Hello Darkness My Old Friend

We interrupt this merry holiday season for brief message about sadness…(because some of us don’t always feel like celebrating this time of year)

Christmas is a lot of pressure to feel certain ways. If you don’t, you’re at least expected to pretend and play a certain part in the festivities lest you be known as a grinch.

So what happens if we feel something like sadness, when we’re expected to be happy and even putting pressure on ourselves to get that way in order to have the legendary “holiday spirit”?

Actually, it’s not just Christmas. We have a pretty poor view of sadness as an emotion, and our culture is full of messages about how unhealthy and avoidable feeling sad is.

Tonight I’m calling bullshit on this anti-sadness propaganda.

kqcxf_zvdau-jordan-whittSadness is good. Sadness is a gift. People need to feel sad. Very often it’s the avoidance and shaming of sadness that’s the real problem.

This seems likely pretty unconventional wisdom in a culture that teaches us that being sad is a sign of your personal failure or weakness. By making happiness an object of personal achievement, we directly and indirectly communicate to people that their unhappiness is evidence of their incapability, lack of character, lack of effort, or even some kind of spiritual problem.

If only you were better at….

Fill in the blank, and it probably contains some form of blaming your lack of happiness in life as a consequence of your ineptitude.

And it may be that some dissatisfaction is truly a helpful reminder of how some of our choices have created a world for ourselves that is less than it should be. But what I’m really trying to warn you against is the tendency to view happiness as normative and healthy, while equating sadness with abnormality and personal insufficiency.

As much as most of us dislike feeling it, sadness is a gift, because sadness can be our teacher.

Sadness can teach us about loss. When we’re grieving, sadness is the emotional pain that reminds us how precious and important something was that is now gone. Even the anticipation of future sadness can help us to treasure and appreciate the people, places, and things that are meaningful in our present lives.

Sadness can teach us about things in our lives that aren’t right or good for us. When we work too much and play too little. When we sacrifice things that are important and meaningful to keep up with the Jones’. When we consistently choose to violate our values and morals to keep the status quo. Sadness can speak truth into our lives that we might otherwise ignore.

Sadness can teach us about things that aren’t right in the world. To be moved to tears at the sight of war or natural disasters or people being mistreated is a painful but crucial affirmation of our humanity. This powerful emotion can be so vital in moving us out of our complacency and self-absorption and into caring for others and the injustices they face.

Sadness can reconnect us with deeper pain that we’ve been detached from for too long. Sometimes in the process of just getting on with life we move too quickly away from wounds and hurts and scars that have been covered up by the accumulation of everyday living. When we cry for something we often are shedding tears for something much deeper and perhaps even more personal. It’s easy to see this when a celebrity dies and the public outpouring of grief is enormous. These are often times in which people access their other losses, especially the unnamed and forgotten losses that never were acknowledged or given their due.

Sadness can be an opportunity to embrace our vulnerability. In our have-it-all-together-on-facebook world, sadness opens us to the true reality that we are only fooling others when we act like everything is fine. The world is a hard place. Life is difficult and tragic. You can’t escape suffering and when you try to, you create new and terrible forms of it. Sadness encourages us to be honest with ourselves and perhaps even other people that we are broken and in need.

Lastly, sadness can be an invitation to community and interdependence. When we stop running from our sadness and learn its lessons about how fragile and vulnerable we are, it opens us to our need for each other. We can only pretend to be self-sufficient for so long before sadness challenges our illusions and encourages us to reconnect with the planet and its people, on whom we truly rely for our existence.

Now sadness is not exactly the same thing as clinical depression. The differences are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice to say that depression can be a period of sadness that has truly become unhealthy and problematic, accompanied by a group of symptoms that tend to be self-perpetuating. So while I’m encouraging us all to develop a more welcoming and cordial relationship to our sadness, I’m not in any way diminishing the importance of being careful and wise about how we deal with either sadness or depression.

In both cases, there is a need to listen to what they have to teach us. Very often they have important things to say about our lives and our world.

But our approach to these, and perhaps all of our feelings, must be that of a conversation. Listen well indeed. But speak back after hearing what sadness and depression have communicated. These experiences of sadness need a dialogue, and that always includes a response. Sadness, and even more so depression, give information that must always be filtered and considered wisely but not accepted at face value. Depression in particular speaks with a certain bias, a potentially misleading voice that desperately needs to have other truths spoken back to it. Just because some of what your sadness tells you is true, doesn’t mean you should buy into all that says.

Which of course is easily said, but more difficult to carry out. I think this is just one reason why we need each other. No one should be entirely alone to sort out their feelings and thoughts. And when something like sadness is speaking into our lives, we really do need trustworthy people to talk out these messages and help us converse with our difficult emotions. When depression speaks, in spite of our inclination to withdraw and isolate, we need more than ever those people who have our best interest at heart to helps us sort through the confusing dialogue. Perhaps we even need someone with a little training and experience, someone skilled at navigating the conversation with depression to help us when the darkness seems so overwhelming and consuming.

This is why we need a little space for people to be truly sad at Christmas and holiday times. If we need each other in the process of conversing with feelings like sadness, then we need the opportunity to be real about our struggles. The pressure to be joyful and nostalgic and sparkly is one of the most isolating things we could do to those who are having a hard time in a season like this. Could there be an invitation to find joy, peace, or hope in the traditions of these holidays? Absolutely. But the invitation must be given gently, and never with the insinuation that those who struggle to find celebration are somehow defective or social pariahs.

In the spirit of giving, let’s allow some space for each other to be a little bit sad in the midst of these holidays. Can we let sadness be as welcome a guest as any at our celebrations, appreciating the gifts it brings and the value of its presence in our midst? Let’s not equate joy and celebration with escapism from the reality of our current situations. Pretending to have positive feelings or coercing others to fake their feelings at a time like this is no solution, it only further isolates those individuals and reinforces the idea that sadness is wrong, dangerous, or ill. But we need to make space for our sadness and the unhappiness of others. At a time in the calendar year when cultural rituals seem to demand happiness and exuberance, could there be a more compassionate gift than to honour and welcome the sadness people are feeling and struggling with?

And now, back to your regularly scheduled merriment…


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