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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: The biology of melancholy

Churchill Park playground, St. John’s, Jan. 18. — Russell Wangersky/Saltwire Network
Churchill Park playground, St. John’s, Jan. 18. — Russell Wangersky/Saltwire Network

Sometimes you see the world as beautiful.

Sometimes, you just don’t.

At 9 a.m. on a bright cold winter morning, the sun low on the January horizon, the shadows of pine trees long and blue on the ice-glazed snow, the simple marvel of one straight line of frozen boot-steps stretching out ahead of you.

How could I have forgotten how close to the Southside Hills the sun is at nine o’clock in mid-January? How long the shadows are? How could I have not remembered how bright-white the sunlit snow is? How could I forget that beauty can be so simple and strong that it hits you like a physical force?

An hour later, in the same spot, the sun is still there, the shadows are still rich blue and the snow, frozen, has changed not one iota — but the magic is gone. The footsteps still reach out in a line, but now they are leaving me behind and I am struck only by the loneliness of a playground toy, a red plastic truck on a sturdy spring, marooned in an ocean of white.

How does it happen? You see exactly the same things, yet you interpret them completely differently. Emotionally, they are two completely different visceral reactions to exactly the same set of inputs. And that makes no sense at all.

If we developed colour vision to better see and harvest ripe fruit, why did we develop the skill to take wonder from things we see or hear or smell? How has wonder helped us survive?

Right now, I am at an ebb; I find wonder in few things. I do find solace in the fact that I still do occasionally spark. It lets me believe that wonder is still there, waiting for me to be prepared to receive it.

But I am still curious. Where did it come from, this strange ability to collect light and colour and sound and find more in it that just an ordered and obvious reality? Why do some orders of things create pleasure simply by the fact that they are?

I wonder, too, whether it’s isolated to us, or whether it exists in other animals; see a cat lying across a patch of sun coming in a winter window, and you know even an animal is able to enjoy the heat it’s soaking up.

But does a cat or a dog or whale know anything about beauty? Is a cat in a window looking towards the outside only practising for catching birds, or is it enjoying the world on the other side of the glass?

And then I go one step further.

If the ability to appreciate — to be struck by wonder — doesn’t exist anywhere else, why has it developed in us? What, exactly, is it meant to do for us? If we developed colour vision to better see and harvest ripe fruit, why did we develop the skill to take wonder from things we see or hear or smell? How has wonder helped us survive?

And the obverse: if being wonderstruck does have an evolutionary benefit, why would other things — like sadness — make it fade? Surely the time you need wonder most is when your emotional walls lie around you in ruins. Yet that’s the time it seems most fleeting.

A glimpse of it, the impact alone, is a powerful, re-energizing thing. A first taste of vine-ripened tomato. The smell of freshly cut grapefruit. The great sky-wheel of stars in a clear night sky above a house surrounded by pitch black. The smell of sun-heated peat bog. A handful of sparks thrown upwards by a bonfire.

But sometimes, all of that goes flat, becomes worthless and is essentially gone.

So, this thing, this cerebral-corporal human thing, why do we even have it?

And when it goes away, where does it go?

And then, how long do we wait for it to come back?

Recent columns by this author

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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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