About Joy and Melancholy

For an English class I’m taking, I’ve been reviewing the papers I’ve written for my English classes. And I got to this one, and it turns out I wrote it exactly a year ago. So of course I read it:) I guess it’s a terribly nerdy thing to publish one’s own (required) English papers. It’s an even nerdier thing to want to read someone’s required English papers. But if you want to, please do, and let me know your thoughts.

It turns out I only ever write the same paper with small variances each time. Thanks for reading me:)

Samuel Coleridge: A Return to Joy

Recently, my pastor spoke on certain gifts God has given those who follow Him; one of them, to my surprise, was grief. Grief and accompanying disappointment, he said, are gifts in that they remind us of what we truly value. Disappointment teaches us to value the right things, and grief, when it comes, brings us back to reliance on God. My pastor’s inclusion of grief on a list of God’s blessings surprised me, but I more-or-less accepted it and thought about other things. In writing this response, however, the sermon I heard a few weeks ago has come back into my mind, especially in considering the following passage:

…and sometimes

‘Tis well to be bereft of promised good,

That we may lift the Soul, and contemplate

With lively joy the joys we cannot share. (Coleridge 64-7)

When I read Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” the above lines stood out to me as being especially worth remembering.  He wrote the poem under circumstances of loneliness, and, likely, pain, and yet he realized that his surroundings—his so-called prison—were lovely and full of comfort.

What I like about Coleridge, especially in this poem, is that, when he begins his meditation, he is despondent, but by the time he is finished, his soul is more peaceful than before. It seems as if his poetry is therapy for himself—if such was the case, I can certainly identify in that way with Coleridge. Although I do not struggle with an addiction as he did, I often become despondent or discouraged, and it is at those times that I find writing to be a gift. Writing, especially writing poetry or meditative prose, helps purge me of my despair and often leads me back to the hope I have in Christ. I write alone, which, similar to Coleridge’s situation, might seem sad to some people. However, if there is anything I have responded to with the Romantic tradition, it is the idea that melancholy is not always negative. Being alone and a little pensive is a means of developing thought and character, and is often precisely what I need. In a world where I have access to knowledge of what any number of friends is doing—of what I could be doing at any given moment—I value the ability to sit and simply be, without feeling as if I’m continually left out.

“That we may lift the Soul, and contemplate / With lively joys the joys we cannot share” (66-7). At first, Coleridge expresses disappointment that he cannot share his friend’s first experience of the sights that so delight him. He does not necessarily blame his wife for injuring his foot and thus confining him to his garden,[1] but he regrets losing “beauties and feelings, such as would have been / Most sweet to my remembrance even when age / Had dimmed mine eyes to blindness!” (2-5). He tends toward exaggeration: his garden-bower is therefore a prison, and he idealizes the “beauties and feelings” from which he is excluded. This is perhaps the more natural reaction: having been prevented from taking part in a long-awaited visit, Coleridge might be excused some jealousy. However, as he reviews them in his imagination, he begins to anticipate Charles’s joy, and that, in turn, gives him joy.

This seems like such a healthier, such a better, way of thinking, and, reading the turn in Coleridge’s thought, I wished I could have the same view of disappointing situations. I have stayed back from many events, either because I don’t feel I belong or because I have other obligations, and, in those situations, I tend toward a morose jealousy. Whether I admit it to myself or not, my gut reaction to deferred good is bitterness. Sometimes, though, I force myself to stop thinking of my feelings or misfortune, and consider the good in the situation. It may be that, because I was unable to go to the lake with a group of friends, for example, I had the time to read or think, or talk quietly with a friend who may have needed company.

Choosing to rejoice in the good fortune of others seems to be the happier, healthier attitude—as at Christmas, when, rather than compare my gifts with my siblings’, I choose to be glad for their sakes. Then again, I receive joy from anticipating peoples’ reactions to the gifts I have chosen for them; if I have put thought and feeling into finding what I think they will truly value, I would be disappointed not to see the expression on their faces when they unwrap their present. Perhaps this is a little of the disappointed feeling Coleridge has at the onset of the poem: having spent so much time anticipating Charles and Mary Lamb’s visit, only to miss seeing Charles’s reaction to, say, the purple flowers shining in the sunset, or “isles of purple shadow.”

