Reflecting on Rachel Kelly’s new book, Walking on Sunshine, we asked Idler readers to send us their cures for melancholy. Here is a selection. TH
Sir: Keep a jackdaw. No creature is more delightful, playful or more loveable. Not easy to keep though. Very mischievous and wilful, so be warned.
Sir: You forgot the joy of relaxing with one’s cat. I’d say that was the ultimate Idler activity. You’re loosely “doing something” – stroking the cat and making them happy – but also joining that most relaxed of all species, the domestic cat, in the thing they rock at best.
Sir: A snifter of brandy. 85% dark chocolate. The right music at the right volume. Any of the first five Van Halen albums will suffice. Tried, tested, trusted.
Sir: You might enjoy the Rev. Sydney Smith’s advice on low spirits. I have quoted it many times.
Harry Mount also directed us to Sydney Smith’s letter, and here it is:
“Advice Concerning Low Spirits”
A letter from Sydney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth, Feb. 16, 1820:
Dear Lady Georgiana,– Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,
Very truly yours,
Note from Ed: some of this looks good but some is terrible advice. “Avoid poetry” – what nonsense!
Sir: To be melancholic and even depressed is to be human. Save me from folk who overflow with abundant happy cheerfulness, regardless of what is going on within their own lives and the lives of others. We need not be frightened by melancholia. A reasonable dose is merely an expression of our human sensitivity and emotional well being.
Surely it is OK for melancholia to flourish at the end of Autumn, be an utterly normal response to the grotty side of life and for us to understand that humans need to overflow with the full range of emotions – ecstasy, boredom, joy, sadness etc etc.
The challenge is not to be overwhelmed by melancholia, least of all for it to prevent us from getting on with our lives. It must ebb and flow, come and go, be a part of our emotional package, but not be the dominating force.
Edward Thomas (1878 – 1917) certainly knew a thing or two about melancholia. When his life was in danger of becoming unbearable his doctor advised him to walk in areas where nature’s beauty flourished and could feed the sensitive soul. So walk he did in beautiful places, leaving his wife Helen to care for their children and pay the bills (lack of cash was a constant problem in the Thomas household).
Tragically death came to Edward Thomas in the World War One trenches. The theme of walking runs through much of his work. Here is a tiny glimmer:
The sun used to shine while we two walked
Slowly together, paused and started
Again, and sometimes mused, sometimes talked
As either pleased, and cheerfully parted
Very simply, melancholy can be a useful emotion. Leave the wretched car at home, keep walking and soak in the sheer beauty of nature – regardless of the season. And, oh yes, read poetry.
Sir: My best cure for melancholy is to have something to look forward to: the company of friends that evening or shortly to look forward to, a holiday, or a challenge that is possible with application.
But always: something to look forward to and, when looking back, some things to be grateful for.
Keep up the good work,
Sir: ”Beer, now there’s a temporary solution” – Homer Simpson.
Sir: Thank you for all your helpful writings. My cure for melancholy is to go for a ride on my bicycle while the bread dough is proving. The bonus is that the longer the dough proves, the less kneading it requires, and the more time I get to ride my bike.
Sir: Learn a language within a class, as then there is company. Do some volunteer work: tonight I am going to give food to the poor at Termini station. We went for the first time last week and it certainly makes one think of those so much worse off. There are so many young boys, hungry and with empty eyes!
Teach immigrant children to read.
Sir: Beatles records. Nice food ; cheese, pies etc. Wine. Mozart. Books. Fox’s Glacier Mints. The Ripley novels. Tea. Coffee. Afternoon nap. Spooning. Keith Richards’ lifestyle. Hanging with my kids. Lunch with the wife.
Sir: One cure that I use for melancholy that you didn’t mention is hot sauce or mustard with a good sort of cracker. It’s a goodie.
Very best from Matarranya,
Sir: I used to think that ‘Activity is All’; the idea that if you kept busy then that sheer momentum would never allow a vacuum to form, in which the devilry of doubt could infiltrate and pervade.
Now I’m not so sure. For instance, if you are lucky enough to have an open fire, somehow the flames and crackles can help mesmorize and in so doing act as the perfect way to soothe and calm; just by doing absolutely nothing except staring at it. In fact, if you can arrest your mind from not shooting ahead in a gallop to constantly ‘achieve goals’ and just be happy with the microcosm of attending to the insignificant rather than some world dominating masterplan – that, too, can help.
Sometimes, however, one needs the strength of Samson just to hold on from plunging into a very dark place. I note also that, despite all the fine sentiments and the now more open and public arena in which issues related to depression are raised, we seem as potentially intolerant: witness today Ken Livingstone’s rant against one of his own Labour front-bench members.
Churchill used to call his own blues his yapping black dog but right now it sounds like a pack of hounds. I have lived and worked here in France for 10 years and ‘though I’m hundreds of miles from the massacre of the innocents in Paris, my little town and the people I know and meet exhibit the dichotomy endemic in the French character; one minute immersed in gloom, the next a ciggie and glass of pernod. My neighbour says to me: ‘you’ve just got to get on with it’.
Perhaps, in the end ‘keep buggering on’ is the way to defeat all ills. I’ve found my own reaction to last Friday 13th has been to sort and stack logs… an inordinate amount of concentration spent arranging, then re-arranging them into a final perfect symmetry.
I finished this afternoon and reflected that during all the huffing and puffing I’d never been happier.
Sir: Sometimes I am walking down a street, an ordinary street, humming a tune, looking about me, trying to see everything for the first time. And then out of the clear blue sky my heart cracks and breaks. Well, that’s unexpected. So what to do?
I seek solace in my wonderful wife. She who with infinite patience and a roll of cardiac sellotape guides me back to safer ground.
I seek solace in making it right for others; saying and doing a nice thing. Smiling at a stranger. Offering warmth to others reignites my pilot light and slowly the heart begins to heal.
I seek solace in my adventure stories where plucky Gerald Jones “saves the day”. It helps me remember that goodness remains.
I seek solace in music; Bach, Mozart, mournful Beethoven, Take That, Jools Holland, Dire Straits (before they were dull), Girls Aloud, Springsteen, Joel, Squeeze, Rickie Lee Jones, Verdi, Vaughan Williams, Charles Trenet, The Waterboys but probably never Coldplay. [Well said, sir! What a terrible band. Ed]
I seek solace in the past. I take comfort in seeing how others survived, how justice is finally done, how mistakes are rarely unique but repeated and repeated. It sort of makes me fret less about mine. The whoppers.
And slowly, carefully the hearts heals. It is warm again. It beats calmly again. It gets on with it again.