I see myself in literature far more easily than I do in the mirror.
From Milo in the beginning of The Phantom Tollbooth, to Plath’s fig tree scene, there are plenty of literary characters who are dissatisfied with their lives, unsure of what they want, or feel as though life is passing them by. And strangely, while these works of writing change nothing about my unique situation, they make me feel infinitely more capable of managing my life.
Recently, I read Matthew Arnold’s “The Buried Life.” It’s a fairly short Victorian-era poem that addresses philosophical questions that don’t have simple answers. In the third line, Arnold speaks of “a nameless sadness.” This line jumped out at me because I have been so very down in the dumps lately, despite the fact that there’s nothing I can identify as being wrong. He goes on to assert that “…the mass of men concealed/Their thoughts for fear that if revealed/” they would be met with “indifference or blame reproved.”
Does anyone else feel like this? I know I do. My mind goes to great lengths to play tricks on me and keep me stuck in the same old patterns of self-destructive behavior and thinking. Once again, I find myself thinking, “If it doesn’t get better than this, why would I stick around?” more and more frequently. But it does get better, even if it doesn’t always improve in the way or timeline that I wish it would.
I will drive myself crazy if I spend my “fire and restless force in tracking out [my] true, original course.” As much as I wish I could find some absolute meaning, point to it, and say, “This is the reason for the trauma, for the misery, for the suffering,” I cannot. This doesn’t mean I will stop asking, though, because the only conclusion I have come to so far is that the fact that I continue to wonder, to question, and to keep trying is what humanizes me. Arnold argues that we humans lack the skills to articulate these “buried” selves, lives, and emotions but goes on to say that what he craves (as I also do) is genuine human connection, like-minded people who look past our facades, people with whom we can be our true selves–no matter how we define those selves. The second-to-last stanza describes “The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain/and what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know/a man becomes aware of his life’s flow.”
Knowing that I am not alone makes a huge difference. I think many people are probably feeling increasingly isolated and lonely these days. Reaching out through a screen isn’t the same as actually seeing friends and family in person, and trying to navigate college courses online is daunting at best. It’s easy to forget about all the good things in my life when they aren’t laid out before me.
A few days ago, I was crying on my mom’s couch telling her, “I don’t have any friends,” and explaining how I’d driven everyone away. And while I frequently do feel as though I cannot show my “buried self,” to most people, I also have to remember that no one (including myself) is ever as weird, outlandish, or broken as they think they are.
As numb and despondent as I’ve been feeling lately, the fact that this poem resonated so deeply with me shows me that all is not lost. No, I don’t think that to be a writer or artist depression is necessary, but if I have to go through these periods of doldrums, I might as well do my best not to let them paralyze me. So what if I write a hundred terrible poems about the cliche hallmarks of sadness? They’re cliche because they’re true, because many other aspiring writers, artists, and humans have all felt this way before. And when I can trust someone with these most precious creations that spark from a nearly-extinguished source of inspiration, then I am truly unburying my life.