While social-media influenced culture centres on happiness and living the best life, we must also pause to take a breathe, and recognise sadness as an essential emotion. Very often, society focusses so much on fun, happiness and happy stories, that there is not enough space for expressing sadness, loneliness or anxiety, without being pathologized.
I am not suggesting that we need to have a society where everyone should be quiet, pensive or stoic all the time. Simply one where silence, grief, sadness and solitude finds their place in as few out of a wide range of emotions experienced by all functioning people. These “negative emotions should not always be spoken of only as being symptoms of guilt, mental suffering or illness, but also as routine feelings in everyday life that requires managing and regulating.
Let’s face it, most of us growing up, were never taught by anyone that managing emotions also a necessary skill to be learnt. We as social animals, are expected to have learnt that stuff on our own somehow. The other day, a friend told me about her 4 year old niece learning about emotions and how to recognise them. While marvelling on the evolution in what constituent a sound education, I couldn’t help but wonder how many adults out there are in need of the same lesson!
I want to clarify that the I am in no way minimising any kind of mental ailment. In fact, I want to underline the need to normalise talking about sadness, loneliness and anxiety without casually appropriating the language of actual medical and clinical diagnosis. The reckless abuse of such vocabulary is what minimises the seriousness with which much of society approaches the subject of mental health.
Sadness and loneliness are routine parts of human existence. Not being elated and up all the time like the way social media and pop culture convinces us everyone else is, should’t make one feel like an outlier. I think, it is a misunderstanding that we want to consume happy media or books or resources, when we are sad. Sometimes, nothing can be more isolating than that. It is akin to someone saying “Oh stop being sad, be happy.” It doesn’t work that way.
Some emotions need to be felt and for us to go through them, rather than to be pushed aside or replaced. Some emotions need to be handled with care, and patiently sieved through before they could dissipate. For me, in moments like that, there is nothing more comforting than reading some great author who not only writes about emotions that I am feeling, sometimes giving me the words to express them myself, but also produces a certain kind of melancholia that is essential to sooth the heart of the lonely and the sad. It like being extended an embrace, that invites commiserating without wallowing, invoking a catharsis that is necessary for healing sometimes.
Below I have jotted down my favourite short reads for those gloomy days. Just click the title to find them and ready away!
Referring to the impact of this short story not only on Russian literature, but with a scope far exceeding that, Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé once said,
We all come out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’
The Overcoat is a reminder of the apathy that befalls human beings often: living so close to one another but unable to really see each other. The Overcoat is a scathing criticism of bureaucracy and it’s dehumanisation. The story is extremely grim and it’s impact lingers way after one has finished reading it.
The main protagonist Akaky Akakievich needs a coat for the harsh Russian winter and sets about getting one for himself. The overcoat becomes a vessel for ushering in new possibilities in his life, for unlived dreams and for hopes, which he couldn’t even spell out to himself until then. The overcoat is a promise of transformation onto another life or another way of life. Gogol takes us on the journey of getting something as seemingly simple as an overcoat, and crafts it into a parable of life and death. Even years after reading this story, I still shudder to think of the end, and can’t help but be a bit mad at humanity and ponder as the narrator did,
How much savage coarseness is concealed beneath delicate, refined worldliness.
This story by Anton Chekov is also often called “House with the Mezzanine” in translations. Chekov was deeply influenced by the Impressionist movement and is is clear from the way he colours his words.The story is narrated by a painter who recounts to the reader about a time in his life about 6 or 7 years ago, when he lived in the estate of Belokurov, in the countryside. This is where he meets two sisters who leave a strong impact on him: one of them frail, bookish and shy, while the other, opinionated, hard working and with strong political beliefs.
The story is multi-layered with a million different ways to read it. It is a measured mediation on politics and art. But it can also be read as a signifier of the larger socio-economic changes in Russia, as a juxtaposition of realism and idealism that Chekov so often examined in his work, as a story charged with the politics of it’s times or even through the lens of gender relations examining the ways in which the two sisters are framed by the narrator in contrast to each other, and in relation to himself.
Since this is a list for sad days, on sad days, I like to read this story from the point of view of an idealist’s idealistic unfulfilled yearning. I revel in the gloom and self-consumed yearning of the artist for fading memories, which might not have even been real after all. And I identify with his delicious idleness :
For hours together I would sit and look through the windows at the sky, the birds, the trees and read my letters over and over again, and then for hours together I would sleep. Sometimes I would go out and wander aimlessly until evening.
The Story of an Hour remains one of my most enduring favourites by Kate Chopin, who is a genius in capturing emotions on paper. In fact, she is brilliant at doing something which is even much harder: painting a thorough picture of the otherwise blink-or-you-miss-it speed with which emotions are fleet through us.
In this particular story, I love the bravado Chopin displays when she takes an event widely framed to be tragic and turns the framing around to make it liberating.
I read this story at a particular time when I was reeling with shock of an unpleasant news (No points for guessing; it was a break-up!). I remember being unable to sort through the jumbled emotions I felt: sad but also lighter. Reading this particular story was reassuring in a way that no amount of self-interrogation could get me to be. What I felt was the first stirrings of freedom.
Luckily for me, I got to have a happy ending! Phew….I won’t reveal more of the plot and leave you guys to discover it for yourself. It is very short but by God, what a punch it packs.
The most notable thing about Time is that it is so purely relative. A large amount of reminiscence is, by common consent, conceded to the drowning man; and it is not past belief that one may review an entire courtship while removing one’s gloves.O.Henry
This short story by O.Henry is barely 2 pages long, but he takes us through a roller coaster of emotions. A young woman receives a cactus from her lover, which suggests an obvious snub, but truth is sometimes stranger than our imaginations, and it can arrive in the form of a classic O.Henry ending.
This story echoes one of the most painful questions one might ask at the end of a relationship : why did it end after all? In this case, the answer happens to open all sorts of questions about culture, presentation and image-making. Ultimately, the ending makes you smile. But if you think about the narrow misses we might have had in our own lives due to our ill-formed notion of ‘keeping up appearances’, it is not so funny after all!
Still, I like to read this particular story again and again, as a reminder of the wide range of misunderstandings that are possible in human interaction of all kind. Sometimes, this thought provides comfort. Sometimes distress. Mostly, the former.
The narrator’s wife and her friend, a blind man, exchange tapes with each other over many decades. The story is centred around a moment of clarity for the narrator when he sets about trying to explain what a cathedral on the TV looks like, to his wife’s friend.
There are so may people who try to embellish their brutality with a voice which is meant to convey matter-of-fact objectivity. The narrator in this story is clearly one of them. The man is swimming in low self esteem along with being judgemental and condescending. His observations are downright cruel sometimes. Ultimately, at least according to me, Carver slyly pushes us, the readers to think of the affinity between this unlikeable narrator and ourselves. While this is an uncomfortable thought to have, it is necessary.
We all forget to humanise. Sometimes, we forget to humanise the people next to us, our friends, family or even spouses. Sometimes even ourselves. This is an homage to the many many lives we all carry within us. And for us to not forget that about us or others, as we wallow in our own moments or self-pity or self-hate.