How does he make up for the loss of such “beauties and feelings” as watching the sun set on a “kindled” ocean under a “wide, wide Heaven?” He imagines his friend experiencing such beauty for the first time, and the joy he imagines coming to Charles comes to him as well: “a delight / Comes sudden on my heart, and I am glad / As if I myself were there!” (43-5). Now he begins noticing the beauty of his lime-tree bower, once a prison. He notices little things like a leaf’s stem making shadows on the transparent leaf, and the sights and sounds of twilight. “Henceforth I shall know,” he says, “That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure; / No plot so narrow, be but Nature there, / No waste so vacant, but may well employ / Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart / Awake to Love and Beauty!” (59-64)

I identify with this view of Nature as a healing force. Whenever I am truly discouraged, I seek the outdoors—specifically a place where I can sit and notice little things of beauty. In college, I have found two spots on campus that have filled the role of Coleridge’s lime-tree bower: both are benches, one down near Speer Pavilion, the other just outside Berry Bible Building. From the bench at Speer, I can see the river, and, more importantly, the river’s bend, which I connect with hope and the anticipation of the unknown. I often hear birdsong, and on one occasion, I listened to a chorus of owls from across the river. It’s there that I have written the compositions that have shaped my thinking most clearly, because it’s there that I have the time and space to think clearly and process my thoughts. I notice things more there, and outside Berry, whether it’s the birdsong or the sunlight making the roses glow bright pink, dappled with sun and shade like Coleridge’s lime leaves. It is at times when I am at my leisure to notice well my surroundings that I realize how remarkable nature is. I wonder things like, “Why did God make flowers such a ruddy-pink?” God did not have to make the world so beautiful, yet He did. I wish I noticed it more.

These thoughts, thoughts that focus less on my circumstances than on truths I can be thankful for—these are what change my mindset from discouraged to content. If I can “employ each faculty of sense—” whether through looking or listening—under Coleridge’s view of Nature, my heart will keep awake to Love and Beauty. Joy will remain. Not just joy, but the “deep joy” Coleridge describes is highly attractive to me. He imagines Charles looking out over the wide landscape, and being overwhelmed with an inexplicable feeling of something more. Coleridge tries to describe it for the reader, speaking of a “swimming sense” that things are “less gross than bodily,” but this description seems vague and unsatisfying. Directly after, he compares the feeling of deep joy to the effect of the Holy Spirit on one’s soul, and that, to me, is a little clearer, though I still feel that Coleridge must have struggled to evoke the emotion he intended. I think I know what he meant, although I doubt I could express it any better than he did.

The feeling I am thinking of is one of reveling in the way the world is—and yet, it might not be particularly happy. It is seeing your surroundings with an eye of intense delight, as if you are seeing more to them than what is normally apparent. As Coleridge says, it is as when the “Almighty Spirit…yet [he] makes / Spirits perceive his presence.” I have felt a little of this enigmatic sensation, most often when surrounded by natural beauty, and I have encountered it in books. L.M. Montgomery, who wrote the “Anne of Green Gables” series, had a fondness for crafting highly-poetical, romantic heroines, such as Anne or the title character of the “Emily” series, both of whom were subject to what Emily called “the Flash.” The Flash, according to Emily, was a trance-like state that might come over her and make her extraordinarily sensitive to beauty or, in a broader sense, truth—especially truth that might not be apparent under ordinary circumstances. For Anne, the feeling manifested itself in her ability to notice the ethereal beauty of her environment. Perhaps the feeling comes with a tendency to poeticize one’s surroundings, a tendency Coleridge decidedly possesses.

And yet, this same sort of feeling shows up in C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, “Surprised by Joy.” As I recall, Lewis experienced a sense of longing, an “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Such a sensation he devotes an entire book to describing, or trying to describe—that of a depth of intense feeling that attracts him again and again. He calls it Joy, and differentiates the feeling from happiness or pleasure. Coleridge does not explicitly make such a distinction, so perhaps the two feelings are not the same. Regardless, in reading Coleridge’s words, I was reminded of Lewis’s, and further reminded of instances where I think I have had similar, if not identical, flashes of joy.

I think it happens most often when I am very content or very distraught, and less often when I am routinely going about my days, intent on getting things done. If I am feeling well and particularly happy to be alive, I might look up at the sky and feel a glad shudder go through me, simply because I can hardly believe this is real life. If I am sad, however, or discouraged, or only feeling a little lonely, everything around me, though beautiful, seems not enough. There ought to be more, I think—and the thought is never completed. I don’t know what it is that I long for more of, exactly, and even if I knew, perhaps I could not express it. Chesterton, in his Orthodoxy, speaks of a Christian being out-of-place in the world, and thus feeling “homesick at home.” Even in the middle of standing, like Coleridge, with a wide, wide view of an incredibly lovely world, I feel that something is missing—and I long for its completion.

