“What to Do with Gloom”


By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
May 4, 1947

In one of the creation myths, it is related of Prometheus, who is supposed to have brought life as well as fire to the earth, that in the process of molding the animals out of clay he used up all the available supply of water. Consequently, when he came to make man there was nothing with which to bind the clay together and he found it breaking apart and crumbling in his hands. Some of the gods suggested that this was an omen that man had better be left uncreated. Why not be satisfied with the multitude of living creatures already in existence? But Prometheus refused to be frustrated. He looked up into the sky for signs of rain: there was not a cloud to be seen beneath the brazen vault of heaven. He searched the Garden of Creation for undiscovered wells and springs: the gods had dried them all up. Even the grass was beginning to be parched. At last, Prometheus threw himself down on the ground and wept, and then, while his grief was still unspent, he saw that his tears had moistened the clay and that it held together. Swiftly, he molded it afresh, and before the sun went down was ready to breathe the breath of his own life into the image he had fashioned, and man, the child of desire and sorrow, was created.

What the myth means, of course, is obvious. Yet, until very recently it was a meaning that a large part of the modern world had forgotten. Sadness was regarded as something alien to normal life, a mood that was unavoidable, perhaps, in misfortune, and almost inevitable in bereavement, but a sort of malady of the emotions to be banished as quickly as possible. Brightness and optimism were called for in all circumstances; more and more opportunities were being afforded for gaiety; newer and newer ways were being invented for getting cheered up. And, in fact, everything was so good, or going to be so good, that there was really no excuse for gloom.

When such a brilliant publicist as William Ralph Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s in London, insisted upon taking a graver view of human affairs, the newspapers dubbed him “the Gloomy Dean.” His notoriety was considerable, his popularity extremely low. No one wanted to listen to what the Gloomy Dean was really saying, namely, that optimism is too shallow a faith; that it does not fit the facts–not all of them, not even the most important of them–and that if the modern age is to save itself from the same fate that has overtaken previous very confident ages, it must reckon with realities from which, in shallowness and petulance, it turns aside and looks the other way.

But the Gloomy Dean was only reinforcing what the Promethean myth had tried to tell us long before. That in the composition of human life, tears are just as natural as laughter. That the substance of sorrow has been in us from the beginning. That you cannot have desire without heartache, or feel the poignancy of yearning without knowing the closeness of despair. What the myth tells us is that this was always so. Or, as Swinburne re-tells it in his Atalanta in Calydon,

“Before the beginning of years,
There came to the making of man,
Time, with a gift of tears;
Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance fallen from heaven;
And madness risen from hell;
Strength without hands to smite;
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And life, the shadow of death.”

If this, then, is the nature of man, or an inevitable part of it, of what use is it to say of gloom, as some do, that the thing to do is to avoid it? How can you avoid the inevitable? Or pretend to make no room for what springs from the essential nature of your own life? Such advice is too facile, too unperceiving; sometimes, it is nothing but mockery.
It is true, of course, that cheerfulness comes more readily to some people than to others. It may be true, as we are occasionally told, that there are those who escape despondency almost altogether. But whether this is entirely fortunate is quite a question! And one I do not presume to answer. I merely mention in passing that very little of importance in the world has been accomplished by people who are consistently cheerful. I am not speaking of outward appearances, which are often deceptive, but of inner realities. Indeed, it is quite doubtful whether consistent cheerfulness is entirely compatible with the full use of the mental faculties. I remember that Pearl Buck, in one of her books, portrays a little Chinese girl with an undeveloped mind, and the mother of the little girl, whenever she needs to explain to a stranger that her daughter is not normal, sensitively avoids direct reference to insanity and simply says, “All her thoughts are happy ones.” We have to recognize, I think, that if acute melancholia can be diagnosed as psychopathic, so can perpetual hilarity.

Even when it is some distance from needing institutional treatment, perpetual hilarity can be disturbing; it can also be extremely irritating. The person who finds everything just wonderful and “smiles and whistles under all circumstances” may be quite exhilarating for half an hour or so, but if it lasts much longer, his victims clench their hands behind their backs and wonder whether they can get away before they surrender to an overwhelming impulse to choke him.

Even when such cheerfulness excites no wrath, it can be repugnant to a normal person. The reason is, of course, that something common-sensical within us demands a proper reckoning with realities. We are repelled by the superficiality of this sort of cheerfulness. We want to go away somewhere and feel as gloomy as possible–just to recover our mental balance.

And in the present world, where there is so much of misery spread out over the face of the earth, and so much of foreboding as we face the future, even if gloom were not already a natural mood of human life, coming and going as all moods come and go, it would seem necessary to invite it, at any rate for long enough to let us feel the full force of the circumstances by which we are surrounded. For surely we should be lacking in emotional depth and force if we could really understand our situation and never feel depressed.

