Sickness and Eternity

According to the Rev. Conrad Hock, the Melancholic idealist:

is permeated with a strong longing for an ultimate good (God) and eternity, and feels continually hampered by earthly and temporal affairs and impeded in his cravings. The melancholic is a stranger here below and feels homesick for God and eternity.

This is perhaps never more true than when the melancholic is sick, laid low by some trivial yet debilitating illness. Sickness is obviously far from anyone’s ideal, yet for the melancholic it provides moment-by-moment evidence that something is terribly wrong with reality. Noses aren’t meant to run, throats shouldn’t scratch, and heads are not supposed to feel like they’re being gently squeezed in a vise. Sickness is prima facie evidence that the world is broken.

But sickness is still just a symptom, and while the melancholic would much prefer to not be sick, it’s not as though life would be perfect if only he never again fell ill. Health is more than the absence of sickness, and for the melancholic it seems obvious that there exists a positive state, a more perfect state, which is to our ordinary life as ordinary life is to a bad case of the flu.

Religious traditions tend to fuel this impression, with sickness, aging, death, and tragedy typically conflated with the challenge of moral wrongdoing to create an all-encompassing ‘problem of evil’. The underlying logic of our predilection for wickedness and our susceptibility to physical harm translates into a ‘fall from grace’, a fundamental delusion, or an abandonment of our original nature.

For the melancholic, this ideal state can seem as though it is just within reach, or always just beyond our grasp. It is, as the third Century BC Daoist text, the Nei Ye, states:

So silent!
None hears its sound.
So compact!
It resides in the heart.
So dark!
Invisible of form.
So overflowing!
It is born along with me.
Its form unseen,
Its sound unheard,
Yet its doings perfectly ordered.
Such we call: the Dao.

The answer to our imperfect state of existence is, as the Daoist tradition teaches, to embody the Dao, the mysterious creative principle, in our own lives:

There is a spirit that spontaneously resides within the person:
it comes and goes, none can anticipate it.
Lose it and one is certain to become disrupted;
grasp it and one is certain to become regulated.
Reverently sweep its abode and the essence will spontaneously come.
Ponder it with tranquil thinking,
calm your recollections to regulate it.
Maintain a dignified appearance and a manner of awe,
and the essence will spontaneously become stable.
Grasp it and never release it,
and your ears and eyes will not go astray,
your mind will have no other plans.
When a balanced heart lies at the center,
the things of the world obtain their proper measures.

Thus the Nei Ye sets forth an ideal of human life in the world that borders on the supernatural; a concept of virtue that encompasses even the physical consitution, as though health and virtue are intimately connected:

When a man is able to attain balanced tranquility,
his skin is sleek, his flesh full, his eyes sharp, his ears keen,
his muscles taut, his bones sturdy.
And so he is able to carry the great circle of heaven on his head
and tread upon the great square of earth.
He finds his reflection in the great purity and sees by the great light.
Attentive and cautious, he never errs,
and every day renews the force of his virtue.
Knowing everything in the world and exhausting the four poles of the earth,
he attentively nurtures his plenitude:
this is called: grasping within.
To be so and never to revert is life without error.

Sickness can be a reminder that we are not living up to the virtue we desire. It can be a humbling, even humiliating reminder of the more insidious, ignoble, and overlooked ways we fall short of the ideal in our ordinary lives. Sickness reminds us in physical terms of the terrible frailty in our spiritual lives. Sickness reminds us how weak we are, how far from the goal, how totally dependent on something far greater than ourselves.

Melancholic Facades and the Challenge of Sincerity

Melancholics learn to interact with people through a facade. At the same time, they hate to be subject to duplicity or manipulation by others.

This inconsistency makes sense if you consider that a melancholic is, on the one hand, not easily stirred by external stimuli, while on the other hand he is afraid of being shamed or humiliated. Not easily stirred by external stimuli means that the melancholic will often, by nature, fail to give a suitably emotive or excited or even interested response to another’s words or tales. He might in fact be emotive, excited, and interested, but not to the degree of expression expected by the other temperaments. For a Sanguine interlocutor, the words ‘no, I really am interested’ delivered in monotone with a deadpan expression are insufficiently encouraging.

Depending on the degree of negative and disappointed responses he receives, the melancholic may learn that he must amplify his expressions until others are satisfied. A blank stare must become an encouraging nod; an encouraging nod must become a warm smile; a warm smile must become amused laughter.

