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In Defense of Sadness

So sad
Creative Commons License photo credit: simonkoležnik

You’re probably wondering what the heck I’m doing.  I just wrote Ending the Happiness Deficit and now I’m defending sadness.  Am I crazy?  Well, maybe just a little.

First let me clear one thing up.  Despite what your average Thesaurus will tell you, I don’t agree that sadness is the opposite of happiness.  For me whining is the opposite of happiness.  We choose to whine.  We take a perfectly good day and make it into an unhappy one.  Disagree with me if you must, but I’m declaring whining to be the opposite of happiness.

Sadness, on the other hand is not something we choose.  It is the emotion that we feel when we lose someone or something dear to us.  It is the emotion we feel as we honor our loss.

Let me give you a tiny example.  Several months after I had moved into a new place, I went looking for an opal ring my mother had given me to wear to a party.  It was gone.  Also missing were my high school class ring and a ring from my Aunt Gertrude.  As far as I know none of these items had much monetary value, but each of them had huge emotional value to me.  I felt sad when I realized that I had lost each of these items and I feel sad every time I think about it.

I know you have experienced much bigger losses than my rings but the point here isn’t to rank our losses.  It is to acknowledge that sadness plays a valuable role in our lives and that being resilient does NOT mean that we are never sad.  Who in their right mind wouldn’t be a little sad when their children have all moved out? (Ok, maybe a little happy too… it probably depends on how you’re planning on using that spare bedroom.)

As a culture, we have a difficult time accepting sadness and we second guess our own sadness.  This is the US of A.  We can do whatever we want to.  We can fix anything.  We put a man on the moon (Well, at least some of us believe that.)   Just watch us go.  We’re upbeat.  We’re “can do”.  We’re NOT SAD!

Or are we?  Actually, whether we like it or not, there are two sides to every coin.  We don’t get heads without tails (not on a real coin.)  We don’t get happiness without some sadness.  Think about high school graduation.  For most of us, this was a happy event.  We were officially grown up, starting to make our way in the world.  It was lots of celebration and parties.  We were also leaving many of our friends behind.  It was a little bit of crying.  It was “Mom, look at me, I’m all grown up.” And “Mom, everyone’s leaving.”

Honoring Our Sadness

Sadness is a necessity.  Honoring our sadness about life changes is part of what makes us human.  In the last couple of years, I’ve “discovered” a ritual that helps me remember the people I’ve lost.  Having a ritual that is scheduled around a time I would be feeling sad anyway, gives me a focus for my sadness.  This ritual comes from the Jewish tradition.

Yahrzeit is the tradition of lighting a candle on the anniversary of the death of a loved one.  The candles are available around the high holidays in the Jewish products section of most grocery stores.  They are like a votive candle, but big enough to burn for 24 hours.  The intent is to light the candle at sunset of the night prior to the anniversary and let it burn until the following sunset.  I modify the practice to fit me.  With cats in the house, I don’t leave a candle burning in the house when I’m not here or at night when I’m asleep.  (This leads us to the age old question all cat owners know… Who knows where the cats go when I’m not here?)  My Yahrzeit candles don’t burn for 24 hours.  I place the candle in the kitchen on the stove, because I figure that’s a safe place.  Every time I walk into the kitchen, the burning candle brings that person to mind.  In a time when many people are cremated and their ashes are spread, this tradition gives me a way to remember them without having a grave site to visit.

Bouncing Back from Sadness

It’s a fine line between feeling our sadness and wallowing in it.  Sometimes when things have been going poorly, we focus on our sadness and hug it to ourselves.  So how do we bounceback from feeling sad?

The first thing I recommend is that you not try to force the situation.  Continue to do the things that you normally do to maintain your perspective.  By that I mean, if you’ve been walking every day, walk some each day now.  You may not have the energy or desire to go as far or as fast, but keep walking.  Your body will tell you that you’re feeling better when it wants to keep moving.

Secondly, give yourself some space to feel the sadness and to recover.  When you’ve been physically injured, you need to give your body time to heal AND you need to push yourself to regain your strength.  It sounds like I’m telling you to take two diametrically opposed actions, but healing is a rhythmic process, rest – push, rest – push.

Sadness is the result of an emotional injury.  It too has its healing rhythm.  You will need to establish a pace that is right for you.  Healing from sadness is both a physical and a spiritual process.  Often, you can get achy, tired and/or feel run down.  You may need more rest than usual.  Respect these needs and you will find it easier to move through this time.

Finally, build yourself a support group whose counsel you trust.  A major life change skews your perspective.  “They” say that you shouldn’t make any major decisions after a major life change.  “They” obviously don’t live in the real world.  How many of those who went through Katrina had the luxury of not making decisions?  Whether you like it or not, you will need to make decisions.  If you are unsure, talk your decisions over with people you trust.  I am NOT suggesting decision making by committee, but sometimes running your ideas by someone else either confirms or changes your decision.

Years ago, a friend of mine was the victim of a firestorm.  Marge and her husband, Bill, had redone their home and filled it with things they loved from all over the world.  When the fire struck, she had enough time to get home, get the cat and get out.  The cat, the clothes on their backs and their cars were all that was left.  After much thought and discussion with trusted friends, they decided to document as much of their loss as they could, take the money from the insurance and buy an existing home in the same town.  Most people chose to rebuild on their burned-out lots, and many friends told Marge and Bill that they were making a big mistake to not do so as well.  Marge and Bill felt that it would take too much of their lives to hassle with the insurance company AND the federal government AND the local planning commission AND the builders… you get the idea.  They bought their new home and were settled in before many of their neighbors were anywhere near breaking ground.  Their lives could go on.

My point is that you need to trust your gut!  Think, pray, consult, and then do what you think is best for you.

How do you deal with sadness?  Tell us what works for you.

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Cup o’ Inspiration

cup with steam swirl

Take a short break and consider the following:

“The tears happen. Endure, grieve, and move on. The only person who is with us our entire life, is ourselves. Be ALIVE while you are alive.”

George Carlin

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