Let us admit, then, and freely, that the notion of getting rid of gloom by reciting to ourselves a few well chosen pollyannaisms is both futile and absurd. Let us go on to admit that if it could succeed, which it cannot under present conditions, such a shallow success would be unwholesome and unworthy. Let us even go a little deeper and acknowledge that sadness is a part of human life: that a mature man or woman accepts it. It is not only that personal disappointment or bereavement can cause it: the contemplation of the world itself–the world man makes and breaks–should cause it. So should spiritual insight into the very nature of life: its hopes and dreams, its precariousness and fragility, its frustrations and failures, its love and longing, its perplexities and bafflements. In all that life is, even in its joys, there is at least the hint of sadness. Always we hear what Wordsworth called “the still, sad music of humanity.”

“I have learned,” [he says]
“To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity…”
But he does not find it merely painful. He has discovered, he goes on to say, that what at first was dejection and despondency can deepen into something that carries within it the pulse and power of life itself, something that brings to the soul its own revelation of the meaning hidden within the mystery. For,
“I have felt,” [he continues, in a well-known passage]
“A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.”

And since Wordsworth is by no means alone in this discovery, we can be sure that despondency and gloom, and indeed sadness in any of its intensities, can make us far more sensitive to ultimate meaning, can deepen us spiritually, can bring us closer to the greatness which is always trying to lay its touch upon us –or, in shorter, more familiar words, can help us grow a soul.

That, it seems to me, is the first thing to know about gloom: that it is not necessarily a misfortune or a deprivation. If you can learn how to treat it, how to live with it when it visits you, it can be a means of spiritual development. This will never be so if you try to treat it superficially, or if you take fright at tragic realities. it will never be so if you attempt to bolster up your life with artificial gaieties. You have to accept sadness–yet, you must never surrender to it.

That is the second thing. You must never surrender to sadness. There are people who turn it into a permanent melancholy, so that it becomes an emotional indulgence–something quite demoralizing. Because they find themselves sometimes pessimistic, they insist upon being always pessimistic. Thus they are able to sever themselves from what needs to be done in the world. “It is all hopeless,” they say, “quite hopeless!” And because they can say it is hopeless, they feel excused from trying to do anything about it. This is surrender. Just as “pollyannaism” can be one form of escape–a shallow one–so pessimism can be another–also shallow. Let us analyze it.

The pessimist convinces himself that because he has succumbed to melancholy, he is somehow a superior sort of person. He has faced the worst, he says, and is not deceived like other people. But he is deceived. He deceives himself. He has not faced the worst. He has only glanced at it–and run away in complete retreat. He has given up. If he had faced the worst and kept on facing it, he would have found it necessary to do something. Even in his thinking he would have gone on with the struggle until he found convictions–the conviction, for instance, that whatever happens, life is full of its own great purpose–a purpose that must be served; and that this is a reality woven into the texture of all other realities. Gloom can never be a real excuse for moral cowardice.

Despondency never disables anybody without his own consent–his own decision that it shall. On the contrary, it can improve his understanding of what is necessary and make him much surer in all he undertakes. It can increase his moral energy. It can give him clearer comprehension of other people. It can show a man how to fight without malice, and win without boasting, and lose without bitterness. it can do these things because his own spirit has been deepened–if he so wills it.

But let us try to find the simplest, clearest possible way of saying all this: let us make it severely practical. There are many people who feel gloomy today who have never made friends with sadness in the past, and so are quite at a loss to know how to get along with it. They are accustomed to live and work only from feelings of optimism. How can we state the matter so that all will understand?

Fortunately, we can state it, I think, in a single sentence. When you feel gloomy, put your gloom to work! Let me explain just why it is that this is practical advice. Gloom is an emotional state, just as mirth is, or joyousness. And emotion is a form of energy. Indeed, at the human level, emotion is the one form that energy takes. And energy can be put to work. Almost any kind of energy.

What energy do you suppose it is that gives to poets their power of expression? It can be joy, of course. Many a sonnet is an outpouring of rapture. But it can also be grief. Or just a bleak and deadly melancholy. Some of the greatest poetry that has ever been written has come from gloom. and not necessarily gloomy poetry, either. Emotional energy, like other forms of energy, is convertible.