 

[1] Just previous to the visit of his friends, Coleridge’s wife, Sara, accidentally spilled scalding milk on his foot, preventing Coleridge from walking with his friends during their visit.

I Should Have Said It Louder

I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be timid, as opposed to being naturally shy or introverted. So that’s what’s been in my head, especially the similarities I sometimes see between timidity and humility and this weird pretend self-confidence that turns out to be based in a feigned apathy.

…I just used a lot of words that may or may not make sense by the time I finish rambling–we’ll see.

I wrote some doggeral once about what it looks like to be timid–a different thing, I thought, then being a concerned person or even an insecure person. Here’s what I’d written:

 

I keep myself busy

With all the art required for

Endless exercises in timidity.

A teacher asks a question

I rack my brains for the answer

And then don’t say it. Ever.

I consciously keep it inside my mouth.

I am a silent smartypants.

It’s cheating, what I do sometimes in an attempt to make something prosey poetic. Just chop up the thoughts and put ’em on separate lines and you’ve got poetry, right?

Ha. No. Silly Jo.

Anyway, here’s one picture, anyway, of timidity: it’s knowing the answer to a question and then keeping it consciously inside your mouth. It’s deliberately not saying something.

Timidity means being a “silent smartypants.”

Timidity is being so afraid of other peoples’ thoughts about you that you sometimes keep quiet on matters about which you do, in fact, care deeply. You deny that part of yourself, and, chances are, you miss knowing someone else who cares deeply and who was simply waiting for another voice to speak up.

Sometimes I try to pass off my timidity as humility. I convince myself that the reason I don’t say the answers in class is because I don’t want to show off-no one likes a show-off.

There it is.

No one likes.

No one likes a know-it-all. And I want to be liked. More specifically, I want to be liked by the people I perceive as being cool, maybe even popular. I want to be highly regarded, highly thought-of, and what people think of me is frustratingly high in my subconscious list of priorities. Without even thinking of it, I daily perform for whatever audience I happen to be concerned with at the moment. I tailor my performance based on what I imagine they’ll like the most.

How can I make them like me the most?

The safest course is usually apathy. This is unfortunately what my most common perception of high school is: a place where you’re popular if you can convince people you don’t care. You’re cool if you don’t talk about anything; if you just do what’s required in classes and, aside from that, don’t get too invested what’s going on around you.

I could be very wrong about that. I observed high school from the outside, and so I don’t know if I’m being overly influenced by Disney’s atrocious/in-some-crazy-and-illogical-way-appealing high school dramas.

In some ways it makes perfect sense. Things are just so strange and uncomfortable for most of those middle-school and high school years that, of course, the ones who don’t open their mouths and let loose all the crazy thoughts bouncing around their heads are as a matter of course going to come off as cool, calm, and collected.

I think that’s when I learned it–that keeping quiet is a safe bet, generally. After a while, people get used to you being quiet and attribute it all to your natural introvertedness. And while nothing is required of you, nothing is really expected, either. And it gets increasingly hard to break the silence, to say things louder.

If this is coming across as critical of those who are naturally anxious or introverted or maybe just plain shy, I apologize. I’m a pretty timid person, often, but my point is that anyone–even extroverts–can be timid.

If being timid is having something to say or do, and then not saying or doing that thing because of fear of what others will think, then anyone can be timid.

I’m realizing that maybe a lot of people I think of as never having these problems of fearing others and overconsidering reputation probably do face the same sorts of fears. Maybe the ones who seem most confident and put together–who never seem to feel any uncomfortable passion about anything–maybe they are the ones struggling most with fear and timidity.

I just don’t think apathy comes naturally to humans. We are wired to care, and to care deeply. Apathy is a cultivated sin.

And I do think it’s a sin, or at least it can be a marker of some other sin. I need to unpack that more, maybe, for it to make sense what I’m thinking of. It’s kind of a rabbit-trail, though.

My main point is that, when people care deeply enough about something, they are going to speak up.

It can be an important something or a sillier something. Otherwise intelligent people care an awful lot about sports, and a certain nerd (yours truly) cares very much about the writings of a portly old man named Gilbert Keith.

When I see that someone cares an awful lot about something–and it might be important or silly, I don’t care–I’m somehow reassured that said person and I can be friends. Real friends, maybe, on more than a surface level. Because not caring about anything seems unnatural. It seems lonely. If you haven’t been called a nerd at least once in your life, and looked at yourself and thought, hey, yeah, you know that’s pretty accurate about This Particular Interest, then just consider. You are practically alone in the human population.

Every one is a nerd about something. And rightly so.

