Faith Gong: Things we don’t talk about: The Sadness

I first noticed The Sadness over the past couple of years. 

It feels like various things at various times: a lump in the throat, a bitter feeling on my tongue, tears springing to my eyes, the sense that if you peered into my chest you’d see a visible crack running down the center of my heart. 

It’s not constant, but it washes over me almost daily. And it’s not just sad or difficult events that bring it on. The Sadness can be most pronounced in the midst of a joyful situation: snuggling up and reading a book to a child, celebrating a happy life milestone, walking the dogs down our driveway at sunset, or laughing with my family or friends. Beauty is almost certain to bring it on: art, music, literature or drama that contain deep kernels of truth. Often, I feel The Sadness most strongly when I’m in a crowd of people. 

You might think that a certain degree of sadness would be appropriate given our current cultural moment — and you’d be right. A two-year pandemic that amplified anxiety and isolation is likely to increase sadness. The news is almost always bad and divisive; that’s sad. And my daughter just told me that she heard many people are especially sad this summer because of the weather: Here in the Northeast United States, at least, frequent rain and haze from the Canadian wildfires have resulted in fewer sunny days, which may be causing a sort of off-season Seasonal Affective Disorder. (I can’t confirm her source for this.)

But I don’t think The Sadness I’m feeling can be explained entirely by external circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t affected my daily life for almost a year. After discovering my tendency to doom-scroll during the pandemic, I’ve blocked daily access to most news outlets on my devices. And while this summer’s weather has been a bummer, The Sadness predates Summer 2023. 

Let me also assure you that I am not clinically depressed. I have a generally positive outlook on life. I get out of bed and function at a productive level day-to-day: I parent multiple children (and pets), keep a house in decent order, work part-time, and maintain close relationships. The Sadness happens regardless of my mood at any given moment. 

We don’t talk about sadness much in our culture; it makes us uncomfortable. I live in a country founded on the ideals of progress, the ability to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps, and “the pursuit of happiness.” In a capitalistic society, acquiring money and possessions is supposed to correlate with greater happiness. The booming health and wellness industry promises a plethora of treatments for all our pain and discomfort — physical and mental. Sadness threatens these scripts. If we measure success by how happy we are, and progress by our ability to continually get happier, then sadness has no purpose. It’s something to be avoided at all costs. 

So we explain sadness away. We blame it on circumstances: “Once this illness/deadline/pandemic is past, then I’ll feel happier.” Or we medicalize it, making it into something to be cured with medicines and therapy. 

Some sadness is situational. Some sadness is clinical and can be alleviated by medication. (And therapy is always a good idea!) But The Sadness can’t be reduced to these things.

It took me a long time to acknowledge The Sadness. Another method of explaining sadness away is hiding it under other emotions. “I’m angry,” I think. Or: “I’m worried.”  A little excavation will reveal that The Sadness lurks beneath the surface. (I wonder if this is why our culture is particularly angry and anxious right now.) 

The Sadness whispers: This life is so full of beauty and joy, and so full of grief and pain. The world is miraculous and broken. People are amazing and disappointing. 

I expected life would be different. I expected that I’d reach a place where I felt finished and whole, where I had things pretty well figured out. I expected that my hard work would be rewarded, that my love would be returned in kind. I expected life to be more fair – not just for me, but for everyone. And now I am slowly grieving the death of my expectations. 

I suspect we all get to this place, whether we recognize it or not.

The Sadness came when I realized that my own confusion, other people’s pain, and the basic injustice of life might never change. Time might not heal all wounds. My love might not save the people it’s lavished on. It’s not a bad thing to realize this, it just comes from paying attention to what’s true.   

In their book, Life Worth Living, Yale theology professors Miroslav Volf, Matthew Croasmun, and Ryan McAnnally-Linz write, “Sorrow is holy, because it is in touch with the suffering that courses through the world. In other words, sorrow is true…. And truth is the heart of beauty. Which means sorrow is beautiful.”

If sorrow is beautiful, perhaps that’s why beautiful things evoke it. A beautiful piece of art or music, or a particularly true statement in literature or drama can cause me both delight and sadness at the same time. Everything becomes intermingled, laughter through tears. These things are beautiful as the world often is not, and true as life often is not.

And when I connect with people I know and love, or meet the gaze of a stranger for a moment and sense that their own story is full of soaring joys and unspeakable griefs, The Sadness swells: We are all in this life together, and there’s something tragically brave about just being alive.

For a while, I was afraid to let myself feel sad. I grew up with the sense that sadness was somehow self-indulgent and lazy, unproductive. I thought that if I invited The Sadness in, it might never leave. But then I realized that if I blocked it out, it festered and leapt out of me at inappropriate moments (while reading out loud to my children, or when an acquaintance asked, “How are you?”) 

So I started inviting The Sadness in, slowly. Just saying, “I feel sad.” It’s going okay so far. Sometimes it gets too big and threatens to overwhelm me, and I remind it to stay in its place — during my quiet morning times, when I’m alone in the car, when talking with trusted people, when I write. I am learning that The Sadness is not selfish or unproductive when we give it a voice; on the contrary, it moves us towards other people in more real and vulnerable ways, it inspires us to celebrate and create things that are true and beautiful. 

The other week, while working at the library, I was given an early copy of The Skull to read. It’s an odd, dark little children’s book, written and illustrated by Jon Klassen. At one point, I turned the page and gasped aloud. The sentence was so profound, so perfect, and so humble that I almost missed it. There, in thirteen simple words, was a summary of how I hope to live every remaining day of my life:

“When she was done crying, she got up and began moving forward again.”

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and two quirky dogs. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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