There are friends who are deeply well-meaning who nevertheless have a habit of responding in unfortunate ways when we reveal a trouble to them. They try – at once, with considerable vigour – to cheer us up. We may appreciate their underlying good nature while nevertheless profoundly resenting their particular technique – for what we may want from them above all is not a swift rejoinder that our problems are in fact, despite appearances, easily solvable – but rather, a shared moment of sadness and mournful sympathy.
Across history, the articulation of melancholy attitudes in works of art has provided us with relief from a sense of loneliness and persecution. Among others, Pascal, Keats, Shelley, Schopenhauer and Leonard Cohen have been able to reassure us of the normalcy of our states of sadness. In particular, they have made a case for a species of low-level, muted sadness that arises when we are open to the fact that life is inherently difficult and that suffering and disappointment are core parts of universal experience. It’s not a disorder that needs to be cured. The good life is not one immune to grief, but one in which we allow suffering to contribute to our development.
And yet the dominant tone of many friendships continues to be cheerful or its more brittle cousin, cheery – a good mood that tolerates no other. This falsely presumes that the best way to please others must be to present ourselves in a vibrant mood, when in fact, admission of our despair, and the number of moments when we wonder if it can really be worth it, are key tools in the process of friendship properly re-imagined.
In a discussion of parenting styles, the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once identified a particularly problematic kind of carer: the person who wants to ‘jolly’ babies and small children along, always picking them up with cheer, bouncing them up and down and pulling exaggerated funny faces, perhaps shouting ‘peekaboo’ repeatedly. The criticism might feel disconcerting: what could be so wrong with wanting to keep a child jolly?
Yet Winnicott was worried by how this manoeuvre could end up denying a child the possibility of acknowledging its own sadness, and more broadly, its own feelings. The jollyer is driven by a compulsion to impose a mood which may have no basis in the child’s reality. The jollier doesn’t just want the child to be happy; it can’t tolerate the idea it might be sad – so unexplored, unresolved and potentially overwhelming are their own feelings of disappointment. Childhood is necessarily full of sadness (as adulthood must be too), insisted Winnicott, which means we must perpetually be granted access to periods of mourning: for a broken toy, the grey sky on a Sunday afternoon or perhaps the lingering sadness we can see in our parents’s eyes.
The friend, no less than the carer, needs to remember how much of life deserves solemn and mournful states – and of how much loyalty we will therefore be ready to offer those who don’t feel aggressively compelled to deny our melancholy.