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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Kenny’

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.

Prince Hamlet

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?

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Alcohol consumption has fallen again – the figures for 2009 are just out. It’s part of a long term trend: we Brits consume 13% less than we did in 2004.

This prompts Mary Kenny to reflect on her own unhappy experiences with drink (now twenty years in the past), and to wonder why anti-drinking campaigns prefer to stress the dangers of alcohol rather than the joys of sobriety.

Many of the campaigns against alcohol focus on the damage that it can do – that it harms your liver, can be a factor in throat and bladder cancers, and wrecks your personal and professional life. All this is true, but it’s emphasising the negative: what about stressing the joy of sobriety?

I once thought that life couldn’t be fully experienced without alcohol: but the truth is the opposite – life can be more fully experienced without alcohol. Drunkenness deadens experience: it renders delight oblivious and pleasure dull. Although I get anguished flashbacks from my drinking years, I have also forgotten huge tranches of my life. Regrets are pointless, but it is sad that I lost so much of the prime of my life in that haze of alcoholic amnesia.

And then, sobriety turned out to be the true champagne – bringing everything into focus in clear colour and full recall. One of the strangest things that happened to me after I started getting sober was that I had this intense sensation of colour all around me. The colours of life became so heightened.

We seem to be so nagged at and scolded about so many health and safety issues that I am not sure if gloomy warnings about the health dangers of alcohol are all that effective. Two things clearly help: increase the price of dirt-cheap supermarket alcohol, and emphasise the pleasures of sobriety.

Justin Webb wrote recently about an experience he had in America – which appalled him – when he went to a smart Washington party, only to find that the “punch” being served was cherryade. I thought, “Bravo for the hosts”. American culture, for all its faults, does not have this general idea that you have to be plastered to have fun. Honestly – you can have a great time on cherryade. Well, preferably, elderflower spritzer.

Searching for a birthday card, recently, for a young relation who was turning 21, I was hard put to find any greetings card aimed at young men which didn’t emphasise the glory of getting pissed. But getting pissed isn’t glorious: it’s shaming. It is life, fully savoured, fully aware, that is the glorious intoxicant.

There is a more general question here. Why is it that we often want to scare people away from what is harmful rather than attracting them to what is good?

PS – I’m not against alcohol! In moderation…

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