantic-sounding forms of melancholy: the German idea of weltschmerz – a yearning sense of “world-sorrow” and unfocused sadness for humanity: or the French nostalgie du passé, that bittersweet Proustian condition of longing for the past, with a rueful sense of regret for missed chances and lost opportunities.
I also rather like mal du pays – the exile’s yearning for the country of childhood, and it comes to me in flashes, both in the spring and autumn, when I think of Irish country lanes, and the smell of fields of mown hay. Ah, bonjour tristesse!
No doubt we are better off for shedding much of the stigma surrounding mental illness – but with it, have we lost some of the variety, the dark poetry of the human condition?