Jane Kenyon chronicled her struggles with depression in many of her poems. She eloquently evokes the dialectical tension between thankfulness for the great gifts of her life and the gravitational pull of nihilistic despair. In “Having it Out with Melancholy,” for instance, the illness has reduced her to “a piece of burned meat” who wears her clothes, speaks in her voice, and “dispatches obligations haltingly, or not at all.” She charges her nemesis with soul-maiming crimes:
You taught me to exist without gratitude
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
The pleasures of the earth are overrated.”
Later in the poem she describes how, with the help of monoamine oxidase inhibitors, “the pain stops abruptly,” acedia ebbs away, and her sense of relief, though guarded, is plain:
…With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit,
I come back to marriage and friends,
To pink-fringed hollyhocks; come back
To my desk, books and chair.
It’s not like she becomes some lotus-eating pollyanna peddler of New-Age fluff. She knows that the “unholy ghost” of depression is “certain to come again,” and turn her into “someone who can’t take the trouble to speak; someone who can’t sleep, or does nothing but sleep.” But still we see, by the poem’s conclusion, how successfully she has resisted melancholy’s attempts to ransack her spirit and dry-gulch her gratefulness. It’s almost as if her season in hell has sharpened her appreciation for small miracles like the first notes of a wood thrush on a June morning:
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.
It’s true that depression’s totalizing despair can make you feel as if all happiness and meaning are counterfeit. You get to thinking this black-hole emptiness is your bedrock reality and all you’ll ever know. But the stumbling ascent back to sunlit recovery or quiet ease can give the lie to all that gloom that had you bamboozled for a spell.
In Kenyon’s well-known poem “Otherwise,” she tempers gratitude for life’s simple pleasures with a stoic awareness of their contingent, fleeting nature—an awareness that actually enriches each experience the poem describes.
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
This poem embodies the spirit of thankful equanimity Seneca counsels us to cultivate:
We should say in all joyfulness and cheerfulness as we retire to our beds, “I have lived; I have completed now the course that fortune long ago allotted me.”*
If God adds the morrow we should accept it joyfully. The man who looks for the morrow without worrying over it knows a peaceful independence and a happiness beyond all others. Whoever says I have lived receives a windfall every morning he gets up.
*Virgil, Aeneid, IV: 653
You don’t have to be a distinguished poet or a Roman statesman to cultivate such practical wisdom. It does help, however, to follow the lead of these two in using writing to bolster your levels of acceptance and gratitude.
All morning, Kenyon says, she did work she loves, the statement itself an enduring fruit of the effort it describes. Expressing your thankfulness in writing—whether anyone else ever sees it or not—is a way to wrench your attention away from its sometimes recalcitrant focus on the negative. It helps you turn your eyes toward what’s good and true and beautiful in your life and in the world, what’s valuable partly because you won’t have it forever.
In his 2011 book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Martin Seligman describes a method he and his colleagues in the Penn Resiliency Program developed. The Three-Good-Things exercise is an easy way to start refocusing your mind on the positive aspects of your experience.
It works like this: Every evening, spend a few minutes simply writing down three good things that happened that day. (You could even add, after each description, the observation that it might have been otherwise.) Then spend a few minutes exploring why each good thing happened, or how you might experience more such good things in the future. Just briefly recording those three good things is going to have an effect if you do it routinely. Seligman’s research has shown impressive evidence that people who stick with such exercises make significant, measurable gains in their levels of happiness and success.
I hope you found this post helpful. I enjoyed spending the morning writing the first draft, fueled by dark-roast coffee. Then I had a blueberry-chia smoothie for lunch, brewed some more coffee, revised my work in the afternoon, and went for a run on two strong legs. I ate a delicious vegan dinner with my wife, and then typed up this final paragraph. It might have been otherwise.