This is in fact incredibly draining and slightly demeaning; draining because it requires constant effort to monitor and adapt one’s own expression, demeaning because it undermines one’s natural responses. Yet for an adult melancholic these habits may already be deeply ingrained. At its worst the melancholic may feel that the amplification of his expressions takes on a life of its own, becoming a mask or facade that impinges on his own integrity. But the melancholic never thinks of the facade as an imposition on others, or as a form of benign manipulation. It is, after all, benevolent -an attempt to embody a more ideal example of interpersonal communication- and the pains of an amplified smile or habitual chuckle are borne by the melancholic alone, the cost of pursuing the ideal.

There are two main scenarios in which the melancholic facade encounters a facade in the other.

The first is when the melancholic encounters a facade like his own. In such cases, the melancholic usually realises that he cannot ‘read’ the other person, which is to say that he does not get the expected feedback to his own facade. It’s as though both are trying to be ‘good listeners’ but that leaves no one to do the actual talking. The best outcome is to find some point of common interest that can get behind the facade.

The second scenario can be much harder to pick, depending on the other person. It could be a boss, a friend, a colleague, or a neighbour, and the facade will change accordingly. They may be consistently hard to read, or they may simply give off an impression that conflicts with the context or content of how they present themselves. For example, when someone offers praise that doesn’t ring true despite their apparent sincerity, or when they share information that doesn’t seem quite relevant, or when their persona shifts in an unexpected way in the presence of a third person, such that their responses to you become inconsistent; these examples are clues that a person is not being completely open with you, and may have a hidden agenda or vested interest of which you are unaware.

The melancholic finds these instances of duplicity and manipulation hateful for three reasons: first, because he is susceptible to such tactics and hence is doubly embittered when he finds himself deceived. Second, because he hates to be shamed and humiliated, and it can be both shameful and humiliating to be unwittingly manipulated by another. Third, because the melancholic’s own facade is the product of well-intentioned albeit misguided effort to connect with others in a mutually affirming way, to embody the ideal of interpersonal commmunication. Since attempts to manipulate the melancholic are mediated by this facade, the melancholic may feel that his bona fide attempts to relate to others have been abused. Someone has taken advantage of his attempt to meet the ideal.

In such scenarios the melancholic may revert to a more genuine idealist response, which puts personal integrity above interpersonal ideals. Once he realises that others are not playing by the rules, or in good faith, he will immediately become more cautious, reserved, and less responsive. In his mind, the manipulative person can no longer be trusted, and there is no longer any need to maintain the facade. This change can come as a surprise to others, who may feel that the melancholic has suddenly become a different person or radically changed the nature of the relationship.

The Challenge of Sincerity

This example of facades and interpersonal communication shows how the tendency to embrace the ideal can work against the melancholic if the ideal he chooses is incomplete, one-sided, or misguided. At face value it is genuinely ideal to be polite, empathic, considerate, and attentive. But another ideal – the ideal of sincerity, authenticity, and integrity conflicts with a single-minded pursuit of idealised interpersonal communication. In practical terms, the melancholic will suffer if he continually forces himself to pretend to be polite, empathic, considerate and attentive. In fact, the whole relationship will suffer if the melancholic fails to express himself honestly.

Melancholics are liable to apply their uncertainty and fear of being shamed to their own self-expression, holding back out of concern that their natural, uncontrived, honest self-expression might unintentionally offend, hurt, or disappoint others. A melancholic will tend to think long and hard before speaking, in hope of avoiding such outcomes.

The ideal of sincerity presents a challenge. The melancholic knows that everything will be better in the long run if he ceases to control and contrive his interactions with others; yet he fears the immediate consequences of failing to self-censor and self-control, even while knowing it is flawed and unsustainable. He fears that his true self will turn out to be an objectively bad self. Yet he knows that even a bad self is at least a self, whereas a facade is no self at all.

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma.

The melancholic tends to think in ‘all or nothing’ dichotomies. Either maintain the facade for the sake of ideal interpersonal communication, or drop it completely for the sake of ideal sincerity. But sincerity does not mean pretending one has no inclination to better express oneself. Sincerity does not mean disowning the desire for ideal communication. Sincerity does not mean that the desire to communicate better is somehow false.

