“White” Melancholia

In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself. – S. Freud

In 1917, Freud wrote his paper on “Mourning and Melancholia”. In this paper Freud talked about the differences between mourning (the process of grief and moving on) and melancholia (a pathologic process in which hanging onto the lost loved one brings abandonment of living life). Those locked in melancholia hang on to an idealized version, or memory, of a lost loved one. To do this, they split off any negative feelings from the memory of that lost loved one. The negative feelings become a kind of masochistic, woe-is-me position, and self-deprecating as the sufferer needs to be seen to be suffering. Freud suggested that it would inevitably deteriorate into narcissism. The melancholic becomes fixated on how they have been wronged.

Recent cultural unrest seems to be showing this pattern in the behavior of our white majority culture. It is led by a president who majors in pointing out how “unfair” the process is to him, and how he has been “hurt” personally by all of the civil unrest. Those reacting to the Black Lives Matter movement seem to echo the same sentiment. They vocally complain that they are the ones being misunderstood, and “all lives matter” becomes their response. It is as if a pattern of melancholia and narcissism has become the melancholic position of the white majority. Just as in melancholia, the current cultural position is to hold on to a fantasy “love object” (in this case a belief in an idealized system or culture that never really existed) and retreat from the reality that would contain the pain of living in the here and now without the lost “love object” that they must go on without.

Progressive white people who welcome the Black Lives Matter movement are also at some risk of melancholia instead of grief. It is difficult to see one’s “civics textbook” view of the US confronted with messy reality. Resilience and a long view are needed to avoid melancholia. Containing the impulse to flee from the pain and messiness of reality is one of the ways of building resilience and avoiding melancholia.

I think the current protest movement is the only hope of pulling the white majority out of their fantasy. By keeping the reality of a world full of unfair advantage and inequality in the forefront, it becomes harder and harder to remain locked in a fantasy world. There will always be ones who refuse to see and will stay locked away from reality, but more and more, people will awaken to reality as it is and learn to live in the here and now with the pain of loss. Only then can healing begin and a new future realized.


– Stephen Taylor, MD

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