I usually post “a quotable” blog at the beginning of each week. It’s inspiring to start the week with a reflection on—
well, life and difficult concepts.
The past week, however, has been rough. As I prepare for my move overseas, I feel stuck– literally and physically stuck– for the first time. This is supposed to be my last summer in the U.S.; I’ve been here for a decade. My visa expires in July, and off to Istanbul, I fly! Except that I’m not sure if I can?
At the moment, flights are canceled. The Turkish government-approved emergency flights are offered to Turkish citizens in certain states, and the option to fly with pets has been suspended. So, like many of you, I’ve been wallowing in uncertainty, but particularly this morning the idea of doing anything sounded tedious and mentally exhausting.
Then, as I was browsing online, I came across a letter that Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) wrote to his brother Theo in 1880.
Now, Van Gogh does not necessarily stand out as a jovial, optimistic figure. However, his letter, which discussed how he coped with anxiety and despair reveals the overlooked, hopeful side of Van Gogh.
In his letter to Theo, Van Gogh explored the conflict between himself and his father, as well as his battle with depression and anxiety:
“I, for one, am a man of passions, capable of and liable to do rather foolish things for which I sometimes feel rather sorry. I do often find myself speaking or acting somewhat too quickly when it would be better to wait more patiently. I think that other people may also sometimes do similar foolish things.
Now that being so, what’s to be done, must one consider oneself a dangerous man, incapable of anything at all? I don’t think so. But it’s a matter of trying by every means to turn even these passions to good account.
For example, to name one passion among others, I have a more or less irresistible passion for books, and I have a need continually to educate myself, to study, if you like, precisely as I need to eat my bread. You’ll be able to understand that yourself. When I was in different surroundings, in surroundings of paintings and works of art, you well know that I then took a violent passion for those surroundings that went as far as enthusiasm. And I don’t repent it, and now, far from the country again, I often feel homesick for the country of paintings.”
Van Gogh had left his family home due to familial tension and had been spending the summer in Cuesmes, Belgium.
He continued to combat clinical depression and anxiety until it claimed his life in 1890 at the age of 37. However, as his letters compiled in Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh and in My Life & Love Are One demonstrate, he often sought magic in the state of melancholy.
As he wrote in the same letter:
“So instead of succumbing to homesickness, I said to myself, one’s country or native land is everywhere. So instead of giving way to despair, I took the way of active melancholy as long as I had strength for activity, or in other words, I preferred the melancholy that hopes and aspires and searches to the one that despairs, mournful and stagnant.”
Van Gogh, Piles of French Novels 1887; Vase with Chinese Asters and Gladioli 1886; Giant Peacock Moth 1889; Olive Trees on a Hillside 1889; Irises 1890. Courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
The notion of a type of melancholy that hopes, strives, and seeks as opposed to the kind that surrenders is a powerful one. It connotes positive acceptance; sadness, despair, and anxiety in this context can coexist with happiness, gratitude, and the will to live. Active melancholy then can be useful anytime, but especially during these times when ambiguity adds another layer to our pre-existing anxieties and fears.
For van Gogh, active melancholy meant finding solace in work—painting and creating. “How much sadness there is in life!” he wrote in another letter, “Nevertheless one must not become melancholy. One must seek distraction in other things, and the right thing is to work.”
For me, active melancholy means sitting here at my desk and writing —although it may be a daunting task to find the inner motivation to do so during uncertain times. Doing that which is meaningful is an act of active melancholy. So is working to sit with all the emotional patterns that have me swinging from one extreme to the other.
For me, it means, in Van Gogh’s words, to tune in to “calmness, pure harmony and music” that’s still inside us even when we find ourselves “in the depths of misery.”
What does active melancholy mean to you?
“Let us keep courage and try to be patient and gentle. And let us not mind being eccentric, and make distinction between good and evil.”Vincent Van Gogh