Sad Face
June 11th, 2013

Is there a part of the human experience that you could do without?  Is there some universal aspect of this life gig we’re all currently living that we would like to factor out of the equation?  I’m not talking about soy sauce bloat or improper use of the word “literally.”  I’m talking about the big and existential stuff.  Specifically, I’m talking about (brace yourself for the buzz kill) sadness.

A couple of Sundays ago GAP and I sat in church and listened to the priest give a sermon that was largely about death.  He commented that as modern-day people we’ve become adept at brushing death under the rug, and moving about in our daily lives pretending that it is not an undeniable fact of life.  His perspective was that we should be willing and able to come face to face with death because the fact of our salvation hinges on our dying first. 

Then, the next morning GAP sent me the link to this article which he thought (and I agree) was interesting in light of the sermon.  In it the author laments that tragedy has been sanitized out of much of modern Christianity.  (Don’t worry, I’m going to get this discussion out of the sanctuary and into the real world in just a sec.)  He takes exception to this because, “Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection.”  Uncannily similar to the message of the homily.  He goes on, though, to criticize the degree to which we have elminated death from our consciousness through all manner of distractions – that entertainment and distraction have become the primary purpose of our existence.  He quotes Pascal who once wrote, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. … Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”  And that got me thinking about whether or not the ability to distract ourselves from sadness is a good thing.

The fact remains that the certainty of death (and countless other tragedies) doesn’t change.  We will not beat it.  Ever.  Given that we must walk through life knowing the inevitability of our own death or fearing that of a loved one do we not somehow come out ahead if we can manage a way to get through each day thinking about something else?  I don’t dismiss the gravity of the tragic.  I hear about it every time I turn on the news or open my web browser.  Thankfully, that is usually the closest I come to tragedy.  I don’t live in the Middle East or an inner city.  I have a healthy husband and children and parents and siblings.  My life is far from tragic and yet I still feel the need to distract myself from some of the immense sadness in the world.  For people whose circumstances aren’t so privileged such distractions may be the only way they can manage to get dressed in the morning.

I wonder, though, if such distractions cause us merely to suppress sadness, rather than to eliminate it - to defer, rather than dismiss some key component of human existence.  If we prevent ourselves from feeling and truly experiencing sadness, is it actually a Get Out of Jail Free card, or do we just end up stockpiling unrecognized sadness at some unknown cost?  In one of the books we have recently aquired about adopting a child the author discusses the value of letting your child cry.  All toddlers are prone to crying jags, but adopted toddlers – who have experienced all kinds of emotional upheaval and yet have no articulate means to express it – are more prone than others.  The book suggests that all adults can understand the catharsis of a good cry.  Yet as parents we are constantly trying to get our children not to cry.  For most healthy toddlers in their biological homes this makes sense.  Crying is usually a function of a scraped knee, scant nap, or graham cracker deprivation.  But for the adopted toddler, who has lost the only home and family he’s ever known and has something he really needs to grieve, crying may play a more important role.  Quelling the crying may not always be the best course of action for the child.  He may need to feel that sadness in order to work his way through it.  And sometimes we may too.

Embracing sadness can be slippery slope, as can distraction from it.  Those of us who lean more towards it naturally may need to guard against wallowing.  We have to remember that embracing our sadness takes us inward.  And while such self-focus can be a very good thing, by its very nature it takes us away from the people around us.  We should look to our sadness to find whatever catharsis that we need, and then move on.  Those of us who are disinclined to experience sadness have to take care that our distractions do not become an end in themselves.  That we allow ourselves to feel the full range of emotions even though removing sadness from the equation might be appealing. 

Any Psych 101 student can tell you that the four basic human emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, and fear.  While I hope that happiness takes up the lion’s share of what I feel, I still want to leave room for the other three.

5 Responses to “Sad Face”

  1. e Says:

    I absolutely agree! I especially believe little ones need to be allowed to express sadness, grief, anger, or just plain “I am not ‘up’ at this moment.” As adults we can better acknowledge these feelings without necessarily making them public. Emotions are a part of life and while the less “feel good” emotions shouldn’t be the overwhelming majority of it, those feelings have to have a venue for expression. I’d hate to think a child cries alone because he/she isn’t given the opportunity to show those tears publicly where an adult could help soothe them. Whether it’s fear, sadness, or anger, as an adult I often share those feelings with someone significant in my life, and it not only may make me feel better but also helps me work through them. Great post!

  2. anne Says:

    Huh, this is interesting. I have a little bit different take, maybe because there’s a whole branch of counseling (existential counseling) that calls awareness to life’s “big questions” including death. And there were certain counseling situations where we talked about death a fair bit. But that was a very specific context. In my everyday life, I only approach death through my fear of it. And anxiety. As for the crying piece, I guess it’s all about compartmentalization. Just as it’s not healthy for a child to never cry (or be discouraged from crying when it’s warranted), there are people out there with little “emotion regulation” (sorry for the psychobabble) who don’t have the means of pulling themselves out of a downward sadness spiral. The key is to know how to experience sadness, and then recover from it.

  3. Gale Says:

    Anne – I think we’re saying the same thing. I wasn’t meaning that we should think about death ad nauseum. Death just happened to be the “sad topic” that came up in the sermon and article that set me into this line of thinking. What I was meaning to say is that just because something is sad doesn’t mean we should keep ourselves so occupied that we can’t/don’t address it. Nor should we allow ourselves to get lost in sadness to an extent that is detrimental either to ourselves or to other people in our lives.

  4. Cathy Says:

    “Embracing sadness can be slippery slope, as can distraction from it. … We should look to our sadness to find whatever catharsis that we need, and then move on.”

    I think we all know people who are one extreme or the other. My mother always seemed to be finding someone who died and living in the drama of it all. It was clear it was a coping mechanism for her fear of dying. Others put on such a hard shell and seem to be completely unphased with anything. I don’t understand either one of them.

    I do know from personal experience that it is sometimes difficult to know when to stop being sad. Maybe it’s my personal predisposition. Maybe some things are more sensitive and difficult to work through. But “moving on” is something that I’ve often heard with those who don’t truly grieve telling those who are.

  5. Gale Says:

    Cathy – I think you make an interesting point about those who don’t truly grieve wanting those who do to move on. It makes me wonder what predisposes each of us to needing or not needing a particular amount of grief. I’ve often felt that people who claim no need for the greiving process are in denial of something. And it seems that conversely those who grieve excessively probably do so as the result of some other issue (as you mentioned about your mother).

    What I was trying to drive at is the idea that grief is most commonly a very private thing. Or, at least it’s something we do alone even if we talk about it with others. And while I don’t think that anyone should shortchange themselves of whatever they need to process their own sadness, I think we have to remember that when we are wrapped up tending to our own needs then we are unable to tend to the needs of others.

    Thanks, as always, for chiming in.