Melancholics are motivated by a sense that there must be more to life.
More than what is on offer, more than what is accepted within the range of ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ life. For me this sense translated into a fascination with mysticism, and I spent my late teenage years and my early years at university reading every strange philosophical and esoteric religious text I could get my hands on. I steadily worked my way through the relevant section of the university library: Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, Vedanta, Sikhism, Sufism, Christian mysticism – Orthodox, Catholic and Heterodox.
I was looking for something particular in each of these books, and found in them the outlines of a methodology or set of guidelines that promised – in varying terminology – a better way of being, a solution to life’s existential conflicts, and freedom from the oppressive weight of everyday reality.
These texts each pointed to an objective albeit transcendent reality; something beyond mundane human experience, yet immanent everywhere just beneath the surface.
The consistent message of these various mystics is that this transcendent reality is more real, more true, than our daily lives, and that to find true virtue, peace, and happiness we ought to turn our attention to this transcendent reality and diminish our reliance on and preoccupation with mundane reality.
Ethics and morality fits into this schema largely because excessive desires for worldly things are incompatible with an appreciation for the transcendent reality. At the same time, there is a salutary aspect to this transcendent reality, suggesting a relationship between it and a balanced, virtuous life.
But the problem with this transcendent reality is that it is, from a worldly perspective, utterly useless; more useless than the virtue with which it is associated; more useless than the sages, philosophers and saints who devoted themselves to it. It is too great to be useful, too rich to meet any particular human need. In that sense, you can get by without it. It won’t make you money, it won’t help you find food, it won’t convince others to lavish you with praise and adulation.
It is precisely because of its uselessness, its being beyond use, that it is worth attending to. We cannot employ it for a purpose, in fact it takes away our purpose and makes our worldly aims seem utterly petty and trivial, yet because of this it is worthy to shape and develop us. In a world that is overwhelmed with utility, purpose, and occupation, this transcendent reality seems as empty and clear as the sky. That is why it ought to be our foundation and our goal, that is why it alone can be the burden that enlightens rather than weighing down.