The obligated melancholic

Melancholic idealists have a tendency to undermine themselves in the service of their ideals.

The melancholic’s capacity to sacrifice everything for the sake of an ideal is potentially noble, but in practice most of us do not live for a single, pure and unadulterated ideal. In practice we utilise a number of ideals to navigate the complexities and frustrations of everyday life.  So while it would make sense – in an ideal world – for a melancholic to wholeheartedly embrace their perfect ideal, in this far-from-ideal world we need to be aware of the potential for imperfectly considered or one-sided ideals to make life unnecessarily difficult.

Perhaps for these purposes we could take as our ideal that “life should not be unnecessarily difficult”, and then scrutinise instances of excessive struggle or unwarranted suffering?

In addition to being sick at present, I’ve also managed to somehow injure my neck or upper back at a particularly busy time of year.  Yet as much as I hate being sick and injured, I try to find some significance in the suffering, and this has led me to recognise an oversight in my existing idealism.

Important versus Important-to-me

One of my stronger ideals is that I ought to assist with important things that are within the range of my power and responsibility.  In other words “because it’s important!” is the coercive logic of a hundred different things I don’t want to do, but feel I ought.

The ideal behind this is that a person should, at the very least, do what he reasonably can to assist with something important. But how do we know what is important? The fact is that nearly everything is important to someone, or to put it another way: the intersection of “things that are important to someone” and “things that are reasonably within my power” is potentially, frighteningly, huge.

This swathe of potential obligations probably doesn’t trouble most people, but for a melancholic possessed of the ideal described above, it can seem as though the only way to avoid an endless stream of demands, requests, and obligations is to withdraw from them. Yet we cannot withdraw from our own beliefs, and the sense of “if I don’t do it, no one will” is harder to escape than any external request for assistance.

All of this is the result of operating on the basis of ideals or principles, in a context where the melancholic is unable to offer an in-principle reason for not undertaking endless obligations.  It leaves the melancholic feeling already overstretched and overburdened, regardless of how many actual obligations he might have.

What is needed is a principle or mechanism for limiting the pool of potential demands and obligations.  Being already too busy, having a young family to look after, generally not having enough time: these are good reasons to refuse future obligations, but for a melancholic there will always be the temptation to sacrifice more and more of their own time, energy, and even health if they can get the job done.

A better principle lies in the distinction between “important” and “important to me”; a distinction that is, I think, already implicit for most people.  I think that for most people “important” implies “important for me”, whereas for a melancholic it can be hard to justify the self-centred addition of “for me”.  In fact, melancholics may not have a very strong or very clear sense of their own interests and personal preferences in the first place; they may find themselves becoming enthusiastic and idealistic about almost anything, no matter how remote it is from their own experience.

But there is nonetheless a distinction to be made, and a melancholic can make the distinction if they know how. The distinction between “important” and “important to me” limits the pool of potential obligations to things that I actually care about, as opposed to things I might come to care about if I try, or things others care about, or things I don’t care about at all but which are within my power to further or assist.

Other temperaments might be led astray from their own sense of priority through analogous means: phlegmatics simply by going along with others and not rocking the boat, sanguines through friendship and fellowship, and cholerics through ambition and the esteem of others.  Perhaps each of these temperaments is equally susceptible to harming their own integrity through the promise and appeal of their respective motives?

But as a distinct minority it is perhaps harder for melancholics to recognise when they are allowing their ideals to get the better of them. Our ideals are, after all, our primary way of making sense of the world and it is difficult to challenge them without first establishing a rival ideal or learning from the experience of rare exemplars.

From my observations, non-melancholics react to potential obligations differently, and hence offer advice like “don’t do it if you don’t want to”, or “just say you’re too busy”, which to a melancholic comes across as “just pragmatically lie or make something up in this one situation with no underlying logic or principle justifying it”.

Granted, saying “this isn’t important to me” probably wouldn’t go down too well, but more important than what is said is the ideal or principle behind it. It might even turn out that a lot of the things that seem “important” but not “important to me” aren’t really that important to anyone else either.  Either way, to feel ‘off the hook’ for a vast array of potential yet unlikely obligations is an immense relief, and that alone can make saying either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ an entirely new proposition.



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