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On Being Sad

On Being Sad

Sadness never ends, but happiness does

Brazilian love song

“You know, I think I’ve always been sad.”

Her words came across the phone line as a peaceful acceptance of a state I knew she had lived in for decades, but which she, nor I, nor others had never really affirmatively acknowledged.

She continued. “All this time, in grade school, in high school as a dance team leader, I was always trying to be happy, and it was just make-believe. Even then I was sad.”

I wasn’t concerned for her wellbeing or worried that she was depressed. Rather, I knew she had come to an accommodation that provided her the contentment that all the years of faking it had not; she had diagnosed her condition to her satisfaction.

Her diagnosis is not very popular, for we would much rather say that we’re “in a funk,” a little down. Sometimes we even say we’re depressed, as though depression is a state that can, with time, counseling, or even medicine, be lifted. And, it seems almost hypocritical that we are quick to say, “God, he is just the happiest person I’ve ever seen,” but we are loath to accept sadness as a permanent state.

Why happiness and not sadness?

One answer is that using the label “sad” requires us to contemplate about just what it is we are feeling. To say we are sad instead of merely and transiently unhappy is the same as saying we are poor instead of under-privileged or disadvantaged. To be sure, the word “sad” touches the gut and heart instead of the mind.

We prefer to turn away from the visage of sadness, to close our eyes as children, believing that if we can’t see the monster then it can’t see us. (While passing through a bookstore not long ago, I saw a calendar titled, 14,000 things to be happy about. One can easily predict how one titled, 365 Days of Sadness, would fare.)

Sadness is normal; it provides us with a dark yin to the sunny yang. A close look at the Chinese symbol shows not only their interlocking nature, but also a dot of dark within the light, and a dot of light within the dark. And, while the symbol also shows an equal balance between the two primitive and innate forces, the philosophy of yin-yang makes it clear that the balance is relative, that the two are not (and should not) always be equal and that one is often followed by the other. Cleary, both are needed, as Thomas Hood, in Ode to Melancholy, noted, “There’s not a string attuned to mirth but has its chord in melancholy.”

Sadness is needed. It gives us the range of emotional motion that enables us to stretch and reach places that would otherwise be out of touch. Would you want to lose a pet, a parent, or a close friend and not feel sad?

Sadness comes with knowledge. Can you not learn about Africa without also becoming aware of genocide in Darfur? Ecclesiastes says in 1:18, “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

The Bible, of course, does not have sole claim to the literary expressions of how awareness and sadness are closely entwined. Thomas Gray, in Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, wrote,

Thought would destroy their paradise.

No more; where ignorance is bliss,

Tis folly to be wise.

Sadness has the power to heal us. John Lee Hooker’s song, “The Healer,” contains the lyrics: “Blues a healer, healer, all over the world, all over the world. It healed me, it can heal you.” Long before blues evolved, William Cowper expressed the same sentiment as Hooker in his To an Afflicted Protestant Lady: “The path of sorrow, and that path alone, Leads to the land where sorrow is unknown.”

Better that sadness be brought out of the dark, that we face it full on and name the beast for what it is. The woman with whom I spoke has finally acknowledged her state of genuine sadness, thus giving herself strength to live and experience the happiness that will ultimately provide her balance.

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