It’ll be just lovely for you to play—it’ll be so hard. And there’s so much more fun when it is hard!
―Eleanor H. Porter, Pollyanna
As regular readers of this space know, I try to see the silver linings in things. The other day, I was Pollyanna-ing around, trying to Glad Game a fit of depression, as is my wont. What’s good about this experience? I thought. And on the face of it, that’s a tricky one: it’s hard to find much to love about those days when you wake up filled with a vague, enervating dread and simultaneously want not to exist and to wonder how anyone, anywhere, has ever had the energy to go on a self-destructive tear.
When you are overcome with guilt and shame. When you know that the next days will be given over to wrestling your brain into some semblance of normalcy, and that the effort will take everything you have. And that there’s no bravery or triumph in overcoming it, because to do so is only to regain normalcy—and if you’ve done your job right, no one will know there was ever anything wrong.
And that this will irritate and upset people you love, and that you will become something they fear. That they will see you at your worst, a dreary shadow. And, worst of all, that you will become a crushing bore in the process.
But even this has its upsides! Being a total bore is kind of interesting. Probably not at a party, but then in these states you’re not going to parties. It’s true, life under depression has no color or texture, and certainly no humor, but as a result, judgments fall away, too: that time-travel romance someone left on a table in the lobby is no worse or better than any other book, one reality TV show much the same as the next. It is sort of like being an alien—at least the sort of humorless, unironic alien we see normally portrayed, albeit with considerably less interest in amateur proctology.
As with any illness, after the fact you do appreciate feeling well. You feel happiness. As a friend of mine once put it, “after you’ve been miserable for no reason, it’s hard to do it voluntarily.” I don’t know that I agree, though; to feel the pierce of real grief—at news, at a novel, at heartbreak—is itself vivid after the dull ache of the depressive state. A stab of anger or pain that does not snowball into something overwhelming but instead peaks and abates can have its charms.
I was so taken with my round of Glad Game that I thought I’d revisit Pollyanna. But when I got to the library, I found that someone else had checked it out. Instead, I borrowed another Eleanor Porter novel, Mary Marie. This is the story of a thirteen-year-old girl whose parents are divorcing. In the last chapter, we meet her as an unhappily married woman:
But, after all, what is the use of going over these last miserable years like this? Eunice is five now. Her father is the most popular portrait painter in the country, I am almost tempted to say that he is the most popular man, as well. All the old charm and magnetism are there. Sometimes I watch him (for, of course, I do go out with him once in a while), and always I think of that first day I saw him at college. Brilliant, polished, witty—he still dominates every group of which he is a member. Men and women alike bow to his charm. (I’m glad it’s not only the women. Jerry isn’t a bit of a flirt. I will say that much for him. At any rate, if he does flirt, he flirts just as desperately with old Judge Randlett as he does with the newest and prettiest debutante: with serene impartiality he bestows upon each the same glances, the same wit, the same adorable charm.) Praise, attention, applause, music, laughter, lights—they are the breath of life to him. Without them he would—But, there, he never is without them, so I don’t know what he would be.
After all, I suspect that it’s just that Jerry still loves the ice-cream and the sunsets, and I don’t. That’s all. To me there’s something more to life than that—something higher, deeper, more worth while. We haven’t a taste in common, a thought in unison, an aspiration in harmony. I suspect—in fact I know—that I get on his nerves just as raspingly as he does on mine. For that reason I’m sure he’ll be glad—when he gets my letter.
So much for the Pollyanna point of view. But then, this is one of the books Porter wrote for an adult audience, of course. And Pollyanna is for children.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.