Revel in your nerdiness, in your capacity to care for more than survival. Humans have been given so many options for their priorities: as beautiful as the instinct of, say, Monarch butterflies, might seem, they lack some inherent freedom in choosing what to make their lives stand for. It’s a freedom that you have.

I don’t seem to be getting back to talking about timidity verses humility. I’ll try once more but if I can’t do it, then I’ll try again another time.

First, a story. Today in choir was audition day, and I had already determined not to try out for a solo. I had all kinds of reasons: I was out of practice/hadn’t sung all semester; I didn’t really want a solo anyway; and I didn’t need to prove my self to this choir of practical strangers. I felt so confident in my own abilities: Oh no, I thought, it’s not cause I’m scared. It’s not that I’m self-conscious about my voice. It’s only that I prefer to sing with family and close friends. I don’t feel the need to make an exhibition of myself to somehow prove that I’m brave.

Ha.

Choir starts: people audition, some sounding good, others…not so much. I start to get this self-satisfied feeling of hey-what-a-good-plan-it-was-not-to-audition-holy-cow-you-would-have-embarrassed-yourself-like-that-kid-over-there-just-now. Not a very holy feeling, if you know what I mean. Comparison, Envy start to hover around my shoulders, and Timidity keeps turning the pages for me.

So the next song starts, and it’s a solo I love and have loved for years. It’s one I would love to sing, except I know that I couldn’t sing it the way it needs to be sung. I get this picture in my head of what it might be like to audition for it.

Jo stands up confidently and smiles calmly at everyone. Jo sings through the solo winningly, bestowing a gracious, genuine, and down-to-earth air on all who listen. Jo finishes and sits down, perfectly content with just having tried the solo, perfectly content that someone else will sing just as well, or even better.

Ick.

Here’s what actually happens: I stand up, and the director doesn’t see me. There start to be these whispers about how he doesn’t see me–everyone’s nervous for me. I start to care, a little, and I start to think of how silly an idea this was. I shake it off, trying to reclaim that apathetic confidence–remember, Jo, you don’t care how you sound to others, you just wanna enjoy singing this song you love. It doesn’t work. I start to care more, and when the director signals for me to begin, I open my mouth and nothing of what comes out sounds how I thought it’d sound. It’s laughably bad.

It sounds like someone who’s terribly nervous and insecure, who is trying to audition purely to convince herself she’s brave, and who has some skills that regrettably don’t actually include auditioning in front of a choir of eighty people.

It sounds like me.

And I’m fine with me, mostly. I’m fine with that extra shot of humility the experience gave me. I sure as heck wasn’t as judgmental of the person near me who auditioned after I did. Rather, I kept thinking, how are you all so brave?

Way to go, friends. Way to try, even if you weren’t sure of the result.

Complete tangent, sorry.

Let me go back, briefly, to something that got said earlier: that, when people care deeply enough about something, they are going to speak up.

What’s gotten me thinking about this whole thing is some episodes in the book of Matthew. There are these places where Jesus works a miracle for some people, then instructs them not to tell anyone that he did it. So yeah, one of those places is Matthew 9:27-31: Jesus heals these two blind men, and “sternly warn[s] them” not to tell anyone, and the next verse says that “when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country.”

I sort of get why Jesus is, at this point, not having people proclaim his miracles,but what I’m curious about is to what extent was the disobedience of those two formerly-blind guys excusable? I mean, if you were blind, and then a man healed you, I’d imagine it’d be hard to stay quiet.

If I’m a Christian, and I believe that “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see,” how is it that I can stay quiet? How on earth am I in any way apathetic about the Gospel? If I believe the Bible is true, how can I think of Jesus Christ and say, “meh, whatever.”

Here’s where I think apathy indicates sin. It seems like there’s something I value more than I value God and His word. At least that’s what I’m indicating by my willingness to keep quiet. So I’ve been asking myself what I’m ashamed of, and how I can possibly reconcile that with Romans 1:16.

Maybe I’m afraid of coming off as a smarty-pants.

Maybe I’m afraid of annoying people.

Maybe I’m afraid of not being liked.

Maybe I’m just afraid.

There’s a myriad of reasons to be afraid of the world if you don’t know Christ. If you do know Christ, there’s exactly this many reasons:

Zero.

After this long doozy of a ramble, I’d like to encourage you if you are a Christian that timidity is neither how we have to live nor is it how we ought to live. God replaced that spirit of timidity with one of “power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

If you aren’t a Christian, then I’d like to tell you what I’ve been learning about how Christ gives us freedom from fear and a glorious hope in which we can place our trust.

As always, thanks for reading:)