Sincerity simply means being without pretence, duplicity, or deceit. While the melancholic facade may constitute pretence, duplicity or deceit, the motivation behind the facade is sincere, and can be expressed in a more sincere way. In other words, there is no need to present to the world either a polished facade or a polished sincerity. No, the choice is between a polished facade and an unpolished sincerity, a potentially messy and inconsistent sincerity, a sincerity that may take time to come into its own.

The fears that push the melancholic towards a facade will fade in time if we allow the gradual exploration of sincerity to unfold. In practice, this means resisting the urge to fill each moment of interpersonal communication with one’s idealised set of responses, cues, expressions and attention. It means allowing oneself to lean instead toward one’s actual feelings and responses, perhaps slowly at first, but with greater surety over time. It may mean expressing sincerely one’s doubts, concerns, and even one’s wish to communicate more ideally – but to express them without duplicity, rather than through the contrived and convoluted mechanism of a facade.

As the Confucian classic, The Great Learning, states:

What is meant by “making the thoughts sincere,” is the allowing no self-deception, as when we hate a bad smell, and as when we love what is beautiful. This is called self-enjoyment. Therefore, the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.

This applies not only to self-deception but to the deception of others as well. But ultimately we are deceiving ourselves as well if we think that there is anything to gain from the melancholic facade.

The Power of Sincerity

“Sincerity is that whereby self-completion is effected, and its way is that by which man must direct himself.”

We think of a sincere person as someone honest and open. But for a melancholic idealist sincerity has far greater significance.

The definition of sincerity is freedom from deceit, hypocrisy, or duplicity,
which comes from the Latin sincerus meaning whole, pure, clean, or unmixed, which in turn is believed to come from the Proto-Indo-European for ‘of one growth’.

‘Of one growth’ means that one’s words, deeds, and even one’s bearing are expressions of one’s deeper nature. No pretence, no duplicity, no contrivance, no artifice.

The idealist appreciates this, because his efforts are useless if they do not accord with his ideal. Efforts are too much to sustain, and superficialities are too much to remember if they are not founded in something deep, unchanging, and reliable.

The Doctrine of the Mean ascribes almost supernatural qualities to sincerity:

Sincerity is the way of Heaven. The attainment of sincerity is the way of men. He who possesses sincerity is he who, without an effort, hits what is right, and apprehends, without the exercise of thought;– he is the sage who naturally and easily embodies the right way. He who attains to sincerity is he who chooses what is good, and firmly holds it fast.

Or perhaps it is better to say that it describes an almost supernatural degree of sincerity.

It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men. Able to give its full development to the nature of other men, he can give their full development to the natures of animals and things. Able to give their full development to the natures of creatures and things, he can assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth. Able to assist the transforming and nourishing powers of Heaven and Earth, he may with Heaven and Earth form a ternion.

This section of the Confucian classic is reminiscent of the older text, the Zhou Yi or Yi Jing, Hexagram 61, ‘Inner Truth’:

Pigs and fishes are the least intelligent of all animals and therefore the most difficult to influence. The force of inner truth must grow great indeed before its influence can extend to such creatures. In dealing with persons as intractable and as difficult to influence as a pig or a fish, the whole secret of success depends on finding the right way of approach. One must first rid oneself of all prejudice and, so to speak, let the psyche of the other person act on one without restraint. Then one will establish contact with him, understand and gain power over him. When a door has thus been opened, the force of one’s personality will influence him. If in this way one finds no obstacles insurmountable, one can undertake even the most dangerous things, such as crossing the great water, and succeed.

Both the Confucian text and the Yi recognise that sincerity is not morally neutral; it both encourages and presupposes underlying virtue:

But it is important to understand upon what the force of inner truth depends. This force is not identical with simple intimacy or a secret bond. Close ties may exist also among thieves; it is true that such a bond acts as a force but, since it is not invincible, it does not bring good fortune. All association on the basis of common interests holds only up to a certain point. Where the community of interest ceases, the holding together ceases also, and the closest friendship often changes into hate. Only when the bond is based on what is right, on steadfastness, will it remain so firm that it triumphs over everything.

Sincerity ensures that our words and deeds arise from a secure foundation in our true nature, rather than the vagaries of cultural forces, or the facades of daily life. The attainment of sincerity is more than simply ‘being honest’ or ‘being oneself’. Rather, it is the expression of one’s true nature, which is in turn the foundation of virtue in a human context.