Friday, November 15, 2013

A strange melancholy

"At first sight there is something surprising in this strange unrest of so many happy men, restless in the midst of abundance . . . To these causes must be attributed that strange melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance, and that disgust at life which sometimes seizes upon them in the midst of calm and easy circumstances." Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol 2, published in 1840
The term “strange melancholy” has been stuck in my brain. I saw the words used in a slightly different context and decided to track it down to its source.

Yes, I remember learning about Alexis de Tocqueville in American History classes but I recall no details of his observations of the American people in the early years of our nation’s independence. Although he wrote nearly 200 years ago, what he wrote in 1840 could have been written today.

I live in a very affluent area. I’m a leftist evangelical Christian, slightly crazy woman who shops in thrift stores and hangs laundry on the clothes line. I paint furniture and sell it. I’m surrounded by wealthy conservative CEOs and diplomats who have personal shoppers and laundresses. My little community is what I call “the cheap seats” and the value of my townhouse is well below the average for the surrounding area, where it’s hard to find a house for under $1 million. Parking lots here are full of fancy Range Rovers and high-end sedans. Women wear fur coats to the grocery store. Skinny teenaged girls with perfect smiles and perfect skin talk about being bored while they flip their perfect hair. They have designer clothes before they are old enough to drive. I see them drinking lattes at Starbucks in their riding clothes. Their mothers look perfect too.

But I overhear snippets of their conversations with friends at the coffee shops or on their cellphones. They don’t seem happy. In the midst of abundance their focus seems to be on what they still need, their frustration over what they can’t control. In the midst of abundance, many of their hearts seem strangely empty, their lives untethered.

I sometimes envy their material wealth, their beautiful houses, their vacation homes by the sea, their gorgeous clothes, their toned bodies, and their fancy parties. I envy them until I smack myself upside the head and remember that those things that I sometimes covet are just empty trinkets. The abundance that truly fills the heart is so much more than trinkets.

So Alexis de Tocqueville got it in 1840. Some things haven't changed. He saw that people can have seemingly abundant lives, full of material things, and still be sad. They chase their tails, trying to get more things, more abundance, and don’t find contentment. I can’t claim perfect contentment either, but I think I’m beginning to learn that the source of true abundance is not of this Earth.

Philippians 4:11-13 “ . . . for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

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