Two guys walk into a bar. One says to the other, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet… “ And especially on those days when “it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off. . . .” Well, then it's time for a change of scene.
Know how you feel, Ishmael. I get a little moody myself sometimes.
Moby Dick might not be high on anyone's list of beach reading, but it's hard to deny that Melville is a master at evoking melancholy. I thought about Ishmael recently because my own frame of mind has been none too sunny, a fact I've tried to hide from all but my nearest and dearest. This is as it should be, I've always thought. Who wants to be called upon to commiserate right and left? It's not as if I'm suffering from anything major enough to qualify for the Life Events Stress Scale. More a generalized gloominess that is hard to explain, let alone justify. Best keep it to myself.
Yet I recently saw a friend take a different approach, and I learned something from it. We were at a cocktail party, and when I asked how things were going, she told the truth. Though she was surrounded by cheerful party chatter, she allowed that her life had lately been seeming like ashes, just ashes. Nothing was actually wrong, she said. There were minor complaints, as there always are. But mainly she was just going through one of those phases, one of Ishmael's drizzly Novembers of the soul.
There was nothing depressing about hearing this. Quite the opposite. My friend's candor freed us both. Cocktail party or no, we were released from the stultifying obligation to pretend. I did hear a few of her minor complaints, but there was no hint of whining. I listened -- no commiseration requested or given. We both knew that her unhappy state, though troublesome, was temporary.
This exchange, I later decided, was a model for how to conduct an authentic life, with all its ups and downs, in a social setting. Step one: Tell the truth about how you are feeling. Step two: Do not try and rationalize it, or explain it away. Step three: No whining. Step four: Stress that what you are going through is a passing phase. Step five: Don't ask for, or entertain, advice.
As remedy for my own low spirits, I am planning to try the Ishmael Cure. He is describing my downtown Manhattan neighborhood, when he observes that “right and left, the streets take you waterward” toward the Battery. You will find there “crowds of water-gazers,” all of them getting “just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in.” The water-gazers are still there and I mean to join them.