I’m a little sad today; more snow is on the way, a neighbor and former teacher is moving on from this life to his next adventure, and my post-stroke vocal chords aren’t working today (my friend DLB dubbed these my “Carol Channing" days). We prairie people usually stuff our feelings, especially sadness. We aren’t the only stuffers, of course, but we’re the BEST. Today, however, I’m letting sadness loose. I’ll try to explain why this isn’t just maudlin self-indulgence…
Each semester, my literature students (most of them prairie folk) ask, “Why don’t we EVER read anything happy?” This is a hard question to answer. We usually end up talking about the definition of “happy,” satisfying vs. happy, or the ways in which gross overgeneralizations like EVER distort the truth. Then I usually quote that beacon of literary sunshine & optimism, Cormac McCarthy: “The core of literature is tragedy. You don’t really learn much from the good things that happen to you.”
So maybe this is why I love sadness: It teaches us so much about ourselves and each other. I don’t mean that I wish everyone would stop smiling and suffer. I’m not itching to wear black eye shadow, write angsty poems, and take up the pipe organ. I do live with persistent depression (treated…I’m cool, thanks), and admittedly, this may color my comfort/familiarity with the non-happy side of our human emotional spectrum.
(SIDENOTE: I know that depression and sadness are not the same, believe me. Depression is wack brain chemistry, and persistent depression is NOT situational—sad things don’t make it happen. In fact, things don’t make it happen. Your brain makes it happen. You can’t “cheer up,” “get a hobby,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or “think positive” to cure depression.)
Maybe this is why I love sadness: Turns out sorrow/sadness has its own peculiar language: https://theconversation.com/people-with-depression-use-language-differently-heres-how-to-spot-it-90877. As a writer, I find this absolutely interesting.
Maybe when I say I love sadness, what I mean is this: I have a deep and profound appreciation for it. Sadness, sorrow, grief—they’re Great Revealers. They lift the veil, cut through the noise. In times of true sorrow, a person stashes the ego, slices through the pretense, stops the show. Shit gets REAL, as the young’uns say. Maybe these are the ONLY times we get real.
We are the most authentic, the most genuinely human, when we’re the most vulnerable. It’s all bare wires, stomach muscles, and shark brain in times of sorrow. And there’s something extraordinarily humbling about being witness to a person who, in those moments, doesn’t care what you or the rest of the world think. I believe we NEED our hearts to break open now & then in order to reconnect with compassion, to see into our core, and to remember what we’re REALLY made of.
Here’s another thing I love about sadness: Sorrow and grief are also Great Levelers. We all feel them. Let them out, stuff them if you must; they’re still there in every one of us. No amount of power, position, credentials, wealth, fame, good looks, intelligence, or single-source organic fair trade Sumatran coffee can change that.
I feel bad for stuffers, who can’t or won’t fully embrace their own sorrow for reasons of upbringing, “Stubborn Stoicism” (this should be the tagline on South Dakota license plates), fear of embarrassment, a clinging ego, a misguided need to “put on a happy face,” or the supposed propriety of finger-in-the-dam self-control. I have just enough upper Midwest Presbyterian in me to qualify as a stuffer, though I actively work at quashing my stiff upper lip.
Maybe this is the CORE, the nougaty center of why I love sadness: Sorrow gives us rare glimpses of unvarnished, raw, genuine, beautiful humanity.
On the flipside, no one wants to LIVE there, right? And this is another of sorrow’s gifts: When we face sadness, embrace it, move through it with tenderness and appreciation, we CAN move beyond it. Then, for me at least, the eventual return to wonder and joy feels a little electrified—more intense, surprising, healing, zingy—and that’s beautiful, too.
“I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.” –Zora Neale Hurston