This is so at every level. The work done need not have the color of the emotional energy that produced it. Gloom can produce other things than pathos. It was Aristotle, I think, who said that “melancholy men of all others are the most witty.” There is no doubt, I think, that the whole field of literature would corroborate his opinion. Yet the wit is not all satire. There is nothing about gloom that makes it inevitably corrosive. Any emotional intensification can liberate energies of every sort–including the most wholesome.
It is true that musicians, for instance, have often been morose–and I think it is true–we have to admit, nonetheless, that their music is not imprisoned within their moods. Even melancholy music exalts itself beyond the level of mere gloom: or can do so. It is true that such a piece as Tschaikowsky’s Symphonie Pathetique luxuriates in sorrow and is, to that extent, emotional indulgence. But it need not have been so. Music need not stop at registering a mood: it can use the mood to press beyond it–often into ultimate mysteries of experience that are not translatable from music into any other form of expression. It often seems to me, when I listen to a symphony, that the composer begins with something out of the struggle of his own experience–perhaps out of his own defeat–and in the weeks and months of composing gradually transforms what he began with into something universal and full of ultimate realities–yet victorious. I am just as much aware as anyone of the extent to which this can be a technical accomplishment, once you have mastered the trick; but I am also aware that no amount of technical skill can achieve alone what it takes emotional force to accomplish; and inasmuch as no one can read the biographies of the great composers without knowing how fearfully some of them were afflicted with melancholy, and sometimes not of a very lofty order, it seems to me certain that what they did was to employ their emotional energy–no matter what form it took–to create their music.

So I say again, when you are afflicted with gloom, put it to work. If you do not happen to be a poet or a musician (and it is not in the least necessary that you should be), put your gloom to work in what you can do. Remember that “only the duties of the heart can truly console the heart.” Don’t luxuriate in gloom; don’t make of it an emotional indulgence; and don’t think you have to wait until something happens to make you feel more cheerful. Particularly, do not make the mistake of trying to cheer yourself up with something trivially optimistic. That only leads to exasperation.

When I feel gloomy, myself, I always pick out the most despondent poetry I know, or the most melancholy music; and the specific gravity of my own gloom is so much lighter than this dense melancholy to which I expose myself, that it always floats upon it! So that I feel comparatively buoyant. At any rate, I am then ready to do some work. And if personal testimony counts for anything, I am willing to admit that some of my most cheerful sermons have been written out of moods of frustration or depression. There is no difficulty about it at all. You simply give your mind to the work.

I am sure that this is possible in almost any pursuit. And you will never end up merely gloomy. There may be a remaining element of sadness in your mood–of one intensity or another–but there will also be courage in it, and something that smiles–smiles back at you–and at last, paradoxically, no small amount of buoyancy. The most secure gaiety in the world, perhaps the only gaiety that is really secure, is distilled from sadness.
Nor do I mean by this that the gaiety is qualified or forced. Quite the contrary. Only those who understand tragedy really appreciate comedy. If you find that too paradoxical, may I recommend you to go down to the Lincoln Memorial some time, soon, and take a long look at the face of the greatest of all Americans. If you know anything at all about him, you know that he was the most melancholy of men–at one time so much the prisoner of gloom that his warmest friends wondered if he could ever be delivered from it. He never lost his melancholy. The sadness of all human life, like the sadness of his own great, tragic destiny, is deeply engraved in the lines of his face. It is for that most of all, that without quite understanding, Americans love him–and love him best. There is no more tragic figure than Abraham Lincoln. But was there ever an American with a keener sense of comedy? Or one with a more driving will-power? One who more than he, knew how to put his gloom to work?

What else was it that he did? As John Dyer, an eighteenth century poet once wrote,

“There is a kindly mood of melancholy
That wings the soul.”

That’s it! “That wings the soul!” That’s it! “That wings the soul!” That’s it! “That wings the soul!” Once you have brought it from bitterness to kindliness, giving the power of flight to spirit and imagination. So that vision grows, and with it, resolve. And out of it, gentleness, comprehension, tenderness–and yet unyielding firmness. This can happen to anybody–who will put his gloom to work. Who will let despondency stretch his heart–without possessing it, stretch it–until it is large enough for love. Who will give himself, and go on giving, and keep on giving, until he turns despair to hope, and desolation to faith, and emptiness into the temple of the living God. Until he knows how it is that the most exultant music arose from the deepest despondency and the cry of victory from the moment of complete defeat.

Perhaps that is what God is doing to us in this generation–at no matter what cost–we, who have achieved so much, who have known so many triumphs and such dark defeats; we who have filled the world to overflowing with man-made miseries; we who tried to believe that only happiness was possible, that only happiness was real. Perhaps our time has come to reckon with forlornness, to face desperation, to know the meaning of deprivation.

We must be deepened. Until we are, we are not good enough.

We cannot do what is commanded of us. New buoyancies will come–some day. New confidence, and new assurance. But we, of this bleakest moment and this darkening hour: we must save a world even though to save it we must lose it. We must hear as we have never heard before, those words of Jesus about losing a world to gain a soul. Shall we fear it? Surrendering to despondency–that so much is called for, so much demanded, from those who are not yet worthy? Or shall we not rather take all the emotional intensities of every kind–even gloom–and make them work for God and the future?

For that future which in premonition and prophecy we can know even in the present: can come to know until its joy is greater than our sorrow; a joy that unites itself with all the joys that life can bring to those who brave the world in every generation–even this. Our joy–our deep, unfaltering joy, distilled from the very essence of our gloom.

Prayer: O God, whose truth is ever more than we can utter, deepen the silence in our hearts. Amen.

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