The king of wistful thinking

I like to use the same words in English and Norwegian, translated of course, when that is possible, but I’m not always certain that the meaning is exactly the same. It seems like feeling melancholy or melancholic is perfectly acceptable in Norway, and the word has been used so much that it has probably lost some of its original meaning. It’s quite common in music for example, and a couple of my favourite singers are often referred to as the master of melancholy. Yet their songs describe a normal feeling of sadness, loss or thoughtfulness, which means that you concider other people’s feelings. That doesn’t sound negative to me. Another singer, the Canadian Leonard Cohen, has always been popular in Norway because of his melancholic style, but I’ve never heard anyone say that his fans are depressed. There are a couple of Norwegian compound words that could help to illustrate the different nuances. Sorrow could be accompanied by either mild or heavy, indicating that there are types of sorrow it’s easier to live with than others. It really is a shame we lose some of the nuances in daily speech.

I could be wrong, but I get the impression that the English language describes melancholy as an abnormal level of sadness, maybe serious enough to be a depression. The Norwegian definition is the same, and an online medical encyclopedia describes melancholy as a deep form of depression characterized by loss of interest or pleasure in most activities. The word seems to be used differently today, however. The word on the street is literally very different.

I considered using the same word in this post, but wasn’t sure which of the two definitions the reader would choose, the definition in the encyclopedia or the one used in daily speech. I looked for alternatives in the thesaurus, and I think wistful is closer to what I want to say. There is always a risk when you walk down memory lane, which is what I did over the weekend. This phrase is often used when you think of happier times, but there’s a lot of “if onlys” and “could have beens” mixed in with the good memories too.

The point I wanted to make was that I spent last weekend in this zone, not terribly unhappy, but writing Fragmented childhood and Liberated childhood heroes brought me back to my adolescence, which include some uncomfortable memories. I was thinking about how easy things would be if hindsight was pre/frontsight. It also made me think of the song Band on the Run by Wings (Paul McCartney), which is about freedom and a desire to break out. That’s a feeling many can relate to. Paul McCartney got the idea for the song when everyone wanted to get out of Beatles. The idea of stability appeals to me, but not if it means that everything stays the same forever. It’s like this conversation between Marlin and Dory in the animated film Finding Nemo:

Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
Dory: Hm. That’s a funny thing to promise.
Marlin: What?
Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for…

My childhood was stable and sheltered enough. That wasn’t the problem, but nothing much happened. I want something better for my daughter, which is also difficult sometimes. She wants a skateboard, and I really want to buy her one, but then there is the safety issue and not wanting anything to happen. I want the right things to happen and a fracture isn’t on my list.

I have been thinking back on some of the things I wanted to do when I was growing up. In some cases I was told at home that I wasn’t allowed to, in some cases it was purely a financial question and sometimes it simply wasn’t an option in Norway. I remember how cool it was when Michael J. Fox taught the previous generation how to really use a skateboard in Back to the Future. After watching the film ET I really wanted a BMX-bike. I’m not sure any of those were sold in Norway at the time, and even if they were, we wouldn’t be able to afford it. Besides, I grew up in a my way or the highway kind of family.

Windsurfing became popular in Norway in the 80’s, but that was especially not an option to a low-income family. As a young adult role-playing games and board games like Risk and The Settlers of Catan became popular, and I also heard about kids dressing in costumes and learning the languages Tolkien constructed. The most developed one is Elvish, but he also reconstructed an early Germanic language that might have been used by the people in Beowulf. That would have been my sort of thing, except that it was impossible. I even joined a youth theatre company when I was in junior high school. I was trying to improve my communication skills, partly because I wanted to do the things I couldn’t, but also because I was trying to become the son and brother my family preferred. I would have spent a lifetime pretending I was someone I wasn’t, which wouldn’t have been a good idea at all. I went to theatre rehersal once a week for a whole school year, but it was a complete disaster.

I think this is problematic in a wider sense too. The prevalence of autism and ADHD has increased dramatically in recent decades, or so most people believe. I’m not questioning this, but these are not new disorders. There were probably many people, like the fictional Sherlock Holmes-character Arthur Conan Doyle started describing in the late 1880’s, people that were seen as strange because they didn’t behave the way you expected. The world used to be more suited for these people, but it’s almost impossible these days to start at the bottom and work your way up without a long college education. It’s not a good time for individuals, and I’m not sure Steve Wozniak could have created Apple today. Everything is about group work now, and if you don’t play this game well, you are not likely to win. There are probably many good ideas that are either stolen or forgotten.

For the record: I have been reluctant to express melancholy before, because when I did, I was accused of being an incompetent father due to depression. Clearly some people don’t understand what depression is, which means they didn’t understand me. J. K. Rowling explained it well in Harry Potter. The Dementors made Ron Weasley feel like he was never going be cheerful again. That’s so not me. It’s like we are not allowed to express anything but euphoria, which means that we are encouraged to lie. Hello? Anybody home? Sometimes I very much doubt it!

Sometimes it seems like Sherlock is correct. This is from a conversation between Sherlock and his friend Watson:

Sherlock Holmes: Oh, John, I envy you
Dr John Watson: You envy me?
Sherlock Holmes: Your mind, it’s so placid, straightforward, barely used.

I might add complacent as well.

Wistful is so close to wishful. It’s like having a facial expression that looks sad and happy at the same time. Life is that complicated. This may surprise some people, but it is actually possible to feel a little sad without falling completely apart. I am wistful because there is some sadness, but also wishful because I have hopes for the future.


2 thoughts on “The king of wistful thinking

  1. Emotion can be a very complicated thing to sort through. And, it can be so very difficult to adequately explain to another person just exactly what certain feelings are like.

    I especially appreciate:

    Wistful is so close to wishful. It’s like having a facial expression that looks sad and happy at the same time. Life is that complicated. This may surprise some people, but it is actually possible to feel a little sad without falling completely apart.

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